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Mairam Omurzakova

Artisan and Entrepreneur

Kochkor, Kyrgyzstan

I'd worked in the classroom my entire adult life, and at 46 years old, I felt like a student again. So I studied.

I live and grew up in a small town in central Kyrgyzstan. I had been teaching high school for 22 years when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Our salaries stopped. My husband and I kept working our jobs, which we saw as essential to supporting the community, even when we didn't get paid. But now we had to figure out how to support six children as well.

One day, two developmental aid volunteers from Switzerland came to our house. They wanted to look at our “shyrdaks” – the traditional felt carpets found in most Kyrgyz homes. A bit of explanation: Kyrgyzstan is a nation of nomads. In the summers, we go up into the mountains, raise sheep and live in yurt camps where shyrdaks serve as warm, decorative ground mats in each family's yurt. This way of life has always been meaningful to me.

The Swiss visitors loved our carpets and suggested we make and sell them for money. Nothing sounded more ridiculous to my ears. Making shyrdaks is simply part of our culture. To me, the rugs had spiritual and functional (not financial) value. Making rugs is therapeutic. It’s our way of life. That it was worth money...that was an idea that required me to change my fundamental view of the world.

“Entrepreneurship” was another foreign concept to me. As a member of the just-former Soviet Union, I didn’t know anything about marketing, customer service or pricing. “Material costs” were new. “Time cost” seemed like a silly abstraction. I'd worked in the classroom my entire adult life, and at 46 years old, I felt like a student again.

So I studied. Every day after teaching, I began learning business skills and worked on rugs. I invited other women from our town and the neighboring villages to help create rugs for our growing base of European customers. I knew these women were talented artisans, and that they deserved an opportunity. Those were the beginnings of our little handicrafts cooperative.

Almost 20 years have passed since then. Our cooperative now provides jobs for over 1,000 craftswomen across the region. We've held exhibitions in Europe and the US, and have traveled around the world to tell people about Kyrgyzstan.

Back when communism first fell apart, I would have been shocked to learn that a solution to our financial problems lay in a hidden opportunity so close to home. I also did not understand the courage and the flexibility I had buried deep within. I am glad I know those things about myself now. I am proud that I made such a dramatic change in my own life, and that this change has positively impacted the lives of my family and the people in our community.

Mairam Omurzakova is an artisan whose shyrdaks are featured on GlobeIn.