Anya Ruvinskaya, 30
Lives: Seattle, Washington
Grew up: Kiev, Ukraine
Nominated by: Nada Elsayed
Anya Ruvinskaya’s story is dizzying and dazzling in equal mixes.
She grew up in a mix of Russian, Ukrainian and Jewish cultures in the Soviet Union before moving New York when she was ten. She followed her feet into the business world, working as an analyst at JPMorgan Chase, Credit Suisse, Goldman Sachs before completing an MBA at the prestigious Wharton School. She has been a research fellow at NASA, been the recipient of a fellowship for a foundation in Namibia and worked at AmeriCorps.
Today you can find Anya working in a social impact role at Microsoft. Why? Because in big business, Anya says, you stand a good chance of making a sustained and long term difference.
Anya talks to us about growing up without an easy answer to where you’re from, how to follow your instincts when it comes to career decisions and most importantly, when to sleep on it and when to go for it.
The first thing you studied out of school was business. What was it that drew you to that space?
I can’t necessarily say that I’ve been interested in business from the beginning, it’s been more of a journey. I am originally from Ukraine and growing up at that time in the Soviet Union there was really no concept of business or at least the way my family was familiar with it, I had no clue that world was out there.
When we moved to New York, I got exposed to various opportunities mostly because I was looking, paying attention… there were a whole bunch of different programs for inner city kids, disadvantaged students that wouldn’t have had opportunities or access to certain things. So in high school I participated in one of these programs called the Business Development School for Youth run by a not for profit called the All Stars Project. It was twelve weeks of development workshops where they basically taught you how to act, how to dress, how to talk, everything for a professional environment. You know, business 101.
Until that program I was, I guess, interested in science. My whole plan was to go to College and do bio-medical engineering. But then I got introduced to this business program the year that I was graduating, before I entered College, and after I finished the twelve weeks of workshops they placed me in an internship for the summer. So I started at JP Morgan Chase. That was the beginning.
What was it specifically at that internship that captured your imagination? Was it being part of something that big and seeing the ways it had an impact in the world?
I think it was that I had no idea that that world existed. I had no idea—this sounds horrible—but coming from a low income background, I had no idea that people made that much money, had those kind of professions and, frankly, I found that I was really good at it. It came naturally to me. I felt like I was finally learning how the world really worked, where some of the impactful levers were… ones that could change my life and the life of others like me [or not like me, those lacking opportunities really].
I know some people who have had this kind of upbringing tend to be very internationally minded and call themselves ‘citizens of the world’. I understand that concept but I think its too utopian and it’s not realistic.
Obviously I didn’t know anything about business but somehow I was able to sort out Excel and do some things on there that apparently were really impressive. So I think that positive feedback from my mentors and the people that I worked with who saw potential in me was what made it special.
Can we go back to your childhood in Ukraine? Could you tell us a little bit about that?
I don’t know where to start… I would say it was typical for someone from Ukraine/Russia, (it was the Soviet Union at that time). I mean, we were pretty poor which was normal I think for anyone from there whose family didn’t work in the government.
Life was pretty typical. I went to school. My parents worked. It’s normal to start what you would consider kindergarten quite young there, it’s structured from one or two years old. It was much more like a school than day care here in the States is. So I was in school from very young and in the evenings, as soon as you’re old enough to feed yourself, you kind of fend for yourself because your parents are still at work.
It was a really tumultuous time in terms of what was going on politically and economically, which is why we moved. We moved in ‘94. The Soviet Union fell apart in ‘91. I remember my father bringing home something like a million dollars—well Rubles—from some odd job and it being barely enough to buy bread. My parents really broke their backs during that time and also right after our move to the States to create a good life for us. My mum is from Russia and my father is from Ukraine. It’s hard to draw the lines for me because when I was growing up I still thought of it as one Soviet Union but it’s two different countries.
So your mother was Russian, your father was Ukrainian and then you were raised in the States from age ten. What do you identify as now?
I call myself confused. [Laughs]. I know some people who have had this kind of upbringing tend to be very internationally minded and call themselves ‘citizens of the world’. I understand that concept but I think its too utopian and it’s not realistic. I don’t think we’re there yet, I don’t know if we’ll ever get there especially considering the arbitrary boundaries people still draw but I understand the appeal and I do think it is a nice thought.
