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March 7, 2014 12:02 am
Marina Kolesnik has been compared to Marissa Mayer, the chief executive of Yahoo. One imagines Ms Mayer would not deem it necessary to take male colleagues to meetings. But Ms Kolesnik does so in order to, as she puts it, “send out the right signals”.
Men occupy most of the senior political and corporate jobs in Russia. But that has not stopped a wave of Russian female professionals, including Natalya Kaspersky, the co-founder of Kaspersky Lab, the antivirus software group, and Alisa Chumachenko, chief executive of Game Insight, the video games publisher, making it big in the country’s dynamic information technology sector.
A graduate of Harvard Business School, Ms Kolesnik gave up a job in the US at McKinsey, the management consultancy, to return to her home city of St Petersburg in 2011 to launch an online hotel booking agency. Founding Oktogo.ru was a “chance to make something new and make a difference,” she says.
Alyona Vladimirskaya climbed the IT job ladder at Mail.ru, Russia’s leading internet company by number of unique users, before striking out on her own in 2011. The company she founded, Pruffi.ru, is one of Russia’s biggest online recruitment agencies with a monthly turnover of $100,000.
“I wanted to make my own story, not play a part in someone else’s story,” she says.
Most of the men who drove the early development of the Russian IT industry were computer enthusiasts, different from typical Russian businessmen, “who think a woman’s place is on an oligarch’s arm or in the kitchen” says Ms Vladimirskaya. “No one in IT paid any attention to gender. That’s why so many women have succeeded.”
Also new was the culture of entrepreneurship that had been stifled during the Soviet era. “There were a lot of empty niches,” she says.
Contacts are extremely important in the closed world of Russian business. Ms Vladimirskaya has plenty, describing herself after more than a decade in IT as a “brand” in her own right.
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Alexei Basov, an IT entrepreneur who now serves as vice-president of Rostelekom, Russia’s state telecommunications company, provided Pruffi.ru with $100,000 of seed capital in exchange for 25 per cent of the business. Almaz Capital, the Russian venture capital group, invested $500,000 last year.
Ms Vladimirskaya hopes to launch an English language version of the site during the first quarter of this year, and a tie-up with LinkedIn.
Russian e-commerce has benefited from a rise in consumer spending coupled with the rapid expansion of the internet.
With 66m users, Russia is the biggest internet market in Europe, according to 2013 research by the Russian Association for Electronic Communications and the Higher School of Economics in Moscow.
Women shoppers outnumber men by 10 to one in Russian online stores. As internet entrepreneurs, they are quick to identify gaps in the retail market.
As digital deal-a-day websites took off in the US, Elena Masolova, 29, an economics graduate from Moscow State University, launched Darberry, a clone of Groupon, the US site, in early 2009. Within six months, Groupon swallowed its Russian rival in a deal reported to be worth $50m.
Known among bloggers as Russia’s “Start-upper Number One,” Ms Masolova has co-founded 11 online ventures and is an active angel investor. Her latest project is Eduson.tv, a virtual business school that allows students to personalise MBA courses and attend interactive classrooms where executives from leading firms such as Merrill Lynch and Mail.ru drop by to give lectures.
The aim, says Ms Masolova, is to make business education “more accessible and less boring” for her own, internet-savvy generation. When hiring staff, Ms Masolova does not take gender into account. “I look at personalities,” she says. “I am very pushy. It’s important for me to have people who don’t just listen, but also fight for their ideas.” Women tend to be less assertive than men, but “these skills can be learned,” she adds.
Alyona Popova, the founder of Startup Women, a project to nurture online businesses, says Russian women entrepreneurs have the advantage of being less risk-averse than their male counterparts.
Russia’s paternalistic society sometimes puts huge pressure on men to have successful careers and support their families. Expectations of women, by contrast, are much less demanding, says Ms Popova.
“Women worry much less about making mistakes,” she says.
Incredible journey: Oktogo.ru
The Sochi Olympic Games are over, next comes the 2018 Fifa World Cup. Russia continues to boost its travel infrastructure to serve international events, creating opportunities for niche tourist services companies.
Among these is Oktogo.ru, which since launching in 2011 has grown to be Russia’s biggest online hotel reservations agency, with some 3m unique monthly users. Marina Kolesnik, founder and chief executive, says the company serves 6,000 hotels in almost “all Russia’s large, medium and small towns, as well as some places I had never heard of”.
The company has raised $26m in funding from Mangrove Capital Partners, Ventech Capital and VTB, Russia’s second-biggest bank. Ms Kolesnik declines to comment on the size of the company’s revenues, but claims they are increasing by four times a year.
Russia’s online travel market is worth about $10bn a year and is expanding rapidly, according to PhoCusWright, a global travel industry consultancy. According to Ms Kolesnik, the Sochi games are likely to have flagged Russia as a destination for curious, independent travellers.
Hoping to stay ahead of the trend, Oktogo.ru bought travel.ru, the local equivalent of Roughguides.com, last year for about $2m.
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