Yelena was only five-years-old when she left her birthplace in Uzbekistan for a better life in Russia. As Russian minorities in a primarily Uzbek country, her whole family uprooted to escape the overflow from the Osh riots as the USSR began to fall apart. They moved to a small village of less than 900 people, where Yelena’s father half-jokingly feared his daughters’ brightest futures were to become milk maids at the government farm. Setting their sights on something more, Yelena and her family became America bound. It was in the Fall of 1997, just five years after official end of the Cold War era, when Yelena landed in the United States and began attending public school. She didn’t know English. She was starting from scratch with the language and culture. She found it hard to make American friends, but luckily she was part of a small Russian community in the Berkshire Mountains of Western Massachusetts. Yelena used to tell me of the depression she witnessed in Russia, and how alcohol was one of the only things people could turn to to occupy themselves during the cold winter months. This may be why she abstained from alcohol all-together. Unfortunately, just moving to America was not the key to her living the American Dream. When she was still young, her family fell on some hardship, which left behind a fractured family unit that did not have the means to support itself: young children and a mother with no formal job experience.
Yelena grew depressed herself and became overweight in her high school years. In many cases, she was still a public school outcast, a swan who had not yet discovered herself. But then one day something happened. She found her fighting spirit and completely turned her life around. She decided to change and not be a victim. She took control over her diet, got involved in sports (varsity tennis), and excelled academically. She started a friendly competition between her and her older sister to “out-win” each other in life. She worked to put herself through college and graduated with a BS in Chemistry. She took a job as a quality control technician with a small electroplating company that she interned with. She was earning a respectable wage, even by most American standards, much of which she gave back to her mother to help pay the bills. Considering her starting salary was nearly 20-times the equivalent salary she would earn in Uzbekistan, she had truly made it. She was already a “rags-to-riches” girl, persevering with her fighting spirit. She could have claimed “victory” and stopped there. But she was not done!
To give you more insight on Yelena, while most American families were having neighborly battles of decoration for the “Holiday Spirit,” or camping out in lines, not for toilet paper or bread rations, but to get the best deals on the hottest new gadgets, Yelena waited all year to spend her Christmas vacations with orphans. In the dead of winter, Yelena and a small band of church-goers spent several weeks each year, braving sub-arctic temperatures and frozen lake ice roads, traveling across Siberia to perform and sing Russian Christmas carols to orphanages along their route. She literally did this until she was forced to stop, having played guitar until stress fractures in her hand allowed her to play no more. Though, disappointed, she was down, but not out. Her fighting spirit continued to thrive. This was around the time Yelena and I met.
Yelena and I first met during a brief meeting with her (then) boss, regarding a Lean Six Sigma Black Belt course I was leading. She was a quiet, unassuming girl, sitting prim and proper in the corner of her boss’s office, having barely spoken a word. Luckily, our two companies ended up striking a deal, and Yelena did enroll in my course. It took less than a week for me to recognize the “spark” that was Yelena. She brought an unbelievable energy to the class and raised the bar for all students. She not only impressed all the instructors, but also her classmates, who included competitors from different companies, some whom even wanted to poach her from her employer. Collectively, we spent over 200 hours together as I taught her in the class and continued to coach her through her projects. She was my star pupil. Even to this day, some 7 years later, I believe she still holds that title. What more, for her, this was yet another large turning point in her life. She struggled between her loyalty to her company and the reality that she was in a company with poor morale and minimal advancement opportunity. This just didn’t mesh with her drive to continue to grow, learn, and expand her horizons. She continued to work her way through school, this time Graduate school, while still helping to support her mother. While I was coaching her through her projects, I was also giving her career advice, giving her a market perspective for her skills, and working with her on her resume. Within the next 2-3 years, she finally decided to take the leap from her stagnant chemist role to a full-time process improvement engineering position with another company, a large company called Assa Abloy, a global manufacturer of the famed Sargent brand locks. It was at this point I convinced her to come and work for me instead.
It was a hard choice for her to make, but she had created a real clear vision of the future she wanted, and she recognized she could best realize that future if she came to work for me. We worked closely together. I continued to work with her on her career, and she became my right-hand for my most important technical projects. When we parted ways a couple years ago, I knew she would be the best legacy I could leave with my former company. “Where did you find this girl?” I would hear. I simply stated I had been scoping her out and coaching her for several years. She and I still keep in touch, but her life is very much different than when we first met. She has forged her dream life with a man named Joel. They enjoy a comfortable home and a baby girl of their own, who’s growing up all too quickly. Yelena is still rocking out in her career, and has her eyes set on a future PhD. She also enjoys a new perspective on what she is worth, earning double what she was as a QC chemist, (although I know she is still very thankful to the company that gave her her start). She also continued to add to her skills, this time in quality systems, and she continues to strengthen her network for whenever she chooses to go in a new direction. She also recently completed her first half-marathon, (that’s 13+ miles).
From the 11-year-old Russian girl who came to this country less than twenty years ago, to a modern American woman, she made her success journey something extraordinary. I am proud to have been, even if only temporarily, a spoke in wheel of the vehicle that helped her along that journey.