Skolkovo Students Seek Connections

SKOLKOVO, Moscow Region — MBA students at the Skolkovo business school spend days studying real-life business cases with top executives and nights at the five-star Baltschug Kempinski hotel.

Perhaps it’s no wonder that President Dmitry Medvedev is envious of them.

“I envy you, frankly,” Medvedev, who heads the school’s advisory board, told Skolkovo’s first full-fledged MBA class of 40 students at a welcoming ceremony Sunday.

“To tell you the truth, I didn’t believe it would be constructed that quickly,” he said as he handed out student ID cards outside the school’s main building. “It was so depressing and dirty here about three years ago.”

The area around the school still looked dirty Sunday, with construction continuing at the site. The school was connected to the electricity grid just two days earlier, an employee said.

But the state-backed school, organized by Troika Dialog and sponsored by Sberbank and some private companies, seems to be on track toward making good on its bid to attract future and current entrepreneurs who want that key combination of good Russian connections and Western-style business training.

“I am not ashamed that I was involved in that,” Medvedev said of the creation of the school, which started offering its first MBA classes in January. “And I believe that we will get an international rating, just as other foreign business schools.”

Construction has been delayed and is now expected to finish in the spring, Troika Dialog executive director Gor Nakhapetyan said on the sidelines of the ceremony.

The students live and study in the Baltschug Kempinski, located just opposite the Kremlin, he said.

This kind of service comes at a price: The 18-month MBA program costs 50,000 euros ($73,600).

But the opportunities that the school is offering justify the cost, Sberbank chairman German Gref told the students. “All of you will become millionaires and head corporations in the near future,” Gref said.

To get there, though, they still have a way to go, said Ingemar Dierickx, who gives lectures on business negotiations. “Russian businessmen-students need special treatment,” he said. “They consider the outer environment constantly hostile, and I have to explain to them not everyone is an enemy.

“They also express themselves very straightforwardly,” Dierickx said. “I explain to them straightforwardness is read as aggressiveness in foreign business communities. Some of that, however, is compensated by Russian businessmen being extremely emotional. That helps them with talks.”

Foreign students at Skolkovo said the cost of tuition was worth it. “I came here because I want to work in a Finnish company that operates or wants to expand in Russia,” said Sebastian Schauman, 30, from Finland. “You get useful state connections here. We will even go get some work experience with the regional administrations.”

A third of the 40 students enrolled this year are foreigners, including from India, Brazil and Australia, Nakhapetyan said. “We have picked them out of around 300. Our entrance criteria is very high,” he said.

“Giving connections in the Russian business and political sphere is a major goal of our program,” he added. “What is also important is the quality of the students we accept.”

“I came here not for an MBA,” said Sumanbek Khunkayev, 25. “I like us having real business cases, discussions where top managers from Russian and foreign companies including MTS, TNK-BP and Credit Suisse are present. They listen to our advice and give us real-life tasks to solve.”

Such discussions are useful to the students, said Naubar Afeyan, an incoming professor at Skolkovo and a senior lecturer at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “Many of my students don’t believe they can open their own business in this country and succeed.”