You must not be afraid to work hard. — Imagine if I had been lazy or too afraid to work hard. I don’t think any of my success would have been possible.
What must you become? — My small team, my kids, and my husband hear me say this frequently. What must someone change, learn or morph into if they want to live a powerful life? The key is being willing to become more with each new challenge. I wish more immigrants like me understood this because it is crucial to find the dream of positive, successful American life.
As a part of our series about immigrant success stories, I had the pleasure of interviewing Diana V (Venckunaite) who was born into poverty in a small town in Lithuania on the brink of the USSR’s collapse. At the age of five, her passage out of the country was denied by the Lithuanian government. Only her mother was given a visa, and believing that there was a better life in America for them both, and her grandmother left the country to pave a new way for the family. Diana’s mother was initially set to take six months before her return to bring them to America. Unfortunately, it would take over seven long years before Diana and her mother would be reunited. For the entire time, they communicated only by letters and phone calls. For the next seven years, she and her seventy-one-year-old grandmother would live in that same scarceness, dodging the mafia and avoiding death.
At the age of twelve, Diana finally arrived in the United States knowing only three English words and carrying only the clothes on her back.
She decided to change her course by refusing to become a victim of her circumstances. By the age of fourteen, Diana mastered the English language and the culture independently, without help from the government or anyone around her. Not one to back down from a challenge, she then graduated high school a full year early and completed a dual degree program offered by the University of Colorado in Boulder. She received both a BS in Molecular, Cellular, and Developmental Biology as well as a BS in Integrated Physiology.
Over her business career, Diana has led teams to success in the tech, government affairs, and communications sectors. She is also an accomplished award-winning keynote speaker. She is the founder & managing partner of AMP Learning and Development, a communication and presentation skills training start-up in Denver, CO. She’s a millennial, immigrant, leader, founder, mom, and wife who is truly living the American Dream!!!
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I grew up in a very impoverished ghetto on the outskirts of Kaunas in Lithuania. Up until I was five years old, and after my mother and father divorced, my mother, grandmother, and I lived in a tiny house with no real lock on the door and sporadic utilities. However, as a child, I would get lost in my imagination and spending time outdoors with nature. I loved squirrels in my grandmother’s garden, rabbits, and birds. I liked to pretend in all sorts of child-like ways, and my imagination was strong.
Growing up with not much to live on or entertain yourself does build strength in ways I never imagined. Even though we had nothing, we did possess one intangible item that kept us going, love. My grandmother was loving at every turn, and with her kind heart, discipline, and working each day to protect me, we endured through difficult dark situations.
I still remember to this day one instance when I was very young that really scared me. Late one evening, we heard gunshots coming from our neighbor’s house. The next morning when I was outside playing, I found bullet casings in my yard. Later that day, two police officers came to our home and told my grandmother not to say a word about what she heard, or we would be killed. They were corrupt cops who worked in conjunction with the local mafia, and the man killed was also a cop. As I said, these were dark times in a scary place. However, these moments in my childhood shaped me into the resilient person I am today. So out of the darkness came light.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell us the story?
Times in my country were violent, challenging, and dangerous constantly. From the Russians literally driving over people with tanks during an invasion to the mafia murdering my neighbor, there was terrifying turmoil all around my family and me. This living situation clearly alarmed my mother to the point that she decided to do something very risky and move us to the United States. But, this would not be an easy task, as it turns out. It would be costly, and there were no guarantees for us in America. The basic plan was that mom would immigrate to America first. My grandmother would stay with me in Lithuania until mother could get everything set up, obtain our visas, and arrange enough money to move us. This effort was planned to take six months, but as it turns out, it would be seven years later before my grandmother, and I could leave the country to start our new life.
I lived for that entire seven years without my mother. People ask me why she was separated from me for so long, and the answer is tragically simple. After mom arrived in America, set up her life, and obtained enough money to hire a lawyer to assist, the Lithuanian government had essentially closed the door to children and other family members who wanted to flee the country. My grandmother and I were essentially trapped there for the entire seven years while my mother worked diligently to find a path forward for us.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
By the time I finally literally fled the country with my grandmother, a small backpack, and the clothes on my back, I was twelve years old and only spoke three words of English. I was excited, scared, and yet strangely optimistic. After all, I had heard of America, and I assumed that life would be easier for us. When I landed in Colorado and met my mother again, I felt strangely distant from her after seven long years. I would need to get to know her all over again. She had also married a man who was an immigrant here from Russia, so we worked to build a relationship as a family.
My first adventure in America was as a middle school student, knowing only three words of English! Again, my young life of peril and poverty ignited in me a drive to want more and become more for my life. I had no help from any government agency or even my school. So I taught myself English utilizing children’s books, as well as watching American movies. By the age of fourteen, I was fluent in English, and I was starting to realize that if I wanted the American Dream, I would need to work hard for it, with ZERO excuses. And, I would need to learn to become a master communicator of my ideas, thinking, and strength. No one was going to do it for me.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
My grandmother was always by my side. She indeed was a tough, amazing, powerful role model. She was a woman who had lived through the Great Depression, WWII hiding from the Germans and the Russians, all of the turmoil of the Russian invasion, and raising me all by herself in those conditions I mentioned earlier. She gave me strength, stability and I felt safe with her.
