„Social Background is an Important Diversity Factor”

From Zero to Hero: Natalya Nepomnyashcha's Exceptional Path to a New Life and an Amazing Career

by Natascha Zeljko (transcription)

The chances of making it upwards from precarious circumstances as an immigrant child are slim. Natalya Nepomnyashcha nevertheless succeeded and made the best of it; She has founded netzwerk-chancen.de, which supports young, talented people on their career path

I was born in Kiev on 30 November, 1989, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, and completed elementary school there. At the time, the Soviet Union no longer existed. My parents had lost their jobs shortly before I started school, both having been employed in state enterprises which were closed after the end of the planned economy. Since then, both have been unemployed.

In 2001 the possibility arose to emigrate to Germany as contingent refugees due to our Jewish origin. We arrived on 6 March, 2001. I was eleven years old and did not speak a word of German. Although we immediately received an unlimited residence permit, we were limited to one federal state as contingent refugees, in our case Bavaria. My mother’s sister already lived in Augsburg, which is why we finally settled there.

We were first accommodated in a dormitory; I was placed in a transitional class for pupils who do not speak German in order to learn the language as quickly as possible. Normally, after one year you are distributed among the three different types of schools. Normally. With me, however, it was the case that after three quarters of a year the exam was suddenly to be taken without prior notice –  a decision that would determine our future fate. We were taken by bus to the school office and were tested in German, English, and math. I was told that I was not good enough for Gymansium [higher-level high school] and should go to Realschule [middle division of high school]. There was no individual consideration; no one made the effort to analyze each individual’s potential. They asked us a few vocabulary words and believed that they could make a qualified decision about whether the student would make it to Gymnasium. And in my case it was denied. That was a key moment – this experience had a strong influence on me. I always wanted to prove that I had the abilities and the potential. I succeeded in doing that later, through detours and on my own initiative.

“Gymnasium? It’s not for you.”

But back then, I had to put up with the decision. At the age of 12, I entered the sixth grade of a Realschule for girls. My grades were okay at the beginning, and then they became really good. In the 9th grade, I had an average of 1.3 [A average] and a scholarship from the Robert Bosch Foundation, “Talent im Land,” which promotes young, talented immigrants. And I made another attempt – I gathered all my courage and went alone to the local Gymnasium. I had an interview with a member of the headmaster’s staff and said that I would like to move to the 10th grade of the school after the summer holidays. He just looked at me and finally said that I didn’t belong there. I should instead finish my Realschule in peace, I would find it difficult enough to graduate. That ignited tremendous anger in me. I still remember these people today. I thought to myself: I’ll show him!

I finished the 10th grade; I was the only one in the class with an A in German. Because I had an overall A average, the school office automatically registered me at the Gymnasium – it was the school that had rejected me a year before. I didn’t want to go there and declined.

I was 17 and moved to Munich alone and started academic training as a foreign language correspondent. There was also a specialized academy in the same building, and after finishing, I then trained as a translator and interpreter. This qualification, in turn, is internationally recognized as a bachelor’s degree. This meant I could study! At the age of 21, I went to England and completed my master’s in international politics in one year. I saved the money for England with part-time jobs in Munich. It was a hard time, I really turned every cent over twice.  

I was not discriminated against. But I was denied many opportunities

Looking back, I would not say that I was systematically discriminated against. I do believe, however, that I was denied many opportunities and that obstacles were put in my way, due in large extent to the multi-tiered school system. Because wherever barriers arise, people fall through the cracks. And these are, above all, children with a migration background and from families with little education. Neither of my parents are academics and still speak very little German. They were both just under 50 when they came to Germany. They were already too old for a real new beginning. But as far as I was concerned, they were always very ambitious. When I came home with a B, the first question was always whether there was an A in the class. They could only help me to a limited extent with the subject matter, but they always supported me morally. And they really wanted me to study.

If these hurdles were removed, many more young people would have the opportunity to develop their talents. Whether one succeeds shouldn’t depend on luck or one’s own inner resilience. I believe we need a system and structures that do not demand it from everyone who grows up with bad starting conditions. Yes, I am resilient. But not everyone is like that. That is not a standard.

Unfortunately, there were no role models or mentors who would have accompanied me on my way. But my studies in Great Britain had a great influence on me. We were encouraged to think critically, it wasn’t about memorizing something. Instead, you write many, many papers. Argumentation technique was important; the ability to differentiate. That prepares you well for what becomes important later.

I had no network – but a huge lack of information

But at the beginning, nothing happened. I moved to Berlin in 2012 like everyone else who wants to do something in the political arena. I was quite self-confident and thought, “I speak five languages, I studied in England, everyone will want me.” I was bitterly surprised because nobody wanted me. I sent 80 applications. That was hard. I applied to political consultancies, especially in the German-Russian field. Nothing. And little by little I realized that you can only succeed here if you have a network, which I didn’t have. I had a huge lack of information. I didn’t know where to turn or who was important. I didn’t know that internships were crucial – nobody ever told me that. And this deficit accompanies many young people from precarious backgrounds.

I started to network excessively. I joined various associations, was at some foreign policy event  every evening, and I volunteered my time. That can be a great stepping stone. At some point I actually got a job that was created especially for me – I became a project manager at the German-Russian Young Leaders Conference. It was quite a long way.

I spent a few years working in the international relations and international understanding segment. First in the German-Russian area and then for a West African NGO. At some point I said to myself, “I know non-profit, now I would like to see what the ‘evil’ for-profit world is like.” For one and a half years I have been working for the PR agency Schoesslers, which specializes in the digital economy. The job is great fun for me. It was the right decision. And besides, I built up my own social business: Netzwerk Chancen [“network opportunities”].

Social background is an important diversity factor

It all started with a book: “Du bleibst was du bist” [“You stay as you are”] by Marco Maurer. That was at the end of 2015. The book is about exactly how strongly social origin dictates a career path later on – or prevents careers. The idea was to lobby for subjects such as the abolition of the multi-tiered school system, the abolition of the ban on cooperation. We have created a network for civil society organizations in the field of child and youth education. We’ve offered workshops on fundraising, public relations, and lobbying. We have ascertained that there are many organizations that look after children and youth from precarious backgrounds, but later, when they grow up, there is hardly any support left, except for Arbeiterkind [workers’ children’s organization] who support workers’ children to study at universities. What was completely missing was an organization that took care of career starters. That’s why, in June 2018, we launched Netzwerk Chancen. Aufsteiger [“Network Opportunities. Climber”]. This is our second, now larger, program. We support 450 young people between the ages of 18 and 39 who come from financially weak or educationally disadvantaged families. We offer workshops on subjects such as mindset, rhetoric, networking skills, and career planning. We also offer company contacts as the jobs are, of course, often assigned personally and not through job advertisements. We also organize inspirational talks where well-known personalities from politics and business talk about how they pushed themselves up.

Our goal is to bring the topic to companies and to raise awareness for it, because social background is also an important diversity factor. Companies should specifically promote young people from precarious backgrounds and try to put together teams from different social strata. The problem, as we often hear, is how do we measure this? Sometimes I think that people like to hide behind the argument that they can’t measure it, that they can’t see it, as with gender equality, for example. But nobody would openly say that they are against equal opportunities. There is still a long way to go, but it is worth it. It is so important that structures change. Because the fact that so many young people cannot develop their talents means that we are missing out on too much potential.

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