Ann Arbor's Maria Petrenko: A child of perestroika believes in Detroit's future
Where many people view Detroit’s downward spiral as unstoppable, she sees the city as a blank canvas that will, no doubt, turn into a work of art in only a few years.
World poverty? That’s fixable too, she believes, if everyone chips in to help.
There’s a powerful reason for Maria’s optimism. She was born in the former U.S.S.R. in a provincial city called Taganrog, part of a communist society that did all it could to stifle her creativity. Yet, at age 35, she owns her own successful company in Ann Arbor, Hadrout Advertising+Technologies, which provides creative services to small and medium-size businesses.
If she can make that improbable journey, what dream is impossible?
In the government-subsidized community housing project she grew up in, 10 families shared one bathroom and one shower - despite the fact that both her parents were nuclear engineers. They earned only $40 a month for their highly skilled labor.
Maria showed aptitude for engineering at an early age and the communist regime made sure she attended schools where that talent would be honed. Even though she didn’t want to be a scientist, her career path seemed preordained until Mikhail Gorbachev came along.
Maria vividly remembers when the “informational vacuum” in her country was almost magically lifted by a cultural phenomenon that had already taken hold in the U.S. “MTV came to (Russia) and it all happened,” she says, very seriously. “We were the kids of perestroika.”
In 1992, as the world around her was changing at light speed, Maria enrolled at Taganrog State University, where she attended Janis Joplin and Nirvana listening parties and eventually earned a degree in information systems in economics.
She had long recognized that her true passions were drawing and travel, and when she graduated she decided to take advantage of the new opportunities available to Russians. She enrolled at Michigan State University, halfway across the planet, to pursue a master’s degree in advertising. It was the ideal combination of skills and passions, and Maria has never looked back.
She earned her degree in 2000 and ended up in New York City with Cox Advertising. She excelled, earning a nice salary and an office with a window. She was living the dream. That is, until she discovered that “the dream wasn’t the dream. It wasn’t working for me.”
So she quit her job and used her savings to travel the world on a quest for “self discovery.” After three or four months, she ended up back in Michigan. “I could live anywhere in the world,” she says. “I like it here.”
She especially loves the vibe in Detroit, which she recommends as a great investment opportunity. She’s doing more than talking; she’s a collaborator in a Detroit cigar bar called La Casa de la Habana.
She believes locals too often look for excuses not to invest in Detroit. The people opening businesses there, Maria says, are often from other countries, including Mexico and Russia, who are struck by Detroit’s affordable rents and entrepreneur-friendly regulations.
“Instead of complaining, we actually do,” she says, “In seven years, (Detroit’s comeback) will be a given.”
Still, even with all her local interests, Maria loves to travel. Last year alone she visited 24 countries. But she’s not a typical tourist.
During a visit to the Dominican Republic several years ago, she saw shocking poverty that weighed on her conscience. When she returned home, she Googled “volunteering internationally.” That led to a trip with Habitat for Humanity to Mahalapye, Botswana, a city beset by runaway HIV infection rates.
Maria saw on that trip that she could make a difference, and was hooked. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do,” she says. Since then, Habitat has become her “hobby/passion/lifestyle.”
She’s become an ambassador for Habitat for Humanity International and an International Global Village Team leader, working to end homelessness and poverty housing in Haiti, Africa, India and Malaysia, among other countries.
This year, she’s leading two more Habitat trips - to Armenia in June and Cambodia in November. She’s talked her friends into volunteering with Habitat, and they all end up doing it more than once. “If everybody would do this, the world would be a beautiful place,” she says. (If you’re interested in volunteering, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
She realizes that not everyone will be as enthusiastic about Habitat as she is, and that’s OK. She thinks Americans see the world too much in black and white, and that reflects in our volunteerism. For many, it’s either join the Peace Corps for two years and give up everything else in your life, or don’t volunteer at all, Maria says. She tells people it’s enough to volunteer occasionally: “There is such a thing as volunteering half-ass.”
Of course, that’s not for her. She wants to look back one day and see that by helping people help themselves, she’s contributed, just a little, to the world being more just. “Push them a little bit, they will roll,” she says.
And she plans to do a lot more pushing.
Kyle Poplin is owner of The Ann magazine, which is inserted in various print editions of this newspaper. He’s also searching, through this column, for the most interesting person in Ann Arbor. If you have anyone in mind, email your idea to email@example.com.