Optimism as a Choice | Interview with Sarah Williamson

Last month, the American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia (AmCham) held its annual General Assembly and elected Sarah Williamson-Chirakadze as the President, who had held the same position in previous years. What experiences and learning opportunities have led her to become a professional in the field? How does the new President assess AmCham’s achievements and plans? What will be her leadership strategy in times of crisis? Sarah Williamson-Chirakadze sat down with Forbes Woman Georgia to discuss her views and expectations.

Photo Credits to Anna Kostomarova

Life in the United States

I come from a very loving family from Texas. My father is a doctor, and my mother is a stockbroker. I’ve got two younger brothers and my husband, who is Georgian. He always says that my family is more Georgian than most Georgians. I think the Southern US is generally more similar to Georgia than the North. From that perspective, I think it was easier for me to adapt to the Georgian culture.

I had always seen my father work and succeed professionally. However, watching my mother, who had a job and simultaneously was a stay-at-home mom for most of my childhood, finish her degree and even get into being a stockbroker was a real inspiration for me—a true image of a strong woman. I have a good relationship with both of my parents.

I went to college in Texas. My educational background is in hotel management-not at all what I’m doing here. However, my educational experiences have contributed a lot to what we have done at UGT (a leading system integrator and solutions provider in the Georgian IT market). Before I even finished school, I had started working in a management and training program at the hotel that I was working with and ended up being in higher sales positions and revenue management.

Then I met my husband.

We met online in the mid-nineties, which nobody did at that time. He had just started UGT a month or two earlier. Back then, most people didn’t have the internet and used it very little for work. We met in a technical software training chat room. Not so romantic, but always a good story for an IT company. At the time, I didn’t know I was talking to a technician from the country of Georgia. I thought he was just two states over. Once I figured that out, it was a bit of a shock. That’s how our story started.

Three months later, he came to the United States and stayed for a month, and then I came back to Georgia with him. We used to always be on a two-year plan, meaning we’d stay in Georgia for two years. I had a great career going in the management company I was working for in the US, and he was starting with UGT in Georgia. Therefore, it was a big gamble, whether it was better to move to the United States or move to Georgia, but we decided to give it a try. UGT was a startup, and we both poured everything we had into it. In retrospect, I think we made the right decision. Our two-year plan turned into a five-year plan, and now it’s been about two decades spent in Georgia.

American Chamber of Commerce in Georgia – Main Achievements

AmCham is the largest international business chamber in Georgia, founded in 1998. Its primary objective is to promote US-Georgian relations and improve Georgia’s business environment.

In the early years, AmCham‘s work was truly phenomenal and exceptional since we didn’t have partners like the Business Association of Georgia (BAG) and others, as we do now, who would share some of the most crucial responsibilities.

We did a tax reform project sponsored by USAID that entailed writing about 90% of the Tax Code. The Tax Code needed fundamental reform and has continued to change throughout the years. This was probably our first massive legislative initiative and the first huge win.

Together with EBRD, AmCham and BAG were the founding idea makers of the Investor Council that is still active today, chaired by the Prime Minister, and hopefully serves as a lasting institutional influence.

One of the main domains of our work is, of course, maintaining the network of about 220 members of AmCham and trying to constantly advocate for their needs and issues, whether with the government or each other. We strive to facilitate partnerships and trade with the US, Europe, and other places.

AmCham has been involved in most of Georgia’s major economic reforms. We hear about Georgia being noticed worldwide as one of the best-performing countries. AmCham has certainly been behind a lot of those achievements.

Photo Credits to Anna Kostomarova

Georgia’s Investment Climate – Key Issues and Accomplishments

One of the first things that come to mind is tourism growth. Until this year, Georgia’s tourism growth has been phenomenal and very much deserved. Georgia is a great place visit. I see a huge potential in this regard. We’ve also seen some expansion of investment in energy, retail, transport.

Georgians are very critical of reality because naturally, we want to do better. This is a necessary and healthy approach because it serves as a driving force for advancement. Sometimes, we have to take a step back and look at the bigger picture to realize that Georgia has maintained stability in an extremely turbulent region. Bouncing back from the Russian embargo years ago, surviving the 2008 war, handling different political riots – one crisis after another, Georgia has maintained resilience. That’s because, at its core, Georgia is a Western-oriented democratic country, much more than any other country in this region.

Mid-Pandemic and Post-Pandemic Reality

Pandemic has created many obstacles for everyone, including the business sector. During these unprecedented times of crisis, it’s hard to maintain a positive attitude. However, I think of optimism as a choice – the one we have to make every day. I choose to look at the opportunities that stem from the ongoing crisis. I ask myself – What can we do? What can we learn from this experience?

Long before the pandemic started, Georgia was positioned as a strong regional hub. Given our agreements with the EU, the DCFTA, for example, and other free trade agreements in the area, I think Georgia should continue to focus on that plan. Added to this, there is lots of talk of ‘near-shoring’  which could create opportunities for us given the EU agreement and investor desire to move away from China.

We also need to continue to focus on tourism, construction, banking, and generally bringing more money into these traditionally strong sectors.

Georgia is a relatively inexpensive tourist destination. In the post-pandemic period, people will be looking to travel, but they’re also going to need to be more economically conscious than ever before. This gives Georgia a chance to capitalize on these issues.

Photo Credits to Anna Kostomarova

Leadership Strategy and Future Plans

To lead a business association, one must prioritize collective needs. That’s the strategy I follow in decision-making processes. I ask myself – What’s best for AmCham and its business community? As a President, I continue to commit to this approach, knowing it will lead me to a decision or a solution that suits everyone’s needs. As any leader, I rely on my team. AmCham’s success is deeply rooted in the trust that team members formed years ago. Under my leadership, we continue being committed to our goals and serve our purpose by working together.

The only way that AmCham stays as strong as it does is the continuous engagement of the members. Therefore, focusing on finding ways to keep the membership engaged is a top priority.

As for the plans – we’ll be looking to make another D.C. trip. The pandemic has created much chaos around the world. Therefore, it’s hard for our partner countries to pay as much attention to Georgia as we need them to. We’re going to work really hard to keep Georgia on the radar, not just in D.C., but in Europe too.

AmCham will continue to push for improvements in the rule of law, as certain judiciary issues still need to be fixed. Right now, we aim to jump out of the pandemic as fast as we can with the least economic damage.

Women’s Empowerment

We should support women by letting them define what womanhood and success mean to them. We should encourage them to be true, authentic versions of themselves.

My advice to women would be to take the time to think hard and figure out what they want to do; Not be afraid, embarrassed, or ashamed of many things that families and society put on us. I am a wife and mother. I have three children. I have a career and a desire to be a strong, contributing, member of society, as well. I know of the many responsibilities we, as women, have and all of them are important and cannot be ignored. I believe life is all about balance and every individual has to be free, and supported, in finding their own. I strongly advocate for self-prioritization, when it comes to finding this balance, because that’s the only way we can be better fulfilled for ourselves and everybody else around us. That said, it’s become an undeniable fact that women in the workplace, especially in the companies and organizations where they are naturally treated equally to their male counterparts, have a positive impact on their companies, their families and society in general. Therefore, it is important, as we develop as a society, to support allowing families, not just women, to better balance the many responsibilities we all have outside the workplace. This starts at home, but flows through every aspect of life. We need to teach our sons to do laundry and prepare meals, just like our daughters, and we need to talk to our daughters about Economics, Science and Math, as a few examples, the same as we do our sons.