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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

American Gives Big Hand to Small Businesses

For MTSharon Tennison looking at a paint mixer with one of the businessmen the CCI has helped.
Sharon Tennison is in the business of empowerment.

Over the past two decades, the president of the Center of Citizens Initiatives has brought more than 4,000 representatives of small and medium-sized businesses from Russia's regions to the United States for hands-on training.

Tennison's programs -- which are funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the State Department and other foundations -- are designed to give Russian entrepreneurs the tools and the confidence to tackle the challenges and pitfalls they face in starting up a business back home.

"They think they're an isolated phenomenon. I tell people that you need to get together, get organized and lobby -- that's the only way you'll do anything," says Tennison, 65.

Tennison is considered an expert on small business in Russia and has met with presidential adviser Andrei Illarionov.

This summer, she toured 25 towns and cities, expanding her huge list of contacts and recording the woes and triumphs of local entrepreneurs. She heard many grievances, particularly about regional officials taking bribes.

"In between [President Vladimir Putin and the entrepreneurs] you've got the bureaucrats -- like a swathe of San Francisco fog," Tennison says.

"Mafia, in the traditional sense, for small and medium-sized businesses is gone -- we have to worry about the officials, the people on the take," she says. "This is the institutionalized mafia, but they don't carry guns -- they withhold certificates."

Tennison started up the San Francisco-based CCI in 1983 as part of her efforts to help bring an end to the Cold War.

Before starting up the group, Tennison worked as a critical-care nurse in California and owned a small medical supplies company.

"In my particular state, [the government] was turning out three nuclear weapons a day, all of them to be put on launch pads to face the U.S.S.R. ... It seemed to me that no one was doing anything," says Tennison.

In 1981, Tennison began writing to then-U.S. President Ronald Reagan and members of Congress, expressing her fears about the arms race and nuclear war. After repeated attempts to provoke a response, she was told that her case had been passed on to a different department.

"I understand now that it didn't mean anything," she says.

The stony silence only strengthened Tennison's resolve, and in 1983 she took a drastic course of action -- she headed to the Soviet Union in an effort to gather information and inform the American public about their Cold War foe.

"We have to go see 'the enemy': Who are these people? Are they barbarians? If they are, then we have to know about it; if they're not, we have to say they're not," she recalls.

As Tennison began planning her journey, she realized that she needed to assemble a team of upstanding citizens -- otherwise, no one would take seriously what she had to say upon her return. Peaceniks and hippies were out, middle-class professionals were in.

"A smorgasbord of backbone of America," Tennison says. "Nobody could question us because we'd all owned something, we were all respected citizens."

After nine months of preparation, the self-funded team of 21 -- with film crew in tow -- left for the Soviet Union. The group included schoolteachers, businessmen and even the captain of the Oakland fire department.

The group must have made a surreal sight during their trip, which took them to Moscow, Leningrad and Tbilisi. The concerned Americans would start each day with a jog, and then wander the streets introducing themselves to passers-by.

The amount of feedback was astounding.

"There were lots of people who took us in, invited us into their homes -- even to their wedding parties," Tennison recalls.

While their meetings didn't earn anyone a trip to Siberia, certain precautions had to be observed.

Once an intrepid Soviet citizen had provided a telephone number, the next problem was meeting up. "They'd say: 'We'll meet you at metro so-and-so, I'll be wearing a red scarf and a brown beret. When you see me, don't act like you recognize me, but when we make eye contact walk about 20 meters behind. When we get into the apartment, make sure you don't talk until we're inside the door.'"

Not that this escaped the authorities' notice.

"Oh, we got picked up by the KGB, of course," Tennison recalls. "On one occasion, my friends got caught and taken in to this basement someplace, but then after about 15 minutes they said: 'By the way, what do you know about football?' So they talked sport for about an hour."

On their return, the group devoted six months to developing "propaganda" using material gathered during their trip. Armed with a huge collection of slides, they toured schools, universities, rotary clubs and churches, giving their audiences a view of the Soviet Union that few dreamed they would ever see.

"Once they had that image, it was amazing -- Russians and Americans in the same apartment, dancing together," Tennison says.

After an appearance on Studs Terkel's national talk show, Tennison was inundated with calls.

"We realized we had taken that thin membrane off the public concern, and people from all over the country were calling saying, 'I want to go on a trip like that. I want to help.'"

Tennison founded the CCI to run multi-year programs between the United States and the Soviet Union. She herself led 26 trips during the 1980s.

Meanwhile, Perestroika ushered in unheard of opportunities for Soviet citizens to travel abroad. Tennison responded by designing educational programs to bring groups of Russians to the United States.

"They were on TV almost every day," Tennison recalls.

Many of the graduates of the programs went on to become entrepreneurs -- and they begged Tennison to come up with a business-related program. The entrepreneurs, she recalls, would ask questions such as: How do we handle our revenues? How do we do bookkeeping? Can you tell us about marketing?

Based on elements of the Marshall Plan, she developed the Economic Development Program for Russia. That was followed by the hugely successful Productivity Enhancement Program -- three weeks of intensive, hands-on business training in U.S. companies.

Today her grass-roots organization is turning heads in both Washington and Moscow.

In March 2001, 100 of Tennison's brightest graduates traveled to Washington, where their gritty success stories left Secretary of State Colin Powell and leading congressmen stunned.

And over the past few months, presidential adviser Illarionov has called some of the businessmen to Moscow to hear their experiences and advice. Much of what he heard was reflected in Putin's address to the Federation Council in December, when the president called for the government to create a legal, regulatory and financial atmosphere friendly to entrepreneurs.

"Andrei says they are the most capable and the most strategically thinking entrepreneurs that they have access to," Tennison says. "Why? because they've come up from scratch, but at the same time they have left the country and received training in their own industry sector."