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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Her Move to Moscow Felt Like Coming Home

MTMarina Somers, co-founder of an executive search company, emigrated as a child.
You might expect Marina Somers, the wife of the head of the American Chamber of Commerce in Russia, to be a doyenne of the expat community here. But what you might not expect is her long-abiding attachment to Russia, her mother's homeland.

Yet when her husband moved here from New York two years ago, in December 2000, she initially had not planned to come, finding it too difficult to leave behind her daughter and mother.

Three months later, though, leading executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles named her managing partner for Russia and the CIS, and she jumped at the opportunity.

"This was a wonderful opportunity for me not only to continue my career but also, just as important, to close the circle of my mother's life," Somers said. "I felt as if I had lived here before. I feel like I came home. I really think it's fate."

Somers was born in Yugoslavia shortly after World War II, but when her mother and father, a Yugoslav, divorced, her mother lost her Yugoslav citizenship. This was a time when Russians were being rounded up and sent back to the Soviet Union, where many ended up in labor camps, so Somers said her mother felt she had no choice but to flee with her 2-year-old daughter.

"We left Yugoslavia in the middle of the night and spent the next four or five years in a refugee camp in Italy, desperately trying to get a visa to America, where my mother wanted to go," Somers said.

Somers and her mother ultimately made it to New York in 1956, sponsored by the Tolstoy Foundation, a charitable organization founded by Count Lev Tolstoy's youngest daughter Tatyana to provide shelter to thousands of Russian and Eastern European displaced persons after World War II. Somers put down roots in Manhattan, later studying art history at Barnard College there.

She decided to become a professor of art history and began a Ph.D. program at Columbia University, specializing in the drawings of the Italian old masters of the 16th and 17th centuries.

"But as I started doing my Ph.D. work, I understood that my job prospects were very limited," Somers said. "I decided academia was probably not the right path for me and I decided to go into business."

She started her business career in the executive search industry in the mid-1970s in New York, the heyday of feminism in the United States. "For my generation it was a very exciting time, when opportunities really started to open up for women," she said.

Headhunting work has always appealed to her, she said, as a way to use her people skills and develop strong client relationships.

"I like that I am involved in contributing to a major change in a person's life," Somers said. "I can really alter someone's life and career in a very significant way, as well as solve a business problem for my client."

When Heidrick & Struggles closed its Moscow office this spring, Somers joined forces with Juan Cavelier, a Harvard MBA, to start up Somers & Cavelier.

"I thought that with my combined Western business and search experience and my deep Russian roots I could greatly contribute to the business climate," she said.

Somers said the executive search market has not reached pre-crisis levels, but she expects it to be there soon. While multinational companies once sought to recruit expat employees, more and more are seeking out Russian nationals, and at the same time more and more Russian companies want to bring in executives from abroad.

"Russian companies are becoming more transparent, they want to become more global and they recognize that they can't do that with only Russian employees. They need sophisticated Western expertise. And at the same time, very well-educated Russian nationals have become experienced and knowledgeable in a very short period of time," she said.

With a hint of lingering feminism from decades past, she attributes much of her entrepreneurial success to being a woman. Women are successful at building relationships and maintaining a high level of client trust, she said.

Although she is seen as a representative of American business in Russia, Somers says her private life is typically Russian. "I was always split between my American style of living and the Russian culture within my family, with reading Russian poetry, celebrating all the traditional holidays and going to an Orthodox Church," she said.

When her mother died this summer, she felt that only strengthened her bonds with Russia. "It was a great sadness as you can imagine, and yet I feel that my role in Russia and my commitment to its business environment is the best tribute I can pay to my mother and her life."

For Marina Somers and her husband, being here is about more than just a career. "We both have a passion to be here, which is not just our love for Russia but our belief in the present and the future of this country," she said.