From Activist to Arab Expert

April is a busy month at the Arab-Russian Business Council: Arab countries go on vacation for the sweltering hot month of May. "They go away like migratory birds, so all the loose ends have to be tied beforehand," says Tatyana Gvilava, director of the council.

Gvilava looks like she was born a confident, multitasking businesswoman. Besides the council, she heads the organization Women in Business, manages a beauty salon and raises two children. In fact, she was born into a family of miners in a Kazakh town famous for two things: the "special" gulag camp in the Soviet period where Alexander Solzhenitsyn served his sentence and the 62-square-kilometer coal basin, where the fuel is extracted through surface mining. "When temperatures reached 40 degrees Celsius during the summer, coal would ignite from sitting in the sun, and the town was always surrounded by clouds of smoke," Gvilava remembers, "foreigners still refuse to go there on work and business because of the terrible pollution."

Gvilava's three siblings still reside in Kazakhstan, but she got out as soon as she had the chance. The local Komsomol organization had high hopes for Gvilava, who was a young activist and joined the Communist Party at 18. "They were preparing me for leadership and sent me to the High Komsomol School with a stack of official papers," she said. But when she got to the capital, she slightly changed the party's plans and applied to the Plekhanov Economic Academy instead.

"I was a late child -- my mom had me when she was almost 40 -- and late children are very clever, according to scientists," Gvilava said. She was accepted. There was only one problem: The school did not have any dormitories, and Gvilava didn't know anyone in Moscow.

Five students, including Gvilava, made an agreement with the school to help construct a dormitory for foreigners in exchange for a room. "We hauled construction debris out of the building after class, and then did homework at night," Gvilava remembers. "Our diet back then was potatoes alternating with pasta, supplemented with sprat paste and canned laminaria, the only products available."

Vladimir Filonov / MT
Gvilava juggles a full-time job, work with an organization and raising a family.
The Plekhanov Academy, which traditionally prepared economists and administrators, even gave its students a shot at real business, selling Coca-Cola in Moscow in the years preceding the 1980 Olympic Games, when the drink first became available in the Soviet Union. "We sold it from little tents, forming lines several hours long," Gvilava said.

Moving through various business projects in construction and other economic spheres after college, Gvilava eventually landed at financial conglomerate AFK Sistema working as consultant to billionaire Vladimir Yevtushenkov. He was the one that recommended her to Yevgeny Primakov, head of the Russian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, as a candidate for the new Arab-Russian Business Council.

"She has tremendous persistence, and she has invested a lot of energy, both physical and emotional, into her career," said Vera Veselova, who works with Gvilava at Women in Business. "Her success is due to her character and her education, which is always continuing as she strives to be knowledgeable about all new developments in the economy, politics and legislation."

Understanding the role of women in Arab societies has been crucial in her work in the council. At talks with Arab partners, Gvilava often wears an abaya and goes along with certain rules of Muslim tradition. "Arab business is communication and respect, they are very cautious in money matters and are afraid of losing face," Gvilava says.

Dealing with the Arab world gave her some ideas for the other organization she chairs, Women in Business. Last year, she proposed the creation of a special bank that would give loans to women who wanted to start their own businesses. A similar program exists in Saudi Arabia.

Despite a certain stereotype about the plight of Muslim women, Gvilava thinks that it is as difficult for women to do business in Russia as it is in Arab countries, while some aspects of Muslim education actually help Arab women thrive.

"In Russia, girls are brought up to believe that they are the one and only. When real life turns out to be different from their expectations, these girls often suffer," Gvilava says. "Girls in Arab families understand from the beginning that they may not be the only loved one and that the priority is always with the man: the father, husband or brother. From the very beginning, Arab women are integrated into their communities."

Having inborn confidence and a clear goal are some of the things that helped her climb to the heights of the business world, but any job along the way is useful experience, she says, "Cleaning an office is very philosophical work, for example: You can find out a lot about people."