For me, it almost depends on who I’m speaking to. If I’m speaking to an American or someone who wouldn’t know about the intricacies of the Soviet Union or eastern Europe, or any of that, I just tend to say I’m Russian. Keeps things simple. Some people that I’ve spoken to don’t even know or haven’t even heard of the Ukraine or at least before it got on the news with the revolution. If someone inquires further, I could specify that I am actually Ukrainian or that I speak Russian but I don’t speak Ukrainian, or that I go back to Russia not Ukraine but I am actually a Ukrainian citizen. It’s not necessarily very neat, fine lines.
Then with Ukraine it gets even further confusing because my father technically is Ukrainian but my father is also Jewish and during that time Jewish people were considered Jewish, not Ukrainian so his passport didn’t say Ukrainian, it said Jewish. It was considered a race/nationality, not a religion. So I identify with being Jewish as well. Older members of my father’s family have horror stories from the time the Nazi’s invaded Ukraine and the rest, even including me, have stories of discrimination.
The reason why we were able to come to America was actually through a Jewish refugee program. It’s not as dramatic as it sounds (from my experience anyway). The conditions were nowhere near comparable to what refugees, say in Syria, have to go through today… through camps, living through war, political exile, etc. But technically that’s the situation.
And then there is the US… but if I was to be honest, I don’t tend to think of myself as American although I have citizenship. I think the reason for that is growing up in Brooklyn where everyone was from a different country so we tended to identify and strongly associate with where we (or our parents) were originally from. So it gets a bit difficult to define who I am.
And since then you’ve travelled all over and worked in an amazing number of places and roles. Can you tell us what you are doing now?
Right now, I work on the education team at Microsoft. So after I finished my MBA, I came to Microsoft. I was looking for a for-profit social impact position, which is exactly where I landed.
But with these non-profit organisations, and the way development money flows, you start to wonder whether you’re hurting or you’re helping. Are you enabling or are you crippling essentially?
I wanted to work somewhere large enough that there are substantial structures and support systems in place, meaning you can make a significant impact. My specific focus is students. The common thread for non-profit work that I did in international development has basically been trying to increase opportunities for young people. That’s how I got to where I am today. So I see my position at Microsoft as a way to carry that forward in a different capacity.
It’s interesting that you were specifically seeking out a for-profit social impact job, was it because you believed there was more capacity to do things there rather than in the not-for profit space?
It’s not a simple answer. I thought a lot about it. One reason is the very practical element of having to pay off my student loans. Six figures, right. The other is that I did spend a lot of time in the not-for-profit sector before my MBA. I spent some time working for a nonprofit financial organisation in New York and also for a local foundation in Namibia, in Africa. I wanted to experience what a developing/emerging market similar to the one I grew up in was like but in a completely different place culturally and geographically. I wanted to see if my hypothesis was correct in that there are very common threads despite the differences, that some very basic experiences of living in a developing country are universal.
But with these non-profit organisations, and the way development money flows, you start to wonder whether you’re hurting or you’re helping. Are you enabling or are you crippling essentially? So after all of that, though I did have a great time and do feel like I made a difference but on a wider scale when you think about systematic change, I started to question if that’s the answer and if that’s the right direction. I know some people see corporations as evil, but I tend to think of them in a different way. Creating employment and supporting entrepreneurship, I think that’s more the answer to making lasting change, I think that you’re then talking about something that’s more sustainable.
When you reflect on where you are now, are you surprised that this is where you’ve arrived?
Yeah. There’s no way in a million years that I could have guessed that this is where I would have ended up and five to ten years from now there’s no way that I could guess where I’ll be.
Some people have a very linear path, or they know what they’re meant to do, or they know what they want to do and they go for it. I am a person that has been interested in way too many different things to choose from so I just flip flop and every day that I go to work I think about going to med school or doing something completely different. I have come to believe it’s just in my nature. I’m not trying to put myself in boxes any more. I struggled with that in my twenties. I experimented with so many different directions, things that I could do but I somehow landed here and, for now, I’m happy with here and now I take one day at a time.
