sHeroes: Dr. Fiona Citkin, educator, journalist and best-selling author is helping others achieve the American Dream

As a part of the series about strong female leaders I had the pleasure of interviewing FIONA CITKIN, PhD, came to America from her native Ukraine as a Fulbright Scholar, studying languages and cultures at Kent State University in Ohio. With her experience as a professional educator, two doctorates, fluency in three languages, and her multicultural perspective, she served as Director of Berlitz before founding her own firm, Expert MS Inc. Dr. Citkin consults and speaks on interculturalism, diversity, and inclusion at major corporations and colleges around the world. Her first book published in America, Transformational Diversity: Why and How Intercultural Competencies Can Help Organizations to Survive and Thrive (SHRM, 2011), has been widely used by human resource departments, consultants, and college instructors. Recognized as a Top 2012 Champion of Diversity by the think-tank diversitybusiness.com, she resides in Warren, NJ, and can be reached at http://fionacitkin.com.


Thank you so much for joining us Fiona. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

My career path is a progression. I’ve been a professional educator ever since graduating from the University: taught English at high school and college levels, then taught the linguistics courses after defending my 2 doctorates. Upon coming to the US as a Fulbright Scholar, I enjoyed doing research at KSU, OH, but when my husband received an excellent job offer, I followed him to New York — and my academic career became history. I started working for Berlitz and then founded my own company, Expert MS Inc., doing intercultural consulting for the multinationals like Colgate, UBS, DuPont, Hershey, Estee Lauder, to name a few. Based on this experience, I wrote an award-winning “Transformational Diversity” book.

It brought me distinct professional recognition in Human-Resources and Diversity/Inclusion circles, and my company was doing well. But I knew I could do more, something for a broader audience, and with a bigger impact.

After Arianna Huffington invited me to blog for the HuffPost, I covered immigration and women there. That’s when I started interviewing some fascinating immigrant women — which led to writing a whole new book, “How They Made It in America”. It puts my know-how to use, and helps others define their best options to the evolving American-Dream and American-success issues.

So, it’s a career progression that brought me to writing on the women’s and immigration issues.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

Did you hear of Friendship at First Sight? It’s a story about a friendship brought about by my consultant’s interactions with a client, Director at SIEMENS Margot Letso. We liked each other instantly — but there was a long way to go. Margot is of German descent, I am of Ukrainian, and as you may know, Europeans take longer time to become true friends — but when friendship finally solidifies — it is forever, like diamonds. Yes, a Forever Friendship! We are most comfortable with each other, share thoughts and things, our families met on many occasions, etc. To strike a true friendship under unusual circumstances is a big attainment.

What advice would you give to other female leaders to help their team to thrive?

In my experience — enriched by the experiences of my book subjects — the best way to help your team to thrive is to be an inclusive leader, i.e., share your power, empower your team members, and never-ever be bossy. A good example from my book is Maya Strelar-Migotti, a former expatriate SVP of Ericsson.

Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?

The new project is to finish a follow-up book to “How They Made It in America”. I need a couple of women’s profiles to be added. Specifically, I started interviewing immigrant women veterans — an uncharted terrain, with amazing diverse women of all races and social backgrounds, ranging from colonels to sergeants and rank-and-files; some worked in Pentagon, some served in Iraq and elsewhere, some served as commanders and some as journalists, medical personnel, etc. It’s a whole new world of women-in-the-military. Their contributions to our nation are priceless. It excites me no end!

Ca you share what inspired you to write this?

The answer to this question is 3-fold. First, I am inspired by strong women and in general fascinated by the “fair sex,” not the “weaker sex.” And I learned that successful fair sex are the women who are happy. Unhappy women are mostly unhappy with their jammed potential, because realizing one’s potential is more tangible/satisfying than a fleeting orgasm: it stays with you, like a moveable feast. So, this motivated me to do something to help more women be happy — by having a blueprint to repeat the success of the best women role models.

My Second motivation was the challenge to fill this gap in the field of social studies.

My book subjects belong to a special subset of the American women who had never been viewed as a group — and I found it challenging.

Third, it’s a huge inspiration to analyze and describe your own kind. An immigrant myself, I belong with my book subjects, we’re social twins, wearing different cultural make-ups but possessing a common denominator — the need to integrate into the all-American culture, and prove our worth.

You were born and raised in Ukraine. As an immigrant, did you experience many of the same intercultural struggles as the women profiled in How They Made It in America? Did you learn anything unexpected from your interviews?

Yes, all immigrant women face more-or-less similar intercultural struggles. One unexpected lesson from the interviews was Hilda Ochoa-Brillembourg’s answer to my “American Success Scale” (which is a 1-to-10 score self-estimate of personal achievement: where do you stand on the American success ladder today?). Hilda, a top achiever in the finance business (her Strategic Investment Group company controlled $400 billion in funds), estimated her success at Score 9, commenting that, “Ultimate success at Score 10 is achievable but not sustainable.”

