A love of language began at an early age for Elaine Amir, who started learning a second language when she was eight in Hebrew school. Then came Latin, French and Russian.
The latter became a consuming interest for Amir, who has three degrees related to Russian literature, language, studies or government, and another degree near completion.
“I found studying Russian interesting because when I was going to college, the world was challenging, and we didn’t understand the Russians,” she said. “I wanted to understand the other side and figure out how to bring people together.”
Amir first visited Russia in 1972 in the midst of the Cold War, more than a decade before the Berlin Wall fell.
“Since I knew the language, I would step outside the tour group and meet people on the street,” she said. “It was a lot of fun and really interesting to hear what they had to say.”
Communication and bringing people of different backgrounds together are key themes of Amir’s work throughout her career in education, management, workforce development and other positions at Johns Hopkins University, Montgomery College, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and more.
She has supplemented her work with heavy involvement in professional, business and community organizations such as the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce, Tech Council of Maryland and Leadership Montgomery.
Come Sept. 30, Amir is retiring after more than 16 years as executive director of Hopkins’ Montgomery County campus. The Rockville resident plans to take time to consider her next step in life, but will remain in the area.
“Elaine has so many talents,” said Gigi Godwin, president and CEO of the Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce. “She has been a wonderful board member for the chamber. She’s so dedicated to building the future of this community and the local economy.”
Growing up in Wilmington, Del., Amir was the middle child and developed her negotiating skills early.
“I was the referee who pulled my siblings together,” she said. “That was where my real training started.”
After earning a bachelor’s degree in Russian area studies and government at Barnard College in New York, she landed a job as a translator for the Current Digest of the Soviet Press journal. She then won a scholarship to go to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where she earned a master’s degree in education and Russian language.
Amir remained in that area, taking a Russian and French teaching position at Newton South High School in Newton, Mass.
Her studies took her to Cornell, Stanford and Northwestern universities, along with a workforce development and training position with the civil rights organization Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the Chicago area.
“They kidded me about not knowing Swahili since I knew all these other languages,” Amir said.
With her vast international language and studies background, some friends and family members thought Washington was a natural locale for Amir. But upon arrival, she gravitated more toward the workforce development field than international affairs.
She worked for Wider Opportunities for Women, training inner-city, minority single mothers to work in electronics, construction and similar trades. She then worked for occupational testing and assessment firm Technical Occupations Employment Group, where she later became CEO.
“I realized that, whether it’s business, workforce development or education, it’s all about communication and understanding other people,” Amir said.
She landed a position at Montgomery College as dean of business, industry and government services. Then, in 1997, she moved over to Hopkins’ growing campus in the midst of the Shady Grove Life Sciences Center to become executive director.
When she arrived at Hopkins, there was one building. The campus now has three buildings, with a new 575,000-square-foot National Cancer Institute building next door. Student enrollment has climbed from 800 in 1,988 to more than 4,000 pursuing degrees and certificates in more than 50 programs.
The campus includes more than 200,000 square feet of office, education and lab space and houses more than 30 companies in a collaborative environment.
“Elaine had that vision for the future of bringing those companies to the campus,” Godwin said.
Amir’s vision for the campus helped propel it to a place where academia, government and business have come together in a collaborative way, said Aris Melissaratos, senior adviser to the president for enterprise development at Hopkins and a former Maryland secretary of business and economic development.
“She has been very involved in Montgomery County, representing Johns Hopkins’ and Montgomery County’s interests in an enthusiastic way that was contagious and got everyone involved,” he said.
The environment helps younger businesses develop, said Roberto Trujillo, CEO of TruBios, one of the companies at the Rockville campus, during a recent chamber event where Amir accepted the Visionary Award on behalf of the campus.
“On a daily basis, we share information that benefits our research and our businesses, and we invite other researchers to come and join the campus,” Trujillo said. “We are a community of students, yes, but we are also a community of entrepreneurs, making connections every day.”
That’s exactly what Amir sought to do. She hopes the campus continues with its plan to add companies, a conference center, hotel and more.
“We (company leaders) got to start talking with each other, and they are bringing new people to campus all the time,” Amir said.