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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

On Top in Toon Town

Her grandfather worked with Fidel Castro and Che Guevara, and she is waging a revolution of her own. Marina Jigalova-Ozkan, head of The Walt Disney Company CIS, is introducing Mickey Mouse and other Disney characters to Russia.

Jigalova-Ozkan learned the value of a good story from her early years. She was born into an elite family and spent several years living in Libya as a child. Her father was a foreign trade official, and her grandfather was a diplomat serving in postwar Berlin, Cuba, Burma and Yemen.

"Grandfather was Fidel Castro's economic adviser, so since my childhood there were lots of different stories, including some about his work with Che Guevara," Jigalova-Ozkan said in a recent interview in her central Moscow office.

Enrolling at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, or MGIMO, was a natural move for her, she said. What was unusual was the timing. In 1989, she entered the country's best school on recommendation from the Communist Party, and graduated in 1994 after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

"We began by studying the works of Marx and Lenin and finished with Keynes and Samuelson," she said, referring to renowned Western economists. "The surrounding reality has changed completely."

As a student, she joined an International Finance Corporation team that helped conduct privatization in Nizhny Novgorod.

"We were privatizing stores," she said. "It was incredibly interesting because we got to write laws ourselves and planned how we'd conduct auctions. It was the first experience of market reality."

As part of the IFC, she also took lectures on financial management in Washington, Vienna, Rome and Amsterdam.

With a MGIMO diploma and several years' experience at the IFC, Jigalova-Ozkan landed a job as a financial consultant at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development. Dividing her time between London and Moscow, she helped provide financing for Russian companies, including for Sakhalin and Far Eastern shipping companies.

In 1996, 25-year old Jigalova-Ozkan left her comfortable, London-based job after receiving an offer to join billionaire Vladimir Potanin's Interros as senior economy officer, and was later promoted to become the group's vice-president. She also joined the board of the North-Western Shipping Co., where Interros was a main shareholder.

"I was told I was the first woman to join the board of a shipping company," she said. "It's captains who run shipping companies. And a woman on board ... well you understand," laughed the slim, 36-year old brunette.

In her three years at the job, she helped build the steamship company into a profitable business, changing its fleet and buying new vessels.

Her decision to leave wasn't easy but Jigalova-Ozkan wanted to "broaden horizons," she said. She applied to one of the world's most selective programs -- Harvard MBA -- and was accepted.

Igor Tabakov / MT
Marina Jigalova-Ozkan has built up Walt Disney's CIS operations from scratch.
"I was extremely happy," she said. "Within two years, we studied 500 different business cases."

Between her first and second year there, Jigalova-Ozkan and her friends organized a trip to Hollywood, the first by Harvard students. During the trip, about 70 students visited studios and met producers and talent agencies. One of the people she met was an analyst from Disney, but Jigalova-Ozkan said she never thought she would work for Mickey & Co. "Majors didn't look at Russia as one of the priority or strategic markets back then," she said.

But that summer was fun. As a result of the trip, she spent it working for a talent agency in Los Angeles and worked as an observing director as part of a David Kelley Productions crew filming "The Practice," an award-winning television series.

"We even went to parties," Jigalova-Ozkan said. "I remember we went to a party celebrating the launch of a new season of 'Sex and the City.'"

During her second year at Harvard, she took interest in the idea of resuscitating Russian science and wrote a case for setting up a direct investment fund to support promising start-ups.

Upon her return to Russia in 2001, she took the post of deputy general director at Prof-Media, Potanin's media vehicle, and oversaw the company's strategy. In 2002, she got a seat on the board of directors and worked at the company until 2006. She also joined the boards of Izvestia, Komsomolskaya Pravda and other media outlets, where she helped introduce international financial management and audit standards.

One morning she got a call from a headhunting agency.

"My first reaction was very lukewarm: thank you but I am doing great," Jigalova-Ozkan said. And then she thought again. After meeting a host of Disney officials, including the global CEO, she was sold. Prof-Media supported her decision. "Marina, we've been together for many years but you don't turn away from such offers," she said she was told.

As the first and only representative of the entertainment giant in Russia, she started from scratch. The office now employs more than 70 people and plans to expand to at least 100 staff by next September.

Asked for her advice on successfully doing business in Russia, she said it was essential to understand "that we are working in the conditions of a quickly developing market."

"That means it's necessary to quickly take initiative, take responsibility upon yourself, make decisions and at the same time not be afraid of making mistakes."

Daniel Frigo, Walt Disney Studios' London-based general manager for Europe, Middle East and Africa, said Jigalova-Ozkan was a tremendous asset for the company.

"Her keen understanding of the Russian market, coupled with her ability to translate the Disney vision as well as strategically coordinate all of Disney's various business will allow our company to become a part of the fiber of the great Russian culture," he said in e-mailed comments.

In Russia, the global giant is eyeing a family entertainment niche and gearing up to shoot its first movie here, due to be released in 2008. "We very much want to do a quality live action Disney movie," Jigalova-Ozkan said.

Apart from that, the company is publishing children's books and magazines, and thousands of Russians are getting hooked on Disney television series such as "Lost" and "W.I.T.C.H."

Jigalova-Ozkan's 4-year old son's favorite character is Winnie the Pooh. And which Disney hero won her heart?

"Johnny Depp," she breaks into a wide smile, her face has a dreamy expression for a split second, and then she's all business again. "There was a meeting in a studio, and we had a chance to talk to him... He has a magic influence on people of all ages."