From Russia with love: Meet the first MBA graduates from a school backed by Roman Abramovich and the Russian President

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The Independent Online

Afew weeks ago, Anton Saraykin had an ordinary job as the head of media relations for a Japanese tobacco company. Now a giant hot air balloon is taking to the sky and the President of Russia is draping a bright orange scarf round his neck. It's not every day that Russians get to meet Dmitry Medvedev, their head of state, let alone shake his hand. So what has Saraykin, 28, a journalist from Siberia, done to earn such an honour? He has taken unpaid leave from his job after winning a scholarship to become one of the first 40 MBA students at Skolkovo, the Moscow School of Management and Russia's newest and glitziest business management college. Only three weeks into the 16-month course, the class of 2009 is already making history as their necks are draped in the scarves to mark their enrolment at the school.

Some of the richest and most powerful businessmen and women in the Russian Federation have gathered at the ceremony to mark the third anniversary of the start of the project and to greet the first MBA graduates. Medvedev is at the ceremony not solely in an official capacity, he has taken a keen personal interest in the school from its outset and is chairman of its international advisory board. Skolkovo is the creation of 17 "founding partners", eight corporations and nine individuals, including Roman Abramovich, Russian billionaire and owner of Chelsea FC, and Alexander Abramov, the industrial magnate who is head of the country's largest steel producer. Among the companies are Credit Suisse and GUM, the historic Moscow department store turned luxury shopping centre.

No expense has been spared. The school's futuristic campus, designed by the British architect David Adjaye and constructed in mirrored glass, is a 21st century take on the supremacist style of art and architecture that followed the Russian Revolution and has cost nearly £200m. While the finishing touches are added to the building at Skolkovo, a village 40 minutes west of the capital that gives the school its name, the students are being housed in a five-star hotel in downtown Moscow.

With no history of business education in Russia, the founders want to create – from scratch – a world-leading school with the prestige and reputation to attract talented entrepreneurs and corporate executives. But what has a fragile democracy and free market economy less than two decades after the fall of communism got to teach countries that have been trading freely for centuries? Does this amount to anything more than a school created by the oligarchs, for the oligarchs? Andrei Volkov, a former nuclear scientist and government education adviser who has been appointed dean, does not like the word "oligarch" with its connotations of using political contacts to benefit from the sale of state assets once belonging to the people. "It happened. But that was 10 years ago," he says. "Today's business leaders have built up their own companies. Ruben Vardanian, for example, Skolkovo's president, had only just graduated from Moscow State University and was 22 when he founded Troika Dialog, which is now the biggest investment company in the Commonwealth of Independent States."

Volkov hopes many of Skolkovo's MBA students will go on to form their own companies, and a venture capital fund of £62m has been put aside for this purpose. The course is to develop entrepreneurial leadership, not train people to climb the corporate ladder, he says.

But why should someone from the UK, with its world-renowned management schools, want to travel to a country that has so little experience of business? First, says Volkov, is its international flavour. Eighty per cent of the lecturers are from other countries, as are around 30 per cent of the students. All of the the programmes at the school will be delivered in English.

"Second, our main focus is on the emerging, unstable, volatile and unpredictable markets," says Volkov. "Here in Russia, we have a very under developed legal infrastructure and you are more reliant on people and networks. This kind of market is much more risky, but offers a lot more opportunities. This is where we plan to develop our expertise."

People coming in to former communist countries often don't realise that central and local government strongly influences the way things are run. They find it difficult to negotiate the depths of bureaucracy that are the legacy of the state control.

Another difference is the style of learning, he says. "A typical MBA programme is based on modules in marketing, accountancy, strategic planning and leadership for people hoping to rise up corporations. Our programme is practical. It starts with four months of lectures and theory and the rest of the time is spent on placements doing actual projects."

The fees, although high by Russian standards at €50,000 (£45,300), are for a residential course, including travel to placements with companies and local and central governments in parts of Russia, India, China and the USA. Applicants must demonstrate entrepreneurial experience and have been in a management position for at least three years. Only 40 candidates were selected from 170 applications. The course will eventually accommodate 240.

A more profitable side of the business is likely to be the part-time executive MBAs aimed at senior executives sponsored by their companies, which cost €90,000 (£81,000), as well as the bespoke courses for specific industries.

The ceremony on 20 September was a historic day for MBA student Saraykin, who believes there is another reason for wanting to be at Skolkovo. "The founders of the school are quite powerful people in Russia and very involved, so we will get the chance to get closer to them which I think will be helpful in the future," he says.

Mevdevev says Skolkovo is a symbol for the future. Some see it as "a bit of a crazy" project, according to Volkov, but he is not afraid to take risks. After all, he conquered Everest in 1992 and is a keen sky-diver.

'The mentors are great'

Wilhelm Lindholm, 30, joined the MBA course at Skolkovo from Finland, where he worked for Nordea, the Nordic investment bank, as a mergers and acquisitions adviser.

With Masters degrees in law and economics, he was looking less for book learning and more for work projects in client companies. He hopes the course will give him the experience and contacts to further his career and perhaps start up his own business in Russia. "The fact that successful entrepreneurs and companies were behind the course and acting as mentors was one of the attractions," he says.

'The projects are diverse'

Sebastian Schauman, 30, is being sponsored to do the MBA course by CapMan, the Nordic private equity group, where he is an investment manager in Finland.

A high flyer with degrees in law and economics, he wanted to know more about business and finance in Russia but not as an ex-pat "living in a bubble". "Russia is going to be a major player and I want to understand the market. I was particularly attracted by the chance to work on diverse public and corporate projects and am already helping to draw up a business plan to renovate a big park in Moscow."

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