Profile: Nara Venditti – Helping Fellow Immigrants Succeed
An Armenian professor finds her future in America.
By Julie Bawden Davis
In 1990 when Nara Venditti’s plane landed at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City, the Soviet immigrant clutched 75 cents, which was all that remained of her life savings. As the plane approached the airport, she gazed down in wonder at the Statue of Liberty.
“The statue is a symbol of hope around the world, and I was exhilarated to see it and know that I had finally arrived in America,” says Venditti, who had left behind everything she knew – including her family and a prestigious job as a university professor – to find a better life in the United States.
At the time Venditti, an Armenian born in the Southern part of the Soviet Union, had no plans for the future. She only knew that she was lucky to have arrived.
“It was the end of the Cold War and I took a huge risk by leaving, because things were so unstable in the Soviet Union,” she says. “Getting out of Moscow at the time was like leaving on the last helicopter out of Saigon. The iron curtain had fallen, but it could have gone up again at any minute.”
Though leaving had its dangers, Venditti did so to ensure a better life for herself, and her daughter and mother, who later followed her to America. “The situation in the Soviet Union at the time was very hopeless,” she says. “I couldn’t see a future for myself or my daughter, so leaving was worth the risk.”
Today the self-made entrepreneur, speaker, author and educator knows she made the right choice and credits much of her success to Toastmasters. “When I arrived in the U.S., I had to build my professional life from scratch,” she says. “My Toastmaster[s] membership helped me come full circle and offered opportunities I never dreamed of before.”
Not only has Venditti made a successful life for herself in the U.S., she also helps other immigrants and foreign-born residents through her company, Succeed in America, in Danbury, Connecticut. The goal of Venditti’s work, which focuses on business communication and workplace-based English language skills, is to help immigrants understand and accept American values so they can successfully transition into the workplace. She offers workshops on the subject and provides educational materials, such as her books, How to Get a Job in the USA, which is written from a foreigner’s perspective, and Ameri$peak: A Mini Dictionary of the Most Common Words and Phrases You Need to Know to Communicate Effectively in American English. She also appears in television shows on cultural understanding in the global workplace.
Looking back on her arrival in the United States, Venditti laughs at her naïveté. “When my plane landed, I remember thinking, ‘America, get ready. I’m here,’” she says. “I didn’t realize at the time that I wasn’t ready for America.”
As a third-generation educator equipped with a doctorate in applied linguistics from one of the best universities in Russia and a knowledge of English, Venditti says, “I thought I had the credentials to quickly establish myself in my new home. But I was wrong. I had difficulty understanding the American workplace culture and that getting a job is all about marketing yourself properly.”
At first Venditti didn’t realize that her main obstacle was communication. “English language proficiency is not enough,” she says. “People’s eyes would glaze over when they couldn’t understand what I was trying to say because of my accent and the way I phrased my thoughts.”
It took Venditti three months to find a job after arriving in the United States. “I was so focused on survival that I was obsessed with finding work,” says Venditti, who landed her first position, which required knowledge of the Russian language, through a Californian she had previously met in Armenia.
“When my plane landed, I remember thinking, ‘America, get ready.
I’m here.’ I didn’t realize at the time that I wasn’t ready for America.”
Before finding that first job, Venditti had several failed interviews, including one with Harvard University. “The position was for an instructor of Russian, which I was qualified for, but the interview didn’t go well because I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says. “Even the way I dressed was incorrect. I showed up looking like I was about to dance in a long brown skirt with an amber belt, dangling earrings and boots. I also asked all of the wrong questions at the wrong times.”
Finally, after several years of observing corporate America, Venditti noticed that those in leadership positions are great communicators. “On an especially frustrating day I headed to a Barnes and Noble bookstore and found a book on communication skills,” she recalls. “As I leafed through its very valuable advice on how to become a better speaker, I thought, Theory is great, but I need systematic practice to improve. How am I going to get the experience? While I was contemplating this, I found the authors’ last and most important recommendation: Join Toastmasters!”
Within a week Venditti had joined the Wooster Height’s Toastmasters club in Danbury, Connecticut. “Determined to take care of my shortcomings as soon as possible, at my first meeting I scheduled 10 speeches back to back.”
Venditti went on to help found the Diversity-USA Toastmasters club and Barnum Square Toastmasters, and says, “Joining Toastmasters was the best thing that could happen to me.”
“There was an opening at the company where I was working, and I wanted the job, which required that I give a presentation,” she says. “I got the job.”
Richard Hastings met Venditti at the Wooster Heights club when she joined in 2000. He’s seen her communication and leadership skills grow over the last eight years. “Nara is the poster child for Toastmasters,” he says. “She really is the quintessential success story. She left everything behind in a country with a lot of restrictions, came to the United States and turned to Toastmasters to improve her lot in life.”
Having seen results in her own life, Venditti is dedicated to helping other U.S. immigrants. “Communication breaks down when there are no cultural connects,” she says. “There are so many more things to consider besides knowing the language – such as what to wear, how to handle yourself, appropriate gender interaction and even how to properly shake hands. And this applies to cultures throughout the world.”
Eva Agolli immigrated to the U.S. from Albania in 1998 because of dim prospects in her country caused by civil war. She met Venditti in 2003, and her life immediately improved.
“I was working as a waitress and Nara told me about Toastmasters, which I began attending,” says Agolli, who also took some of Venditti’s programs at a local university.
Eventually Agolli earned her real estate license and found she liked being a realtor, but Venditti pushed her even further until she found her dream job, which combined real estate, her education and work she had done in Albania. “If it hadn’t been for Nara and Toastmasters, I wouldn’t have found the perfect job,” she says.
Venditti plans to continue helping immigrants like Agolli with even more programs and publications. She teaches non-native participants how to communicate in English and do well in the American workplace. She also coaches international professionals using video and phone technology.
Venditti’s programs are so well received that she recently held courses at Yale University and was invited to present at Harvard: Proof that with Toastmasters’ help she’s definitely come full circle!
Julie Bawden Davis is a freelance writer and longtime contributor to this magazine. She lives in Southern California. Reach her at Julie@JulieBawdenDavis.com.
Editor’s Note: Do you have an inspiring story of how the Toastmasters program has helped you? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org.