Anna Chernakova approaches the promotion of international arts, languages and natural habitats as a volunteer assignment somewhere between hobby, responsibility and lifework.

Which partly explains how a Bulgarian-born, Russia-trained semiconductor engineer went on to create the Italian Cultural Center of Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Chernakova came to Minnesota on a whim, in search of professional work after the collapse of the former USSR.

“I came to Minneapolis without knowing a single human being, just based on the ‘Mary Tyler Moore Show,’ ” she said. “That was all my knowledge.”

Around 40, after a decade modeling data storage technologies, “I started wondering if there is more to life besides a professional career. My son went to college, and I, as a single woman, needed to infuse meaning in my life.”

Unsure where to focus her attention, she went to cultural events and was inspired by the local Arab film festival.

“I was absolutely fascinated by it. As a foreigner, I’ve always been interested in other immigrants. I feel lonely. I feel isolated. I feel misunderstood.”

Having long admired the hospitable warmth of Italian life, she set out to immerse Midwesterners in experiences beyond frozen pizza and “The Godfather.” In 2006, she recruited friends who supported the idea, but they found it hard to persuade donors to sponsor it.

So they generated the needed income on their own. They founded the nonprofit Italian Culture Center (ICC) and opened a school at the newly renovated Minneapolis public library, in “fantastic community rooms available rent free for a year,” Chernakova said. The new group’s adult and children’s educational classes “became more and more popular, and the school has been growing ever since.” That success enabled the organization to open a rented headquarters in the Hennepin Center for the Arts and later launch the popular Italian Film Festival.

Currently, the ICC helps receptive Minnesotans savor Italian cuisine, language, art, culture, music performance, literature, current events and the social scene among Italian émigrés. It also gives Italian expatriates, many of them professionally committed to remain in Minnesota long term, a way to keep their heritage alive through its educational classes. The ICC has about 400 active members and many more attending its events.

Much of the credit for that goes to Chernakova.

“She’s very passionate, very creative and very bright,” said Peggy Hansen, who serves on the board and leads educational travel trips to Italy for the group. “She just comes up with these wonderful ideas and doesn’t give up. It’s been very fulfilling to be involved and see how it has become part of the community. One of the best experiences for me in my life.”

Chernakova, who handed off her position as executive director after almost a decade with the group, has pursued initiatives that have been equally ambitious and impressively diverse.

Combining entrepreneurial aspiration with a commitment to ecological concerns, she set out in 2010 to “save the rain forest through chocolate” by retailing European-style gourmet candies from beans produced by small scale, eco-friendly South American cocoa farmers. That venture sputtered out after several years, but that didn’t quash her enthusiasm to create novel international connections.

This fall, Chernakova aims to make an educational tourism destination of Pennabilli, a lovely, historically rich but shrinking rural town of 2,700 in north central Italy, in an initiative called esperienza.org. She will send 20 students of natural scenic beauty, modern art, fine food (the village is home to a celebrated restaurant with a prestigious Michelin star) and world cinema who will learn Italian from local teachers. Pennabilli was home to the prolific screenwriter Tonino Guerra, who collaborated with a who’s who of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the world.

It’s intended to be a multiyear enterprise, expanding the visitors’ appreciation while revitalizing the old town.

As Tom Gabriel puts it, “when she says she’s going to do something, watch out. It’s going to get done.” That’s why Gabriel, former CEO and creative director of the Minneapolis-based GdB advertising agency, became an adviser on her new project.

“She’s extremely resourceful finding people who will help her make things happen,” especially bridge-building ideas with unselfish intentions. “Not only does she put her heart in it,” Gabriel said, “her heart is in the right place.”

 

@colincovert