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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Mentor Program Unites Women in Business

Two years ago, Marilyn Barker Paulson, a busy hotel sales and marketing director and frequent business traveler, thought the last thing she needed to add to her schedule was mentoring a woman her daughter's age.

Her reluctance to join a mentoring program for Russian women soon diminished when she met Alevtina Chernorukova, then a young Russian customer service representative at Xerox who was interested in marketing and moving up the corporate ladder, but had no one to advise her on career planning.

"Her interest in marketing and my experience in sales and marketing at the Aerostar hotel was a good match," Paulson said. "Marketing is marketing; the product may change, but research, planning and strategy is the same."

Paulson added, "She draws on my strength and experience, and she is right there to learn at all times. She is very eager to learn and to make sure she is moving forward in the business world."

Chernorukova, now a business analyst at Xerox, said the program provided an opportunity to talk about issues she could not discuss with anyone else.

"She taught me the rules for dealing with foreign managers," Chernorukova said. "Sometimes you need to receive someone's approval who is much more experienced. ... I could always share something with her I couldn't share at work because it's sensitive."

The mentoring program is one of several programs organized by the Alliance of Russian and American Women, a nonprofit organization founded in 1991 to help Russian women succeed in a free market economy. The program has resumed after a one-year hiatus and is now accepting applications for mentors and mentorees. Russia is ripe for the program because the country lacks a tradition of mentoring and men hold most of the positions of authority.

"You don't necessarily get mentoring from male bosses or peers," said Mary Pat Sloan, a managing director of Alpha Graphics, who is a mentor in the program. "There are not as many older women mentors [in Russia] as there should be. Everybody is interested in furthering their professional development and there is not a lot of information available through traditional sources."

Sloan said she is interested in people maximizing their potential. "You can't do it in a vacuum; you can't do it by yourself," she said.

The mentoring program pairs foreign women with Russian women who are interested in learning and growing professionally. The pairs meet twice a month -- once informally and once in a group. The informal meetings can take place anywhere and are a time when mentorees can discuss career issues that are important to them, such as how to best ask for a raise or promotion, how to handle relationships in the workplace, how to find a job or write a resume, what kind of education to get and when and how to network.

The group meeting allows all the pairs to discuss issues together. This year, the alliance plans to sponsor speakers on subjects to be chosen by the mentorees for the group meetings.

To participate in the program, Russian women must speak fluent English and, in addition to meeting twice a month, the pairs must commit to staying in Moscow for the nine-month duration of the program, although women can join the program on a continual basis.

The program has not only helped Russians learn about Western business practices, but has helped foreigners develop lasting friendships with Russians. "So many foreigners live in this bubble and they don't have any interaction with Russians on that level," said Molly Boudreau, who organized the program in 1995. "What's neat about the program is that friendships evolved. Russians learned and foreigners learned. It's great."

Paulson said her relationship with Chernorukova made her more aware of issues in her own workplace. "When you have this kind of reflection, it helps you to understand the culture. ... I could see the type of things that bothered Alevtina, and it made me more aware of what concerned my staff," she said.

Paulson, who now lives in Spain, said she maintains contact with Chernorukova through electronic mail several times a week. In May, Chernorukova visited Paulson and her family in Canada and she visited Paulson in Spain in September.

"She has become like a daughter to me," Paulson said.

Irina Razumnova, chairwoman of Guildia Small Business Development Center, which helps people start their own businesses, said she is participating in the program for the first time to increase the trust between Americans and Russians that was damaged during the Cold War.

"We need to establish relations on an individual level. ... There is a great lack of normal communication," Razumnova said.

While cultivating new friendships and getting job-related advice are large parts of the mentoring program, finding and matching partners with the expertise to understand and discuss complex business issues together is another bonus of the program. Marina Belokoneva, a project manager in a financial investment company, and Margot Jacobs, an associate in a brokerage firm, said they often talk over business practices in Russia and America.

"We found some interesting problems for both of us in the field of corporate finance and raising finance for companies and the investment business in Russia as a whole," Belokoneva said.

"It was interesting to share perspectives of capital markets," Jacobs said. "For women in business, it's hard to find a role model, to discuss business issues, where you can relax and be yourself. It's fun to have an outlet. It's nice to be a mentor. ... It's nice when you can provide for someone else what wasn't there for you."

To get involved in the program or for more information contact Tiffany Glass at 254-2371, evenings, or 258-2737, days.