So how are things going today?
Well, I feel amazing about my life! I finished college with two degrees, have had and continue to have an amazingly diverse career, and I am married to an awesome husband. We are parents, friends, and we build each other up daily. We have had hard times too, but because we both push hard to be better than we were yesterday, life is more fun, even in the sometimes struggle. In many ways, my life is a dream come true, but I find the strength to persevere even on hard days.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
My passion is people and their growth. I have been so fortunate to explore building companies, trying new things in business, and ultimately have found success in a big way with a company I founded in 2019, AMP Learning and Development (A Master Presenter). We teach presentation skills excellence to corporations and individuals all over the world. I am so grateful for my past struggle. It made me who I am as an entrepreneurial leader and keynote speaker. It also gave me the perspective to see the best in others.
My company, AMP (https://AMPLD.com), works to help people unlock their potential just like I did when I came to America. We teach very advanced presentation skills mastery and help our participants to become more each session of learning. It is ironic that I now have a team leading others on how to present and communicate properly. I think my challenge with learning English under dire circumstances has taught me to appreciate the language along with how to articulate it.
You have first hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you suggest to improve the system?
First off, legal immigration is critical to this country. My family is proof that you can come here legally. All immigration systems can and should evolve, but compared to the Lithuanian governmental system’s mess back when I was a child, America is doing better. I would like to see more thoughtful approaches for people like my mother and me, who simply want to come here, acclimate to the American way of life, and are willing to do the work to learn the language, adopt the customs, and build a new life. I also wish there had been tools and people when I arrived to help me learn the language faster. Then again, I think my self-education experience built character!
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or example for each.
- You must not be afraid to work hard. — Imagine if I had been lazy or too afraid to work hard. I don’t think any of my success would have been possible.
- What must you become? — My small team, my kids, and my husband hear me say this frequently. What must someone change, learn or morph into if they want to live a powerful life? The key is being willing to become more with each new challenge. I wish more immigrants like me understood this because it is crucial to find the dream of positive, successful American life.
- There is no going back, and you would not want to even if you could. — I often wondered what would have happened to me if I had been able to leave as planned earlier in my childhood. Would I have been seasoned in the same manner? Most likely not. Once you accept that you can’t change the past, and would not want to anyway, then you can truly push forward to a new version of yourself.
- No one owes you ANYTHING! — Truly, I have never felt that I was guaranteed or owed anything. All that I am and have I worked for, diligently. Stop thinking that America owes you something for free. Sure, I wish I was offered help to learn the language, but it was not something America owed me for my family’s choice to come here.
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
Opportunity, opportunity, opportunity — America is still a land of vast opportunity for those willing to dig in, drop excuses, become more, and make things happen. I am living proof of this concept. Covid was a challenge, but we can make more of this life for those of us who are still here and are surviving, regardless of circumstance. This country is still among the best on earth. Yet, we are told it’s not by media, social media, and the countless opinions of those who choose to rip apart this beautiful nation instead of becoming adept at grabbing an opportunity. Complaining is easy. Working hard for what you want is difficult, but the reward is WAY better.
America is still an amazing place to live with tons of opportunity. Here are three quick items that could be improved in my opinion:
- Push kids to be more self-sufficient and resilient. — We work on this with our kids regularly. American children seem to be a very pampered group, but we as parents are the reason for this problem. As Americans, we need to put some of that old-school grit back into our schools, homes and ensure our kids learn to pick themselves back up when they falter.
- Don’t lump in ALL immigrants. — I am sure this will be a bit controversial, but Americans need to be more discerning about judging immigrants in general. Some of us work hard, learned the language, assimilated, and continue to thrive alongside you as citizens because we fought hard to be here. People in our lives paid huge prices, sacrificed in ways you can’t imagine, and even were separated from our loved ones for a long time, all so we could be an American WITH YOU. We are not all taking from others with no effort. And we LOVE America!
- Realize what you all have. — As an American now, with the perspective of what it means to live in a country of fear, I wake up each day and count my blessings. I am living and thriving in a country filled with hope, beauty, and opportunity. The rest of the born Americans also need to remember this each day. For those of us who came here and are realizing the American Dream, we will never stop being grateful for this country. You should be grateful too.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
My husband and I are both fascinated with Grant and Elena Cardone. Meeting them both for coffee or lunch would truly be an honor. Learning their success skills, the adversity they faced in their business and marriage, and their way of thinking about life would be inspiring for us both.
What is the best way our readers can further follow your work online?
AMPLD.com — Our company AMP Learning and Development, Home of the A Master Presenter Program.
About AMP: https://www.ampld.com/why-amp/
“We are trainers, leaders, presenters, and experts in presentation skills who are obsessed with helping people learn. The AMP team is a Colorado-based group of dedicated people with experience in leadership, keynote presentations, training, coaching, human resources, start-ups, and sales management. We have focused our unique backgrounds to deliver learning with the main focus: presentation skills excellence. Our goal is to AMP-up your team’s performance so they can present their ideas effectively, consistently, and with impact.”
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
I am so grateful to you for this interview. I only hope and pray that my ideas are shared and help someone out there who is losing hope or facing adversity beyond what they think they can handle. To that person, I say, you are built for more, and if you are willing to become all that you were meant to be, the sky is the limit. The American Dream can be in your future!