Report from the Russian (Entrepreneurial) Front


November 20, 2009, Moscow, Russia—I write this from the Moscow airport on my way home to Massachusetts after teaming with MIT colleagues Howard Anderson and Peter Kurzina to teach a week-long boot camp on entrepreneurship for the first class of MBAs at the new Skolkovo Business School. Skolkovo* is a private business school strongly supported by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and, hence, the top Russian business leaders. It not only has lots of money (the school is currently housed in a 5-star hotel), it has access to the highest echelons of business leaders (we had billionaires come speak to the class) in the country.

Nonetheless, we knew we had our work cut out for us when we came upon a quote from Putin that said, “Anyone who opens a new business in Russia should be given a medal for courage.” Mmmm. I came to Moscow not knowing what to expect, and I leave with many surprising observations, which I summarize below.

1. Russians don’t generally smile. If you expect a lot of smiling faces and “have a nice day” lines, you have come to the wrong place. While they might warm up once you get to know them, on first encounter they make New Yorkers seem like Mr. Rogers welcoming you to his neighborhood.

2. When you arrive at the airport, make sure you have a driver pick you up. As I got off the plane and failed to find my driver, I was pounced on by no less the two dozen taxi cab riders who looked very suspicious. Fending them off is a full-time job.

3. Russians feel compelled to argue. Our first day of class, we were under siege. We fought back, and when it was my turn after my colleagues had been treated unfairly, I moved one of the offenders (Nicholas) from the back of the room to the front and started right in saying that I was not as nice as Howard and Peter and they better look at me as the bad cop, to which one student immediately responded, “we will see.” Midway through the lecture, with the students arguing about most every point possible even if they did not have the background to knowledgeably do so, I announced that, “No matter what, you all just like to argue.” To which Anton in the front row immediately responded, “No we don’t!”

4. After 24 hours, Russia was not high on my list of favorites. Despite the nice hotel, the above developments, coupled with daily snow and a lack of sun, had me wondering why we came here. To cap it off, the New England Patriots had lost to the Colts in a big football game back in the States because I was not able to telepathically keep coach Bill Belichick from making a stupid 4th down “go for it” call. He would never have made that call if I was sitting in front of a TV watching the game. Oh yeah, Howard and I had both lost our credit cards, too. My decision to miss Saturday and Sunday pickup basketball for this was looking like a bad one.

5. Then the tide changed. First of all, we accepted that every point was going to be argued and we pushed back and adjusted our style to fit their needs better. If they were going apply full court pressure, we were now ready to respond. There also appeared to be a silent détente reached between us and the class. The cease fire allowed for more dialogue and we were beginning to understand each other much better. Howard was also discovering the joys of authentic Russian vodka in our nightly sessions. Behind the unsmiling faces of the students, a sense of humor and friendliness started to show through the cracks. A few were buying into what we were saying and small victories were starting to be won. It was a five star hotel after all.

6. Engineers and scientists are everywhere. As we got to know the class and a parade of outside speakers came in to supplement the program, we realized that engineers and scientists were as common in Russia as Red Sox fans are in Boston. There ain’t much else. One of our guests was former physicist Vlad Terziev, who is the founder and CEO of Vesch, a huge … Next Page »

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Bill Aulet is the managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and a senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. He is also the author of “Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup”, published by Wiley, which was released in August 2013. Follow @BillAulet

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