A: My name is Vusal Khanlarov. I was born in 1983 in Baku, went to secondary school in Baku, and graduated with the Master’s degree from the Azerbaijan State Economic University. Currently, I am the Executive Director of Madad Azerbaijan, a local company which works in the area of educational consultancy and training. I am FLEX 2001 alumnus.
Q: Was it your dream to go to the States one day? How did it come true?
A: I grew up in late 80s and 90s when Azerbaijan was making first steps to become an independent country. I was in my first grade in primary school when the USSR collapsed and western products, values, and the way of life started entering our lives. I grew up with the belief that the United States was a great place to visit and to live in. I always wanted to continue my studies in the United States after graduating from the high school. My parents, both being educators, always wanted me and my brother to get good education and supported us immensely. When I first heard about the student exchange programs, I decided to study hard to be qualified for one of them.
My first experience with the United States started when I was in the tenth grade. I participated in the Sister Schools project between Baku and Miami Dade County schools and was selected for the reciprocal exchange program. The first city I ever visited in the United States was Miami, which was quite a diverse experience for me of immersing into the American culture. I studied in Key Biscayne, an island not far from downtown Miami for about a month. Then my family hosted an exchange student from the United States. After a year, I applied for the FLEX program and was selected to study for a year in the States in Saratoga Springs, New York.
My first impressions of the United States were that everything was big in this country – the highways, vehicles, buildings, everything seemed huge to me. My educational experience in the US started in the high school. Soon after I applied for a college program and was taking classes in Skidmore College along with my high school studies. I also found time to apply for job shadow and leadership programs, so my time on the student exchange was used at its top efficiency. While participating in the job shadow program, I first learned about the implementing organization, Junior Achievement, which I managed in Azerbaijan several years later.
Q: There is a belief that the USA is one of the best countries to live in. But, if we compare the US and Azerbaijan, how is Azerbaijan better than the States?
A: I would pose the question another way and try to answer the question of how different the United States is from Azerbaijan. In Azerbaijan I highly admire and value strong family ties, the family relationships that Azerbaijanis have. Families play the central role in Azerbaijani culture and a great deal of our life is built on the relationships within the family. The majority of high school graduates continue their education in Baku not far from their families.
In the United States family relationships are hard to maintain as close as they are in Azerbaijan. In America, high school graduates very often depart their homes and live independently to continue their education in colleges. While being on their own young people start building their own lives, make decisions, build relations, make plans, and take on full responsibility of their actions whether they are right or wrong. I think that part of life is the most important and highly valuable time of life, as it instills more freedom and independence and encourages decision-making in the American youth.
So, going back to the question, the main difference I observed between American and Azerbaijani cultures is that we are very tied to the family, and due to geographic conditions, due to the choices we have, we remain close to our families.
Q: What changed in your life after the US?
A: Studying in the United States made a big impression on me and changed me as a personality. One of the main things that I learned in the States was becoming a self-reliant and independent person.
While in the United States, I took part in the job shadow program at the Saratoga Springs Tourism and Convention Bureau. That was the first time I was put into the work environment with deadlines and specific work ethics. I understood the value of education at work. I learned networking, as a great way to build relations, when my job shadow mentor took me to a reception organized by the local chamber of commerce.
In the United States I appreciated tolerance towards people of different cultures, as the US is the venue where many cultures come together and they make one unique country.
Most importantly, after my life in the United States I was able to define my life maxims, my values, and my goals for the future. I became, in some sense, more pragmatic. I could put certain goals, sometimes quite ambitious goals, in front of me and surely move in that direction. When I look at my life today, I may have not reached my goals one hundred percent, but, at least, I am in that direction, which makes me comfortable. I truly believe that by defining the life maxims, values and career aspirations, it is easier to plan education and career to meet the goals set.
Q: Would your life be different if you did not go to the States?
A: I think, yes, because after studying in the US, I was able to decide on what I want to do in my life. Before that I was undecided in terms of my career. I only knew I am good at math and speak some English and had no idea what to do with that.
After pursuing my education in the United States, I made my careers plans to work for an organization or a company that makes positive change in people’s lives. For more than eight years, I have been working as the Executive Director of various organizations that work to benefit the future of Azerbaijan – education and youth. I also do entrepreneurship consulting and advisory for the emerging businesses to structure their enterprises and find their ways to the market. Studying in the United States changed me as a person, because I would not have as many friends, as many business partners that I have now.
