Published: Jan. 11, 2023

Ben Lourie photoBenjamin Lourie graduated from CU Boulder in 2016 with a double major in International Affairs and Russian. You can read about Ben's Global Grant scholarship experience in the spring of 2015 when he studied at St. Petersburg State University.

After graduating from CU, Ben received a Fulbright grant in Russia and taught English at Gorno-Altaisk State University in Siberia. After his Fulbright year and a year working at non-profits in the Netherlands, Ben returned to the United States to get an MBA at Georgetown University in the McDonough School of Business. Following his time at Georgetown Ben moved to Moscow for work, and later moved to Tbilisi due to the war in Ukraine. Currently, Ben works in Tbilisi, Georgia (pictured above) for Lightspeed Commerce as a Product Manager.

We interviewed Ben via email in January, 2023 - below is his full interview!

You can also read more about Ben's experiences in the Colorado Arts and Sciences Magazine article titled "Having built a business in Russia, alum fled as war began," published on Feb 15, 2023.

What was your favorite part about your time at CU?

Ironically, my most fond memories of my time at CU were when I was not in Boulder. I studied abroad twice in St. Petersburg. The first time was a summer seminar after my freshman year. That summer seminar strongly impacted the path I would take with my focus on Russia and opened my eyes to how little I really understood Russia. After struggling to communicate during those 6 weeks, I committed to improving my Russian once I was back home and immersed myself in the language as much as I could. I returned to Russia for a full semester a year and a half later, and the studying paid off as I could communicate with ease. I made a lot of Russian friends who I still keep in touch with and meet up with to this day. Those study abroad experiences really shaped me as a person, but it was the time spent at CU leading up to both stays in Russia that really prepared me so that I could enjoy them so deeply.

What did you enjoy most about the IAFS Program?

I firmly believe the IAFS program does a great job of teaching critical thinking rather than just memorizing facts. We didn’t just learn the facts of what’s happening in the world, but we were always looking to connect the dots. I specifically remember Professor Greg Young’s exams where we had to not only memorize definitions of key terms and events, but also had to explain their significance, being forced to answer “why do we care about this?” The critical thinking the IAFS Program imparts on its students is useful no matter what field you go into. During my time teaching at a university in a small town in Siberia through the Fulbright program, I made it my mission to impart the need to think critically on my students. Even if they forgot everything else, I wanted them to receive that piece of what I took away from the IAFS program.

photo of bedroom in a Russian host family homeBen's bedroom at his host family's home and his "hard, strange couch bed."

How did you decide where you wanted to study abroad? Looking back, how do you feel your Global Grant helped you study abroad, putting you on the road to your current work?

For me there was never any question that I would study in Russia. The first time I studied abroad I viewed it as a challenge to go outside of my comfort zone. I had already been studying Russian for a year and at the time, I was planning on a military career, so I thought it would be useful to become fluent in Russian. When I got to my home-stay—jet-lagged, hardly able to communicate with my host mom, and facing down my hard, strange couch bed that would be where I sleep for the next six weeks—it was clear I succeeded in getting outside my comfort zone. The second time I studied abroad it was with the goal to continue perfecting my Russian and my understanding of the country. That was in 2015, and now rather than dreaming of a military career, I was dreaming of having a positive impact on US-Russian relationships at a time when they were rapidly declining. 

While the Global Grant was not make or break to finance my study abroad experience, it was a positive signal to me that I was on the right path and gave me a deep feeling of accomplishment before I landed in St. Petersburg the second time around. I decided to use that money to fund a trip to the Caucasus, to Tbilisi, which ironically has now become my home.

You’ve lived in multiple countries. Is there an experience in a place that stands out for you?

I have to say opening a TexMex cafe in downtown Moscow is probably the experience that seems like it would take the cake. It was a massive undertaking that, in all honesty, I would probably not repeat. It put all of my language, cultural, business, and interpersonal skills to the test. After hurdle after hurdle, we managed to get the restaurant open in early February 2022.

All of that has now been overshadowed by a date later that month I will never forget - February 24, 2022, the day the full-scale invasion of Ukraine began. There are a number of memories associated with those first few weeks, but I think one of the most significant ones took place at the rooftop lounge of the (former) Ritz Carlton a few days after the invasion started. My wife and I were at a graduation ceremony for the international school where my wife taught science at the time. A close friend at the ceremony shared reliable rumors of anticipated civil unrest and/or implementation of martial law. The lounge overlooks the Kremlin, and I remember looking over those remarkable landmarks and wondering “What is going on in there?!” A few months later in Tbilisi, I even went back through notes from the Revolutions & Political Violence course taught by Professor Young as I tried to make some sense of what might happen next in Russia.

My friend’s words convinced me that despite having tickets booked already, I need to get out of Russia sooner. I vividly remember being on the second floor of that hotel trying to make a decision if we should spend thousands more dollars on two of the few remaining flights out. Ultimately, I booked two of the only tickets left - first-class flights to Yerevan a few days later. That night marked the end of that chapter in Russia for me and my wife.

What has been the most challenging aspect of living abroad?

In the past I probably would have said documents, as having the right documents is always stressful and something we take for granted living in the country where we are citizens. But I have found things with documents always tend to work out. Now I would have to say the impact of transiency on relationships is the most challenging aspect of living abroad. I saw my friend group in Moscow almost entirely change in the course of one year. Especially in Tbilisi, where Russians, Americans, and many other nationalities can live visa free, the barrier to arrive is low, which also means people are constantly coming and going. It is exhausting to continually invest in deep relationships with people who may disappear from your life (or you may disappear from theirs!) within a year.

For our new/recent alumni – what is the best piece of advice you can share if they would like to work internationally?

The first piece of advice is “Don’t give up.” I was very close to giving up many times. And that advice will also come in handy for the second thing I believe you should do, which is to learn the language of the place you want to go. Here I am being a bit hypocritical as I don’t speak Georgian, but between Russian and English I can talk to almost anyone in Tbilisi. Finally, I would say to check the local job sites of the country or countries where you would like to work (a lot easier if you know the language) and job postings on LinkedIn. That is how I got my prior job in Moscow and my current job in Tbilisi.

A lot of people tried to dissuade me from trying to build an international career, especially one tied with Russia. And while recent foreign events have proven Russia was not the most stable place to build a career, I wouldn’t change the choices I made or where I am at today. So know that there will be a lot of people who say it’s not possible. There is even a Russian expression “где родился там и пригодился” (roughly translates as “where you are from is where you will be useful”, except it rhymes and is catchier in Russian). Even if most people may not build a career internationally, don’t rule yourself out! You never know what people in another country may be missing out on and what you have to offer if you stay home.