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Eric Azulay was a guide on "Design USA," the last exhibit to travel through the former Soviet Union. He later established one of the first U.S.-Russian business ventures in Vladivostok. Following is the edited excerpt of an interview conducted by Deborah Guido, Regional Public Diplomacy Officer for the Office of Russian Affairs, Bureau of European and Eurasian Affairs.
Design USA was really about industrial and graphic design - design showing choices and why you have to have different designs for different consumer tastes. So we’d have several different stands and several different examples of different types of design. So we had industrial design. We had an American kitchen and showing all the different types of appliances and a refrigerator. We had a full sized Corvette that we rolled out there and showed them automobile design. We had a large Harley Davidson motorcycle. We had kids’ designs for different toys and things. We had designs like wine and food showing how different wine bottles had different labels for marketing. Also computer design. Early on, we had some people showing how you can do the 'photo shop' thing and manipulate images and stuff like that. For industrial design, we had a mock up of a Texaco gas station. These things, you think as a Westerner, you know what’s the big deal, but if you look back then when there’s no mention made of consumer taste or aesthetics. It was quite shocking for the Russians or the Soviets, as I should say, for that time.
And so we’d go up in the stands, we’d be briefed of course, we’d know about the intricacies of these different things for architecture, and we’d know the design behind some of the shiny things. But to be honest, 90% of the questions were average questions like ‘Ok, why do you have two different can openers, you have an electric one and one of these.’ And they’d say ‘how strong is your wine?’ And we’d say ‘ok this percentage’ and they’d say ‘ours is much stronger, it’s much better and we get drunk faster,’ that kind of thing. So, they had limited exposure to the West, and much of it, even though there were some professional people who asked professional questions about design questions, most of it was about getting to know, 'hey there’s a real live American,' 'what does an average American think,' 'what do they make,’ ‘how affordable is this?' We gave them statistics and we were very upfront. It could’ve been the reason they chose us as well - they wanted very young, enthusiastic people to just kind of go up there and explain what it is.
I was thrilled about being able to meet these people that had maybe never met an American. In Vladivostok that was definitely the case, and again to just be able to go out there and ask a question without some of the baggage that perhaps an older generation might have and just tell them what it is. At that point, Russia was going through some major changes itself so there wasn’t quite the amount of hostility. In Vladivostok, it was a little bit more just because it had been so closed for so long.
I’ve always tried to think of myself as a ‘people person.’ The thing I enjoyed the most was learning the culture, learning the language, and trying to immerse myself, not trying to stand out as, 'there goes the American.' I think that has definitely helped me in my business career. I would be so bold as to say that it would help anybody. I always recommend to anybody [the benefits of] going and living abroad for half a year, or a semester. Of course, you have to be confident in your technical aspects. But the more that I work in business and the more I see things go right or wrong, it always boils done to the personality factor. By working with people from different cultures and learning to listen, to give and take, those are the core things I’ve learned from the exhibit and is central to everything that I do. I wish a lot more people had more of it (not what I have, I don’t want to be so presumptuous to say what I’ve got) but just in general about listening and understanding and taking the best of what they have to offer and taking what you value here, and not always 'my way is the best way' or 'the American way is the only way,' especially for doing international business. There are certainly things we want to take from here that are the best, but you do have to adapt to the local culture. I think we all could learn from that. And I think you see the most successful joint ventures and the most successful international companies have done that, it’s not just a 'one size fits all.'
For me the language boils down to the intercultural thing. I mean, learning a language offers such a window into what other people are thinking and their values. I speak Spanish, but for Russian, it’s a next level. It’s humbling especially in the beginning when you’re out there butchering that language, but the harder the language is, the more, I don’t want to say grateful, but the more appreciative people are that you actually try. So when you’re out there and you’re speaking Russian or you’re trying to speak Russian, they really appreciate that you made the effort and they’re very happy for that, and they’re very grateful for that and that helps you learn even more. So I mean learning a language for me, I love languages and learning a tougher language gives you that much more of an edge and I don’t know, again I would recommend that everybody spend a half a year abroad, learn a language. Not only is it needed in the business sense as we become more globalized, but I think it really just gives you insights.
Eric Azulay was a guide on Design USA, the last exhibit to travel through the former Soviet Union in 1990-1991. Eric joined the exhibit straight after graduation from the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in International Relations and was a guide in the Russian Far East cities of Khabarovsk and Vladivostok. Eric returned to Vladivostok in 1992, working first for a U.S. shipping company, and then starting his own logistics company, Links, Ltd. With offices in Vladivostok, Nakhodka and Yuzhno-Sakhalinsk, Links was the first foreign-operated bonded warehouse in the Russian Far East and handled everything from shipping a Siberian tiger to a U.S. zoo, to importing an entire oil drilling platform from Korea. After several years in Vladivostok with his wife, Allegra, whom he met on the exhibit, Eric returned to the U.S. Eric now runs a U.S.-based logistics company, Compass Cargo, and recently earned his master’s degree in Technology Commercialization from the University of Texas.