Q: What changes did the organizations you worked in make for Azerbaijan?
A: I find myself a very lucky person because I always work for the organizations and companies which bring positive benefits for Azerbaijan. I started my career with a US-based non-profit organization called PH International Inc. We were the first organization that introduced innovative informational communication technologies in education. Our goal was to help Azerbaijan build an educational system using modern technologies and communication tools. We were pioneers back in 2001.
Then I was offered a job from another organization called Junior Achievement Azerbaijan, another pioneer organization that introduced business education in Azerbaijan’s secondary schools. Working for such innovative organizations was rewarding, but challenging at the same time, as everything new faces skepticism and resistance at first times. However ultimately, we were successful to initiate and run our programs which are giving results even today.
I got involved in AAA in 2003. In 2010-2012, I served my term on the Board of Directors. I think at AAA, we are building a successful network of highly qualified, well-educated young people, who are in charge of quite important areas in Azerbaijan as of today and will be in charge in the years to come.
All these organizations are contributing to the development of education, development of future generations, which, I think, is quiet crucial. The organization that I currently work for as the Executive Director is called Madad Azerbaijan. We are providing educational solutions and opportunities for professional development for educators, medical staff, civil servants, entrepreneurs and many other social groups. Madad introduces most successful international practices into the educational system to Azerbaijan and we also built a brain center in Azerbaijan which works on developing new products and services to benefit the reforms in the country.
Q: What are your future plans?
A: In general terms I see my future in the private sector. I hope to grow the company where I am now, grow it to the level where we would become trusted advisors of both the government and the private sector. We also have ambitious plans to grow our company to work on the international level. Today our organization has partnership with well-known international organizations and corporations, which seemed quite unrealistic and too ambitious when we first started moving in that direction. If you ask me where I will be in my 50s and 60s, I hope to be a manager in a large company in Azerbaijan. But I want to mention that Azerbaijan is a key word, because I see myself staying, living and working in Azerbaijan in the future.
Q: What motivates you as a successful person?
A: The first motivation for me is the ability to come and tell my family about the great work that I am doing and make them proud. Secondly, my motivation increases when I see the result of my strategies and work. If I have not been seeing the results of the work that I have been doing, I would not be coming back to work every day with high motivation. Thirdly, I am motivated when I see the benefits my organization brings to the beneficiaries. The happy faces of our training graduates or the achievements of the people who we work with are great motivators for me. And, most importantly, if we can contribute a little bit to the successful future of Azerbaijan, it is what keeps me going on.
Q: What would be your advice to the young people?
A: My main advice for the young people would be to be very careful while choosing their educational and career paths. The higher education Azerbaijan is structured in a way that after admission to the college you cannot change your major or minor, like in the US. Therefore it is very important for the young people at the age of high school to define their career plans, to define their future. And while doing that, in no way consider what careers are considered “fashionable.” I remember when I was a kid, all my friends and I were either dreaming to become lawyers or economists, because it was fashionable back then. While choosing your career and educational paths, it is very important for the young people to evaluate themselves, to evaluate what talents, skills, and knowledge that they have, so that they can build up on that. Pursuing a career in the area where you have no interest and no motivation to work, just because it is fashionable, just because it pays good money, is not the main reason why to choose a certain career. So, to summarize, for the youth it is very important to choose their educational path carefully, considering talents, considering skills, considering the future perspectives for themselves and considering the joy that they will get from their work.
Q: You have told us that family ties are very important. But also you have mentioned that families should not play the most important role in decision making; individuals themselves are the ones to decide. And what about you? Did your parents have any influence on your career choice?
A: I consider myself as a very lucky person as both of my parents have always been supportive to me in making the right decision about what I want to do in my life. Therefore, I did not really have personally the problem of my parents saying what to do for me in my career. The background of both of my parents is chemistry. I did not do very well in chemistry while in high school. I still know very little of chemistry, to be frank. Therefore, I made my choice into a different area and they supported me to continue my education and my career. When I say that family ties are very important, we have to make a distinction here. The family should not be forcing in decision making, they can give an advice. They can direct their children based on their experience, their skills, which young people do not have. But in terms of making the final decision, each young person should be independent and evaluate him/herself to make that decision.
Q: Thank you very much for this interesting conversation!
A: It was my pleasure.