I remembered that — and when one of my three interviewees who said they did reach Score 10, got fired by the Board from the top position in her own semi-conductor company (on unproven charges, by the way), this wise remark from Hilda came to mind, Score 10, an ultimate success point, is achievable but not sustainable. My unexpected lesson from this was that humility never hurts, however high we may fly.

What specific challenges do achievement-driven immigrant women face compared to immigrant men? Do immigrant women have specific advantages over men as well?

The common challenges of both male and female immigrants are the new language and culture — and then come the challenges of current political-climate and social attitudes — which can range from instigated hostility vs natural friendliness of local Americans.

Additional female-specific challenges are similar for both immigrant and native-born women: it’s the ugly truth of inequality of sexes: the glass ceiling and hampered upward mobility; life-work balance/household chores; pay gap for the same work; plus, sexual harassment; you name it. We are all [brothers and] sisters, you know.

Advantages of immigrant women over immigrant men are also like those of native-born women: better people’s skills & higher emotional intelligence; more resourcefulness for survive-and-thrive in a male-dominated world; childcare talents, you name it. One may think that women, aware of sexism in the workplace, lean on their femininity to win — but in my experience, they lean more on intellect and dual-culture vision than anything else.

What would you most like the aspiring American dreamers and achievers, whether native born or immigrant, to learn and gain from your book?

I’d like readers to learn there are multiple roads to success in the US — and if the vulnerable immigrant women could succeed against all odds — so can others; just pick up the brains of the role-model of your choice and digest her success values. So, achievers-to-be need to use the book’s advice on how they too can make it in America but with their own direction, stride, and pace.

I’d like American dreamers to take away that How They Made It in America book has opened the door — but they need to find their own door and enter by themselves.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a specific person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

My first year in the United States — when I came as a Fulbright Scholar 25 years ago — was critical. And I am specifically grateful to late Dr. Robert Strohl, of the Battelle Memorial Institute in Columbus, OH who recognized my potential — and gave me a bump. He shared the American values with my husband and I — and poured tons of confidence into us, saying, “You are the kind of immigrants that America needs, and I will help you to stay here.” True to his word, Bob was instrumental in my obtaining a Fulbright waiver and a green-card. How? After I worked as a lead interpreter and consultant at important American-Russian AI conferences, he penned a letter that led to a 4-star general supporting us staying in the USA. Often times, when I feel down and in need of a “face-lift”, I re-read a copy of that letter, gratefully. It was because of Bob Strohl that we became Americans — and the American opportunities opened for us — and the rest is history. Later, we learned of Bob’s untimely death.

But the story goes on. Last year, a miracle happened: a voice from the past, from 23–25 years ago, came as a comment on my blog from Hallie, a widow of late Robert Strohl — out of the blue, and she was talking of the values that connect us:

“Dear Fiona, I was culling old Christmas card lists, as I have been culling much of my life since turning ninety. Just the sight of your name took me back in a flash to the days when my husband worked with you and Alex, how much he admired your work, and your insight into what the world could be. …..
 At this point in my life, I take hope and encouragement from the fact that my children are passionate about trying to make a better world in whatever ways are presented to them. I know that there are others trying to do the same.
 Best wishes to you for an enjoyable Christmas, and for good things in 2019.”

Soon after that, Bob and Hallie’s son sent me a message — confirming our common standing on the American values. And I’m deeply grateful to the Strohl family for their continuing support.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

My way of bringing goodness to this world is sharing my knowledge and experience. Being a professional educator means that my work is never done — like in a famous Sonny & Sher’s song “A cowboy’s work is never done.” The more knowledge I pass to others the more I contribute to the goodness of this world. I used to be a beloved teacher of English in high school, a popular Professor at the University. In the US, I coached and trained multicultural teams, blogged at HuffPost, and wrote 2 books, one about Transformational Diversity and one about prominent immigrant women — which hopefully will makes it easier for those who seek success in the US — to break the barriers, stereotypes, limitations — and go up in life.

What are your “5 Leadership Lessons I Learned From My Experience” and why. (Please share a story or example for each.)

My whole book is about leadership lessons that drove me — and my book subjects — to action and success under stress.

1. Lesson in Character Building; I first learned it from my father who taught me that I should build more resilience into myself because “there is no escalator to success, you need to take the stairs.” Over the years, this lesson worked for me and therefore I recommend it for others. Character-building is the essence of self-building — which needs continuing work: just as you cannot build muscle just watching Arnold Schwarzenegger train, you need to train your character — and this is a leadership lesson to remember.

