Yelena is Chief Financial Officer of the Rouse Group, leading a global network of finance professionals that focuses on helping the business achieve its strategic objectives.
Yelena grew up in Russia, moved to America with her family when she was 17 years old, and now lives with her English husband, Richard, in Salisbury, a medieval cathedral city, 90 minutes by train from London. Her story, and that of her family, is one of challenge and opportunity, risk and sacrifice – and, ultimately, success.
In the late 1990s, Russia’s economy was in crisis, the currency rapidly losing value and prices skyrocketing. By the time Yelena’s family left in 1998, the situation was so volatile that for a period of time some goods no longer carried price tags. Even so, the decision to leave was a difficult one – Yelena’s parents did not speak English and they knew that in another country they would not be able to work at the level they had been working in Russia. Yelena’s father was an engineer who had been engaged in research for the Russian military, then worked in the computer industry. Her mother was Finance Director of one of Moscow’s largest real estate funds. They had begun to think about joining family members who were already in America when Yelena was in 10th grade, and, in preparation, engaged a tutor to teach her the 11th grade syllabus. So, unknown to the school, she was studying both the Year 10 and Year 11 syllabus at the same time.
At school, she was into everything – from ballroom dancing to woodcarving. She was also doing well academically, even though she received no pressure from her parents. Her father’s attitude was that she would get the benefit of whatever she put in – it was up to her. She maintains there’s a logic or pattern to many things and once you understand that, everything is doable – which might explain how she was able to keep on top of her academic work along with everything else, including, when she was 14 or 15, setting up a thriving business, complete with price list, providing coaching and tutoring services to her fellow students.
In the end, the decision to leave Russia was made quickly as the situation was deteriorating rapidly and Yelena’s parents didn’t want her to lose a year between school and university in America. They left in September of 1998 and she started as a student at the University of Louisville, Kentucky, in August the following year.
They had gone to Kentucky because that is where her father’s sister and her family were already living. It’s difficult to imagine what it must have been like for Yelena’s parents, who were leaving everything behind and didn’t speak any English. Yelena had learned to read and write English, but couldn’t speak very well. From her point of view, the move was “scarily exciting” – from her parents’ point of view, it must have been very different.
Her father’s computer skills, however, stood him in good stead and he soon found a job with one of the many local computer shops that existed at the time, ultimately getting a job with UPS’s IT department as a hardware engineer. Her mother started as a retail associate with TJ Maxx. As her English language skills improved, she started taking courses on medical/hospital office management and billing, and now she manages a local dermatology practice which specialises in research. With the help of a cousin, Yelena started working at a local movie theatre and within a couple of months was speaking English reasonably fluently. She says it took her parents about a year, which, for anyone who has tried learning a foreign language later in life, is quite an achievement.
Yelena first thought of studying Law – she liked ethical and philosophical debate and discussing social issues. She was somewhat put off, however, when people started telling her there was no way she would succeed as a lawyer because for that she would need to speak English well. While she didn’t necessarily agree with them, she thought it would make sense to do something that would enable her to see the fruits of her labour more quickly. She chose to do a Business degree in Accounting. While studying at the university, she also held a variety of jobs on campus, from working in the library to tutoring maths and introductory accounting and finance to other students. After her first year, she joined General Electric Corp. (GE) Appliances division, located in Louisville, Kentucky, as a finance intern. For the next three years, until graduation, she worked full time while continuing to study accounting.
On graduating, she joined General Electrics Corp. (GE) through the Financial Management Program (FMP), GE’s global finance leadership development program, and later Corporate Audit Staff (CAS), working her way up through various subsidiary companies. Being a member of CAS involved a lot of global travel - trips to 12 countries, including two to Russia - and required highly developed organisational skills, both personal and professional. Often, she would have to have her bags packed and be on her way with just a few hours’ notice. The highly developed organisational skills Yelena now has were honed during her time with the team. Eventually, she was seconded to GE’s UK operation to work on a major M&A project – and that turned out to be a major turning point in her life.
She had dreamed of living in the UK ever since she was a teenager, enamoured, at that stage, by Take That, an English pop group founded in Manchester in 1990. What she couldn’t know was that the move would lead directly to her meeting her future husband. When the project came to an end and Yelena was to go back to the States, GE recruited Richard, in what now seems a stroke of fortune, to take her place in the finance team.
As a result, it didn’t take long for Yelena’s plans to change and she has been in the UK ever since. She says that living in Salisbury allows her and her husband, who is now leading the finance function for the UK division of an American technology company, to have the best of both worlds. It’s an easy train trip to the city and at home they can enjoy a country life with the two rescue dogs they acquired last September: Archie, a West Highland White Terrier, and Polly, a Jack Russell, Poodle cross.
Yelena is now almost the age her mother was when the family moved to America - and more aware than ever of the enormous sacrifice she made. She wonders if she would have the strength to leave a high-powered job for a life of such uncertainty and, at least initially, depravation. Anyone who knows her has not the slightest doubt she could do it, and almost certainly would.