Growing up in post-Soviet Kazakhstan, I was surrounded by people. If my parents’ house wasn’t filled with relatives and friends, my parents and I were on our way to visit someone else. Traditionally, Kazakh people visit one another without advance notice, drink a lot of tea, and as a result, have very close relationships. Having parents from two different parts of the country, I also realized that people develop specific personality traits based on where they come from, as culture, religion, language, alphabet, and social structure has constantly been influenced from Persian, Turkish, Russian, Mongolian, and Western cultures.
Both sides of my family used to tease each other often. My mother’s family always said that literature and grammar came from Eastern Kazakhstan, and my father’s family always claimed that people from the South are more entrepreneurial and will always find a way to feed their families. For all their differences across a large and diverse nation roughly the size of Western Europe, most Kazakh’s have a few things in common: hospitality balanced by honesty; patriotism that is sometimes undermined by uncertainty, and patience that is easily mistaken for procrastination. As a native Kazakh, these are all a big part of my personality that has led me to develop a boundless love of bringing together amazing people from all over the world.
It was just this love of people that helped me discover my passion. At the age of 17, I became a member of Students in Free Enterprise, or SIFE, an international organization that enables teams of undergraduate and graduate students to develop social, environmental, and business projects. Every weekend, two of my SIFE teammates and I visited an orphanage in Almaty that cared for children from eight to 18 years old. We started by organizing English classes for some of the orphans and ended up becoming friends, as they shared their dreams with us. At that time, I realized how much I enjoy not just meeting people, but also helping those who need it the most.
Our year of hard work paid off when my team won the national championship of SIFE in Kazakhstan and we were invited to participate in the SIFE World Cup. For the first time in my life, SIFE gave me an opportunity to travel outside of Kazakhstan and meet people from all around the world, which ultimately helped me discover the career I wanted to pursue. In October 2007, our team of about 20 people arrived in New York City for the three-day event to present the projects we had worked on throughout the year, and to share our culture with other students who had also come from 40 countries around the world. All of us were there for the same reason driven by the same mission, to make a difference. In such a short period, I learned salsa with students from Puerto Rico, created a Facebook account to keep in touch with all these great people I met and most of all, was incredibly inspired, being among so many young, like-minded change-makers.
Being part of SIFE those four years, I met women living in rural areas of Almaty and developed over 15 social, educational and environmental projects. After completing four years of undergraduate school at the University of International Business in Almaty, Kazakhstan, I had a Bachelor’s degree in Accounting and Audit, former SIFE teammates, who became friends for a lifetime, and a deep-seated passion, driving me to seek new adventures.
Eventually, my travels brought me to San Francisco, where, for the first time in my life, I fell in love—with the city. In only 30 minutes, you can not only visit three different neighborhoods, but also work out climbing up and down the hills. In one day, you can experience three seasons in a great variety of landscapes. In almost three years of living there, I made friends I never wanted to leave, and also developed an incredible network in my future field of work, social enterprise.
I quickly realized that I needed management skills to compliment my passion, in order to scale my work and better understand how to develop social projects at an international level. The entrepreneurial spirit of the Bay Area inspired me to pursue a Master’s degree in Social Entrepreneurship at HULT International Business School. As always, I tried to get the most out of this experience, improving my managerial and organizational skills, while working part-time in events and communications. I helped organize the San Francisco Campus HULT Prize competitions, participated in the Social Business Club and finally, developed a network of business representatives and other master’s students from over 100 countries. (Having friends from all around the globe is amazing at least for one single reason—when travelling to another country, I always have someone to meet for dinner.)
One of the biggest highlights of my year at HULT was understanding the nuances of small and medium businesses in developing countries and establishing a vision for my future. A range of professors with international experience and business background, as well as my fellow international students helped shape my view through lively discussions both in the classroom and elsewhere. It was great to hear directly from representatives of particular countries how people live in their community, the impact of local and international economic decisions on different levels of society, and the diversity of opinions on political situations in their home countries.
Now, as an MBAs Without Borders Advisor, I have returned home to Kazakhstan to apply the knowledge and experience I have gained through my education and experience in so many places around the world to improve the livelihoods of people in Central Kazakhstan, where limited tourism and an overall lack of employment opportunities have undermined growth. Yet, with the region’s resource boom, Kazakhstan’s economy is growing, and the people of Central Kazakhstan can benefit equally.
Having gone more than half way around the world and back, my perspective has broadened, and yet in some ways, stayed the same. Whether it’s over tea in a Kazakh home or over a Starbucks latte in San Francisco, listening to people’s needs and finding ways to collaborate towards a common purpose is the most important lesson I’ve learned on my global journey. As my plane descended into Karaganda, I looked out across the miles of steppe, most of which is barely inhabited by small villages, some without a single store or sense of civilization. Creating economic opportunities is everyone’s business—yours, mine, the people of Kazakhstan, and even the entire world. Because in the end, if we really listen, we are all just one big global family.
Dinara Zhaxynbek is an MBAs Without Borders Advisor in Karaganda, Kazakhstan where she works to empower youth, women, and small and medium business entrepreneurs to use their skills and ideas to achieve financial stability. She received her Masters of Social Entrepreneurship from the HULT International Business School in San Francisco where she developed a passion for creating economic opportunities in under-served communities around the world.