2. Lesson in Emotional Intelligence; EI is a foundation of Leadership — and it rests largely on self-analysis. Personally, I enhanced my own EI quite a bit learning how it worked for Rohini Anand who came from India as a Ph.D. student and rose to becoming an SVP and Global Chief Diversity Officer at Sodexo. When she married, she moved back to India — but after 3 years, they returned. Why? With her high EI Rohini understood that their values had changed in America, and they wanted their daughters to grow up with the American values, like hard work, can-do attitude, etc.: “I realized that I changed tremendously in America, and what I valued most was the possibility to make an impact for what I did, in the workplace…I came into my own in the US.” Her cultural heritage and EI help Rohini to stay on course, navigating Sodexo’s diversity and inclusion as a global business imperative. I believe it’s a great Leadership lesson.

3. Lesson in Strategic Thinking; it’s critical to remember that you need to strategize not only when launching your business but also knowing when to quit. I learned to periodically step back and reassess the situation from Irmgard Lafrentz, my book subject and distinctive strategist, a true woman leader.

4. Lesson in Inclusive Leadership; the people I learned the Inclusive Leadership from are all deeply tolerant of the others’ opinions, and ready to empower their subordinates/followers. My late scientific adviser Professor Leo Nelubin, himself a great inclusive leader, taught me the best lessons in Inclusive Leadership, by example.

5. Lesson in Perseverance. Because I am a natural get-up fighter, I felt I would survive and thrive even as an immigrant; of course, I had to persevere in the US and reframe my experiences several times. From my book, the best example is Sophie Vandebroek, hailing from Belgium, SVP of Xerox and IBM, holding 14 patents; when she became a young widow with 3 little kids, she had persevered big time — and won on all accounts. If you read the book, you will learn how she did it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I would like to inspire the movement “Tolerance, the American Choice.” Tolerance is a great but neglected value, although it is one of the pillars of democracy. There is a visible deficit of tolerance in our country and beyond, thus our democracy is starting to limp. Media, TV, and movies are filled with intolerance, not to mention those politicians for whom “tolerance” became a bad word. We need to school people in Tolerance, roll out Tolerance education country-wide — to prevent mass shootings, hate crimes, prejudice against different cultures or opinions, and such. It is a good question whether we need to tolerate intolerance. Jesus was preaching Tolerance — and was crucified for that, but the faith and movement he inspired live on.

For now, I hope that How They Made It in America — describing immigrant women’s contributions to America’s well-being and culture — will further promote greater tolerance, inclusivity, and unity of our diverse nation.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Winston Churchill said famously, “Success is never final. Failure is never fatal. It’s the courage to carry on that counts.” It is relevant to me because my life was rich in successes as well as failures. A good example is a story of publishing this book.

First, searching for a good literary agent has taken a lot of my energy and proved a total waste of time: they liked the book’s content but feared it won’t sell solidly, based on their prior experiences with the women-and-immigration topics. So, I turned to publishers directly and found them more responsive: several professional editors gave me excellent advice of how to position the book. I took it, and sure enough, landed a big-name publisher all by myself. Success!

My big catch was a progressive-minded Editor-in-Chief of “intelligent non-fiction” publisher who encouragingly wrote to me they need more books like mine, which have a distinctive topic, come in series, expand the readers’ horizons, and contribute to the idea of open borders (although I never had the latter in mind). Anyway, I considered his attention a huge honor: OMG, a big-name publisher, and its Editor-in-Chief writing to me!

However, my joy was premature as the success was not final. Why? After several consecutive runs of improving the manuscript, the publisher’s Board turned the tables on their Editor-in-Chief who was pro-book — and turned the book down. From start to finish, the submission process lasted nearly two years. What a mess! How did I feel as a result? Distressed I was. Deterred I wasn’t.

Remembering Churchill’s maxim that “failure is never fatal”, I plucked up courage and moved on, and soon landed another publisher because after all prior trials and tribulations with editing, the book became as flawless as could be. I got a beautiful book in the end. So, “it’s the courage to carry on that counts!” That’s the story.

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)

I fancy Oprah Winfrey, the most authentic of all outstanding women! Why? I always lived by the maxim she formulated, even before I knew it: “Life is reciprocal: the energy you expand always comes back.” May be, I feel affinity to her because we have lots in common:

We both wear many professional hats. We both are originally small-town girls. We both did the jobs nobody in our families had ever been doing. We both are innovation-loving — in our own special ways. We both hold two doctorate degrees: Oprah — honorary doctorates from Duke and Harvard, while mine are from Moscow and Odessa State Universities — plus we did a lot of self-education as well. We both overcame adversity to become benefactors to others.

Our differences are minor, on a grand scale of things, all stemming from being born in America vs Ukraine — which means there was an abyss between opportunities. Overall, there are good reasons to believe that Oprah and I would have a very enjoyable lunch — at least I certainly would!

How can our readers reach you on social media?

FB — https://www.facebook.com/FionaCitkinAuthor/

Twitter — https://twitter.com/FionaCitkin

Book website — http://fionacitkin.com/

LinkedIn — https://www.linkedin.com/in/fiona-citkin-b7416310/

Get my book on Amazon here