Reality MBAs in Russia

By bne IntelliNews November 26, 2010

Rachel Morarjee in Moscow -

When Canadian Kane Cuenant was looking at MBA programmes, he thought about studying at Harvard, MIT or even Tsinghua University in China, but eventually opted to study at Moscow's newly opened Skolkovo school.

"I looked at different schools in developed markets, but it didn't seem real enough. I knew that I wanted to work in emerging markets and I wanted to truly understand how to do it," he tells bne.

Cuenant is among the first 40 graduates of the Skolkovo Moscow School of Management completing their MBAs in November and says that what attracted him to the school was its emphasis on learning practical skills in the markets he really wanted to work in. Skolkovo's first MBA graduates hail from as far afield as Germany, India, Brazil, as well as from Russia and the rest of the former Soviet Union.

The young Canadian decided against the Chinese school because its programme was built on a US academic model and opted to study at the first Russian management school that truly aims to be a player on the world MBA stage. Skolkovo's English-language syllabus is designed to teach graduates from around the world what the day-to-day realities of doing business are in an emerging market.

Skolkovo's dean is Wilfried Vanhonacker, who moved to Russia in 2008 after setting up the internationally acclaimed China Europe International Business School (CEIBS) in Shanghai, which has catapulted into the Financial Times top-20 ranking since its launch in 1994. At the Russian school, he has shifted the emphasis from classroom learning to a programme where graduates spend over 70% of their time in the challenging environments of emerging market companies and government departments getting to grips with reality on the ground. "We are trying to bring reality into the classroom," says Vanhonacker.

Multinationals will see most of their growth in the next 20 years in dynamic emerging markets where the business climate is volatile and uncertain, and managers face talent shortages, and infrastructure and institutional gaps. The Skolkovo MBA is designed to prepare students mentally and emotionally to face these challenges, the dean explains. "Traditional business schools were not preparing the talent the market needed - entrepreneurial leaders for difficult environments," adds Vanhonacker.

Students at Skolkovo must vault hurdles such as living for two months in a dormitory in a Chinese factory town, dealing with the reality of a manufacturing business in the workshop of the world, or helping Russian bureaucrats draft laws that will then be passed by the country's parliament. The programme features the building blocks of MBA courses in the West, such as financial accounting, macroeconomics and marketing, but also puts graduates in stressful situations in alien cultures to hone their ability to cope.

For western students, the course means an up-close-and-personal look at the bureaucracy and corruption that come with doing business in emerging markets. For many Russia students, it means understanding corporate life in China, India and the US, as well as their native land.

Cuenant says the sheer volume of paperwork needed to get things done in China and Russia really took him by surprise. "A common banking task in the US requires one form, three or four pieces of information and one signature. In Russia, the same task requires four forms, five pieces of information and four signatures," he says. "In China, there are at least seven forms, eight pieces of information and four signatures - some forms are filled out by staff and require the customer to wait until the task is completed."


However, despite the stresses of experiential learning, the small classes enable the school to give the students one-on-one career coaching, as well as custom leadership development classes. Each student works with a mentor from the business world who can help the student hone their goals and provide them with insight into life in different companies and environments.

Teachers also handpick groups of students to work on projects, trying to reflect the personality and culture clashes graduates will face in real life. "We don't allow students to pick their own groups until they get to the final phase of the course and have to launch a start-up. You don't pick your colleagues in a company," says Vanhonacker.

The school aims for 240 MBA students annually and 300 Executive MBA students when it reaches operational capacity in 2014. Skolkovo's first MBA class in 2009 had 40 students with 33 students in 2010, while 21 students signed up for the 2009 18-month EMBA, which allows working students to study part-time, rising to 37 in 2010.

The experience of working in Russia, China and the US as well as Russia have been invaluable, says Cuenant, who hopes to continue working in Russia when he graduates. "The value of working with government officials in developing markets is something you just can't teach in a classroom. Most of the students who sign up at Skolkovo are not after a simple desk job. They want something more," he says.

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