I completely relate to that as well, there’s a hundred things that I would like to do and I’ve tried to be okay with following my feet. There’s just so many possibilities. How do you think you should actually make those big decisions?
It’s a daily struggle. For example, with med school or becoming a doctor, that thought has been around since probably high school. I remember specifically, kind of logically, narrowing down my interests to biomedical engineering at school because I was too scared or uncomfortable with taking on the responsibility of having somebody’s life in my hands. Then when I switched to business I think I just didn’t take a lot of time to think it through, it was very attractive and I was good at it. The opportunities were just there.
For me, if a particular thought comes back often enough, I recognise that I can put it down as an interest. I’ve tested out a few of these interests too. I was a PA for an independent film studio and did an internship for Channel 13. I took the time to test it out. At some point, however, when I did it try it out, it helped me to see that actually this isn’t it, I need to continue exploring or go back to the drawing board.
With medicine though, I keep trying to remind myself that I’ve let it go, but it just keeps coming back. The thing that makes me hesitate about pursuing it, at least for now, is that I think I am very lucky with the way things have turned out for me and I’m in a position to make a difference… so I’m not sure if I’m ready to make such a drastic 180. There are also the financial implications honestly. I hate to make it about that but I get nervous when I think about not being able to support my family should something happen. The other piece is, frankly, I am concerned that I won’t like it… that it will be just like that indy film studio or Channel 13. It’s such a huge switch and to do something like medicine requires a lot of investment and a lot of time, I would hate to do all of that to end up feeling like I was more satisfied career wise with business. I think this is also where it helps to remember to think creatively and outside of the box. There is nothing that would stop me from combining interests, from finding an opportunity to work in media or medicine but with my business hat on.
The US is very all-consuming, very polarising. It’s almost like the US versus the world, so I choose the world.
It’s a really difficult thing but I love that idea of pursuing your dreams creatively, from a different angle. Would you say then that professionally speaking you have any regrets?
Some days I do and some days I don’t. But I often feel like I have plenty of time ahead of me. You know, if I’m forty and in medical school than I’m forty in medical school.
Exactly! Does the question of family come into consideration when you think of the future?
I don’t know if I actively try enough to think about it. My personal love life has been such that I haven’t really gotten close enough at all to crossing that bridge or thinking about it that way. The most thoughts of ‘family’ that have influenced my future thinking is being able to provide for my current family (parents, family in Russia). I honestly can’t even imagine marriage or kids at this point. In fact, I can completely imagine not getting married or having children. My friends often hear me joking about being old and grey with nine puppies, and not in a negative way.
But if I were to think about having children I would especially not want them to grow up in America.
Why is that?
A part of it is selfish. I feel like a lot of the reasons why I am the way that I am and am able to empathise and have a certain outlook on the world is because I had such exposure growing up. I didn’t start out here and I didn’t fully grow up here, not to say that every kid that grows up in America turns out horribly or materialistic or super selfish but the world outside of this country is vast and very different and I feel like everyone needs to experience that.
You could come back to America, grow up partially in the States maybe, but I think that the foundational years can really shape a person. The US is very all-consuming, very polarising. It’s almost like the US versus the world, so I choose the world. This is actually my own internal struggle coming out, because I myself wrestle with where I want to live.
What advice would you have for our readers?
In my darkest days, because I tend to err on the cup half empty side, my advice to myself which is super simple and basic but has gotten me this far has always been to just wait until the next day. Just sleep on it. That’s the best thing that I’ve ever done in terms of making any serious decisions.
But also, life is short… especially when you’re happy. I would say there have been a few times in my life where I could say yes, I was happy for this period of time but I didn’t appreciate it while it was happening, I didn’t ‘stop to smell the roses’ essentially. So the advice to balance out ‘sleeping on it’ is: don’t necessarily wait on something for too long, just go for it and take it all in. If there’s something you’ve been thinking about doing, just go do it.
I don’t necessarily have a rule of thumb. Make your own rule of thumb. If you’ve been thinking about something for a week and you’re still thinking about it, then do it. If you’ve been thinking about it for three months, then do it. The older you get; the quicker time passes. It’s really scary. So, just do it.
That’s a wonderful note to end on! Thank-you Anya!