Ballerina, Biologist, Future Businesswoman: Thinking Big in Albania

Girl prepares table for dinner at hotel.
Elvira Xhemalaj prepares a dinner table at a boutique hotel training center under USAID’s People First project.
Hung Vo, USAID
Youth gain skills to pursue careers in tourism
“My dream is to start my own hotel business, but one that’s a social enterprise.”

September 2018 — Since she was a child, Elvira Xhemalaj has been fascinated with nature. She grew up in the Albanian coastal city of Vlore, which is situated along the lush Albanian Riviera between the Adriatic and Ionian seas, separated only by a mountain pass. Growing up surrounded by fauna and flora led her to study biology at a local college.

In order to save enough money to pursue a graduate degree in biology in Tirana, Albania’s capital, Xhemalaj worked three jobs. One of those jobs, waitressing, was her first introduction to the field of hospitality, which ignited an interest in tourism.

Upon attaining her second degree in biology, Xhemalaj took an unexpected turn and sought training with USAID’s People First project, which provides youth and early career professionals with vocational training in tourism — an under-invested sector that has great economic potential in Albania. Xhemalaj is one of 1,700 Albanian youth selected to participate in the two-year project since its inception in September 2016.

The program also creates partnerships with prospective employers and helps participants, particularly youth and women, to gain employment after completing the training. Tourism and hospitality have historically been male-dominated professions in Albania.

However, Xhemalaj says that she has other goals. “I have a dream. It’s big and it’s important.”

Her goal to start her own business is novel in a country still influenced by its communist past when the government determined a person’s employment and career choices by requiring graduates to participate in state-run industries that needed labor. Xhemalaj’s father earned three different college degrees but was unable to work in his desired profession, civil engineering, and ultimately became a train conductor.

In the past, having personal aspirations only created disappointments. But today, people are free from government ideologies that placed the collective good over individual pursuits. The challenge for young people now is economic opportunity and gaining the required skills to meet market needs.

Xhemalaj is part of a new generation of youth in Albania who dare to think big.

“My dream is to start my own hotel business, but one that’s a social enterprise,” Xhemalaj confesses. “We don’t have that in Albania right now. I want to employ women, and I want to create opportunities for children and youth.”

Through People First, Xhemalaj and her peers receive a combination of classroom instruction and practical internship experience with a business. Even before completing the program, Xhemalaj was offered a job as a manager at a popular hotel in Tirana, where she had worked previously as a waitress. Nearly 400 people have been offered internships as a result of the USAID program, and over 200 have been employed.

“I smile a lot and am a friendly girl,” Xhemalaj says. “But I am thinking all the time — my brain is always thinking about the next thing.”

Xhemalaj developed a competitive spirit at an early age as a sprinter, winning her first competition when she was 11. Besides running, she also dances ballet. “Dancing is a way for me to express my emotions and bring joy not just to myself, but to others as well,” she says.

With ballet and biology among her arsenal of talents, Xhemalaj believes that the training she received through People First is equipping her with the skills, confidence and recognition to break down barriers and reach new objectives.

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Last updated: September 04, 2018

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