A peek behind the Iron Curtain

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Former Russian translator for Nortel now uses communication skills to sell solar technology

One would think that Moscow in the chaotic months after the fall of the Iron Curtain would have been a very risky spot - especially for a young woman on her own.

But when Diana Livshits visited in the early 1990s as part of a delegation from Nortel Networks Corp., she says she got into more trouble with her parents than the locals.

"I decided to take a walk around my hotel in Moscow and as I was walking there was some sort of demonstration with a CBC crew filming it. I went up to chat and say, 'I'm from Canada' - because it was very rare," she recalls.

"And they said, 'Wait, we'll film you.' And I did; I waved. By the time I got to my hotel room, my parents were on the phone screaming at me: 'What the hell were you doing in the middle of a demonstration?'"

Her parents had reason to be worried. Relatives of Ms. Livshits, the founder of Krumpers Solar Solutions, were well-known as anti-Soviet. One of her grandfather's brothers, famous Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam, was imprisoned by then-Communist leader Joseph Stalin. Another - Leopold Manderstam - worked for renowned British spy agency MI6.

Born in Riga, Latvia's capital city, Ms. Livshits and her family moved to Canada when she was only 10 years old. She says they were sick of Stalin's policies and wanted a better life on Canadian soil.

They landed in Toronto. But before long, her father - who held a PhD in fibre optics - got a job offer in Ottawa from Bell-Northern Research, better known today as Nortel.

And it wasn't long before Ms. Livshits found herself following her father into the company and on to Russia. Nortel had identified business opportunities there, but, she says, it was in need of someone who understood the language.

"At the time, the Soviet Union had just fallen apart; even at the level of the Academy of Sciences, the scientific work was going through a very major contraction in Russia because there was no government funding or very little government funding," she says.

"So (the Russians) started to look at the outside opportunities available."

That's much like the Russia of today, which has been hammered by the global recession. But business practices in the former Communist state can sometimes scare investment away - doingbusiness.org, a website that ranks countries based on their attitudes toward foreign investment, ranked the Russian Federation 120th in the world in 2009.

She found it an exciting life, but says after a time she was ready to strike out on her own. Inspiration for her current line of work - a far cry from her previous career in Russia - came when she moved into her house with her husband and son six years ago.

Shocked at the heating bill for her older house, she began searching for inexpensive solutions and came across a Toronto company that offered climate-control blinds that heat the house in winter with reflected solar heat - and reverse the process in the summer. Using her communication skills from her earlier work, she soon began translating the power of solar energy into marketable terms for new customers.

And in the view of Ra'ed Arab, chief executive of Quadra Solar, Ms. Livshits made a smart business move in investing in solar products.

Even during this downturn, he says, his own company is ready to take advantage of feed-in tariffs the Green Energy Act is likely to provide.

"It hasn't been easy," he acknowledges, "(But) we're on the verge of announcing our financing, hopefully."

Organizations: Nortel Networks, CBC, Krumpers Solar Solutions Bell-Northern Research Academy of Sciences Russian Federation Green Energy

Geographic location: Moscow, Canada, Russia Toronto Riga Latvia Ottawa Soviet Union

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