Life begins at 40… or so they say!
Friday, January 29, 2010
The Setting: City of Baku, Capital of Azerbaijan, “CIS”, former Soviet Union.
The Year: 1999
The Background: Though technically still at war with its neighbor, an uneasy cease fire is holding 5 years after the “Contract of the Century” was signed.
In the years since independence was proclaimed in 1991, would-be leaders like Mutalibov, Elchibey, Col. Surat Huseynov, and Rasul Quliyev have quickly arrived and been ousted. By 1995, when I arrived, the tanks are gone, though the bullet holes remain, and Heydar Aliyev, returned from Nakhchivan to serve as President, is managing to hold things together and business is growing. Enough business, in fact, that a business group has decided to establish an overseas office connected to the American Chamber of Commerce, AmCham Azerbaijan.
The fledgling organization of businessmen (it turns out, I was the only American woman business head at that time, though there were females at the Embassy and within the oil majors) had as its first Executive Director, a man named Don Stewart who arrived there with his wife Janet, a key component of the BP office in Baku. Don made good strides in establishing the office and had completed his tenure. Don turned the reigns over to another young man, and that lasted about a year- some say he left in the middle of the night, owing local businesses a sizable bar tab.
By this time the Board was getting impatient to make something happen, to become a key player in the advocacy of business issues.
As it happened, I stopped by our favorite ex-pat hangout, the “Wharf” restaurant one day with a journalist friend of mine, John Boit, to have a stiff drink, which in my case meant I would be having maybe 2 iced teas instead of one… (wink). It hadn’t been a very good day… We had both just found out the newspaper venture we were working on, had folded (come to think of it, also in the middle of the night- seems like that happened a lot in those days!)
As we were sitting there wondering what to do next, our friend, the owner Dave Churchman, local business entrepreneur and ex-pat leader from down ‘Nawlins’ way, said, “Jo-Nelle, step into my office. I wanna talk to you.”
His “office” was an oak barrel sitting over by the water’s edge…
He told me about the AmCham office dilemma and said they were “looking for a high-powered Oil Guy to take this to the next level,” but would I come over and help them for three months on an interim basis. Note: Never believe a Louisiana businessman if he says, “You won’t have to do a thang…”
Thus began the next chapter in my life, the Beginning of Life, as I came to know it.
So, what’s the significance of today’s photo? This one marks the beginning of my life in many ways. It’s the dedication of the new AmCham Azerbaijan office, January 2000. I’ll tell you the story of how that came to be…
Check us out tomorrow to find out about a great beginning that included embezzlement, the Big Swindle, as well as the Screw and the Lily that led to the group picture you see here.