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Russia Reverse Exchange


What if we told you that WorldDenver can fund your own professional exchange abroad? 


Each year hundreds of international visitors are hosted by local companies in Colorado through our Professional Fellows Programs. These programs offer an enormity of benefits, but one perk is the chance of a fully funded Reverse Exchange.


In a nutshell, the reciprocal exchange offers a chance for Colorado hosts to develop a project with their fellow in their country, as well as to continue the professional relationships and friendships beyond the US borders.


WorldDenver’s programs currently included in this scheme are: Young Leaders of the Americas Initiative (YLAI)Russian Business Leaders (RBL), and Young Southeast Asian Leaders Initiative (YSEALI).


We spoke to two WorldDenver hosts, who visited Russia to meet their Russian Business leader fellow at the end of 2018. They filled us in on the schedule, highlights, breaking down stereotypes and powerwalking in the snow.


Image 1.  

Image 1. Yekaterinburg skyline. 


Image 2. Building: Russia’s Ministry of Agriculture - In Kazan. 


Sam Morris from Blue Star Recyclers


We met with Sam Morris, who is the newly appointed CEO of Blue Star Recyclers a company that recycles electronic waste and creates employment for people with autism and disabilities. The social entrepreneurship business has earned recognition as an accomplished Colorado Non-Profit Organization. Last year, former CEO Bill Morris was awarded citizen diplomat of the year by WorldDenver and Blue Star Recyclers was named top non-profit business by ColoradoBiz.  Following hosting a fellow from the RBL program Sam applied for the reciprocal exchange, visiting Russia in December 2018.


Sam’s experience on the Reverse Exchange was based mainly in Moscow and involved about 10 talks, one on average per day. The majority of the conferences focused on social entrepreneurship or working with people with disabilities. The project he embarked on was primarily educational talks and events. The itinerary counted on a vast number of individuals from around Russia, who are part of various movements for change.


Reverse Exchange Learning Curves


As part of the Russia trip, Sam told us about attending talks on educating how to treat people disabilities. For example, it is important you get on the same level as someone in a wheelchair if you will talk for any length of time. He also met a blind jazz singer, who used a technology for scanning Facebook that relayed the newsfeed information so fast, that for those listening nearby it would simply sound like gibberish.


Sam also mentioned that, unfortunately, Russia still has a long way to go to develop in terms of accessibility. Especially outside of Moscow, the routes were impossible for wheelchairs. Furthermore, Russia does not have a system for tracking cognitive disabilities, calling upon statistics from the US or UK during talks on predicting the impact in Russia. He explained that perhaps in the future, with this movement propelled by the young people leading the events, the reality will change.


Reverse Exchange Highlights


A highlight was certainly the chance to attend the Year of the Volunteer 2018 in Russia. Sam explained the encouragement resulting from the sheer number of people and countries participating in the event. In Moscow, many of the volunteers must commute in to their projects from the suburbs, since the city is unaffordable. They work for free in ventures that they hope will drive vital change in the country. 


Other highlights were also the chance to visit tourist points in Moscow, such as the Natural history museum. One evening Sam was invited for a WorldDinner outside the capital in a smaller suburb. He stressed how Moscow is vastly different from other parts of Russia. For instance, where the snow never truly presented a problem in the capital, straying a little further away and the roads become significantly less accessible.


Image 3. Sam pictured with Denis Redkin, the RBL Fellow he hosted at Blue Star Recyclers, along with other participants in the program. 


Image 4. 


Breaking Stereotypes


As many of us are led to believe, vodka apparently is not actually drank by all Russians. In fact, the young people are rather more fond of whisky! However, Sam filled us in on the night he was offered a straight vodka shot after his dinner. After enlisting Google Translate as his aide he managed to ascertain that he would, indeed, have to shot it all in one.


Russian vodka though he told us, goes down a lot smoother than our US equivalents, thankfully!



Final Comments


Sam warned that the Reverse Exchange is exceptional, but be prepared to powerwalk around the city for 10 days straight. On the plus side, he added, this wards of the chilly bite of the Siberian winter.


You should 100 percent be ready for getting stuck in from the word go!


Image 5. Anastasiia & Samal, two RBL Fellows who were in Denver in 2018, with Chad (far right) and Joe Kapp. 

Image 6. Chad giving a presentation in Russia. 

Chad Bontrager from WorldPay


Chad works with global digital marketing at the multinational company WorldPay, which offers financial solutions for transferring money worldwide. He travels frequently and has hosted Russian fellows for the past three years through WorldDenver, as well as Russian interns from other organizations.


After studying Russian at university, Chad was even able to throw in a few words and jokes in his presentations. Both Sam and Chad participated in the same exchange, but their schedules were tailored to their expertise, giving Chad the chance to visit other regions of Russia. This included 5 events in total and a visit to the cities of Kazan and Yekaterinburg


The events where Chad spoke were mainly for businesses or projects focused on digital marketing and startup incubators, including three events at a Federal University.



Reverse Exchange Learning Curves


Chad had never been to Russia before the Reverse Exchange, despite having traveled frequently for his work. After the trip he would consider Russia among the top 3 countries for difficulties in communication. On the list include Ethiopia, the home country of his two adorable sons. Chad explained there are 88 recognized languages within Ethiopia, ranking it high on his list of communication woes.


Russia, however, proved challenging because of the fact that they don’t “do” small talk. Chad explained that small talk is considered impolite and invasive because these types of questions are seen as personal. Whereas in the US small talk is used to create some common ground, in Russia silence is much preferred and not considered awkward at all!


Image 7. Chad and Joe Kapp at an ice hockey game. 

Image 8. An old church from a Siberian Village outside of Yekaterinburg. 

Reverse Exchange Highlights


The highlights were many, but what stood out in Chad’s mind was an evening in a Russian Rock bar, where they sang covers of AC/DC the whole night. The energy was unforgettable.  


He also had the chance to watch an ice-hockey match and visit the city of Kazan. The interesting part of Kazan is the existence orthodox Russia churches (all relatively new, since many were demolished by Stalin during communist rule), contrasted alongside mosques from Mongolia and Asia.




Breaking Down Stereotypes


Just like Sam, Chad reinforced the fact that vodka is not everywhere and anywhere.


Though he did describe seeing a lot of "furry hats". At least in winter, he said that a lot of the Russians sported the traditional style of hat, but maybe because it truly was extremely cold. The winter is harsher than in Colorado because of the humid climate. The cold really gets into your bones!



Image 9. Chad and Joe Kapp, Reverse Exchange Worksite Hosts, pose with Samal and Anastasiia, 2018 RBL Fellows who were placed in Denver, with a group of workshop attendees.

Image 10. Anastasiia, Samal, and Denis, RBL Fellows who spent a month in Denver in 2018 connecting with local businesses and organizations. 


Final Comments 


Before the Reverse Exchange the main challenge was the visas, because of the short time frame. To enter Russia you need to have two blank pages for the visa. Try to factor this in when applying and preparing for the exchange.


Flexibility is also crucial as many plans had to change last minute. Once or twice Chad had to change a tailor-made presentation for an alternative audience.


Most importantly, you need to be generally interested in the culture and be able to adjust into the place you are entering. With this mindset you can make the most of the trip. You can’t go to a place that you are scared or afraid of, as that will be your preoccupation for the whole time.



Be ready for the culture and go in with an open mind and you will be able to take away much more! 



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