Thursday, August 18th, 2011
“My story about coming to America from Slovakia starts in 1995 and involves George Clooney. My sister, who is now a tunnel engineer, used to be a model. She was hired to be an extra in the movie, The Peacemaker, which was filmed in Slovakia and starred George Clooney and Nicole Kidman.
“I drove her to the audition and the producer saw me and asked, ‘Would you cut your hair?” I said, how much?! The producer took me on as an extra, too, and a stunt man because I used to do extreme sports. For six weeks, all of the actors lived in a close community, working 20 hour days, and learning how movies really are. They shoot the last scene first and the first scene last, and other stuff like that.
“One day, I was playing basketball with George Clooney and he asked me, through a friend because I didn’t speak English, what I wanted to do with my life. I said that I would like to live in your country. He said, “You can do it.” This was the first time that anybody had told me that I could do what I wanted. Don’t forget that I was born and grew up in a communist state. That place eliminates any dreams and ideas that you have by making you feel they are impossible. But, George told me that it was possible. Thanks to him, I set my mind on America and came here in February 2000.
“I am not sure how or why I was selected to get a visa, because they give so few, but it happened. At the time, I was at university in Slovakia pursuing my Ph.D in Sustainable Energy Efficient Building Systems. A funny story is that when I had my job interview with the engineering firm that was going to hire me, I had the call on speaker and my girlfriend translated the questions for me and wrote out the answers in English. I had no idea what I was saying.
“My first job was in Leesburg, Virginia doing traffic light design. I had never done that kind of work, but they showed me how to do it. Remember, I spoke no English at all. Fortunately, as an engineer, you don’t really need to know any language in order to do my profession. We do numbers, lines, systems. You need to know how to put things together. The company planned for me to do the work in 12 months, but I finished the job in six weeks. I used the extra time to get another job and learn English by watching a lot of Friends and talking to people.
“Over the years, I worked at other engineering companies, started managing projects and found people to mentor me. This country values hard work, and I was willing to do whatever needed to be done. In 2006, I came to Metropolitan Engineering. Inc./Shapiro-O’Brien. We are the ones behind the architects. They do the fashion, and we do the brain, lungs, and digestion systems that make a building function.
“After working here as a project manager, I approached the owner, Mr. Zarrilli, with my broken English and asked if I could purchase the company. I pulled my wife and my savings together and found a woman who invested in me. Mr. Zarrilli agreed and gave me a loan for the rest because he believed in me. I purchased the company in April 2008 just as the real estate crash was happening. There was no business, but I saw it as an opportunity to work harder and smarter. Forty percent of pour industry died, but we managed to grow.
“People may think of my story as a true American dream, but I don’t see it like that. I didn’t come with any expectations or demands from this country. My dream was to be free. Freedom does not mean that you can pee anywhere you want to. To be free means that there are rules that you follow. When you don’t follow the rules, you are punished. The rules here work and if you follow them, the sky is the limit if you work hard.
“I think about my experience with George Clooney every time I reach a milestone, win project, or feel success and happy. I remember where I came from and how George helped me to see the possibilities. I hope that I can meet him again over a drink and thank him. He gave me the inspiration to believe in myself and to pursue my dreams. I listened and it proved to be pretty successful.”
Marek Skovajsa is the Vice President, Project Management and a Principal at Metropolitan Engineering, Inc./Shapiro-O’Brien, a multi-discipline, professional engineering firm with over sixty years of history.