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Five years into an economic boom that shows no signs of slowing, Russia has awoken to the fact that business leaders are made, not born.

The heady days of the 1990s, when a lucky and ruthless few forged multibillion-dollar empires by capitalising on the crumbling of a command economy, have given way to a system that has proven capable of enriching those who can navigate the country’s particular brand of capitalism.

Hoping to create Russia’s new generation of business leaders is the Skolkovo Moscow School of Management, an ambitious project that has begun testing the waters before officially opening next year.

“One of the key obstacles for all of us born in the USSR was always management,” says Ruben Vardanian, the school’s founder and president, and chairman of Troika Dialog, a leading investment bank. Many of today’s top managers, Mr Vardanian says, are foreigners or Russians who have studied abroad. Skolkovo is hoping to change that.

After years of lobbying, Mr Vardanian won essential political blessing for the $300m project in early 2006, and President Vladimir Putin laid the school’s foundation stone at a ceremony later that year.

Perhaps even more importantly, Dmitry Medvedev, first deputy prime minister and Mr Putin’s hand-picked successor, is chairman of the school’s board.

After months of buzz in Russian business circles, Skolkovo started to emerge last year. The foundation of the site, just outside southwest Moscow, has been laid, and the futuristic complex will include dormitories for around 300 students.

The school, founded with pledges of $5m each from 14 investors, including Roman Abramovich, owner of the UK’s Chelsea soccer club, and Alexei Mordashov, head of steel giant Severstal, held a series of executive education classes last year for 400 students. Jack Welch, former chief of General Electric,and Anatoly Chubais, head of RAO UES, Russia’s electricity monopoly, were among those hosting classes.

Mr Vardanian does not rule out future participation by the likes of Mr Abramovich: “We hope that all ‘oligarchs’, people who have become very successful, will come to share their experience with our students.”

Last year, the school hired an international dean to complete its managerial triumverate, which includes Mr Vardanian and Andrei Volkov, the Russian dean. Wilfried Vanhonacker, a Belgian who launched his academic career at Columbia’s Graduate School of Business, took up his role in early January after signing a five-year renewable contract.

“It’s a dream very much aligned with my dream, and I encourage Ruben and Andrei to dream even a little bit bigger,” says Mr Vanhonacker. “They dream in a Russian context, I was in a global context.”

Mr Vanhonacker, 54, has spent most of his career in Asia, teaching at Hong Kong’s University of Science and Technology before becoming dean of Ceibs, Shanghai, in 2000.

“The questions people are asking me about Russia, people asked me 22 years ago when I started working in China,” he says. “I went through the whole thing in China and I see the same potential here.”

The school’s MBA programme, due to launch with 60 students in September 2009, will focus on teaching students to navigate “fast-moving economies and markets” such as Russia, India and China, Mr Vanhonacker says. The programme, recently cut from 18 to 16 months, will include 200 students when it reaches full capacity in 2012.

“Today most of the MBA programmes are designed for students who will work in developed countries,” says Mr Vardanian, but “now the world is changing [and] more people work in emerging markets…The challenge for us is to find the right model to teach them how to be successful in these countries.”

Yet with emerging economies come particular problems, and Mr Vanhonacker says he expects a major challenge to be preventing students from buying their way into the competitive programme, a common practice in Russia’s higher education system. Skolkovo has yet to set a tuition fee, but officials there say it will be on par with western MBA programmes.

But the Moscow school can expect difficulty preventing ambitious Russians from pursuing degrees abroad.

“If I needed to be in Russia, physically, because of family or children, I would consider a Russian MBA,” says Natalia Chernyshova, managing director of Halcyon Advisors, a hedge fund focusing on the Russian power sector. Ms Chernyshova took an MBA from what was then the University of London’s Imperial College Management School after Russia’s 1998 financial crisis. “But just to do it? No. Studying abroad gives you a very different experience.”

Russia already has its fair share of MBA programmes – 51 are government licensed and dozens more operate without a licence – but without the weight of a Harvard or Insead. According to the education and science ministry, nearly 30,000 people took Russian MBAs last year. Skolkovo hopes to complement its focus by forging partnerships with the US, Brazil and China, among others.

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