Russian-American Networks

In connection with research for our new book, The Virtual Handshake: Opening Doors and Closing Deals Online(www.TheVirtualHandshake.com), following is another in a series of articles on different special-interest communities. Given that my wife is from the former Soviet Union (as is most of my family tree), I have a particular interest in this community.

Building Business Relationships in the Russian Diaspora

by Vica Vinogradova and David Teten

Russians: who are they?

Russia’s political, economic, and technological transformations have greatly impacted the social identity of its current and former citizens. Several trends are notable: increased financial stability powered by the desire for continuing material advancement; a new sense of sophistication and investment in social success; a continuing tradition of good education; and a serious awareness of technology, fashion and lifestyle trends.

While Russian speakers abroad/émigrés circa 1970 were political refugees primarily focused on survival, today’s Russian diaspora considers the world — and, particularly, its homeland — a business opportunity without borders and acts upon the notion. For them, Russia is no longer an oppressive country to be fled at any cost, but a dynamically evolving nation that offers enormous business opportunities. In fact, while many Russians come to the US and Europe to receive a higher education and secure a top-paying job, some return to Russia after years of immigration to take advantage of these opportunities.

Regardless of professional field, an “average” Russian speaker living abroad is a well-educated professional in an executive or managerial position, or a business owner. Traditionally, Russians do well in IT, law, sciences, finance and arts.

Many Russian speakers are rather particular when it comes to networking. While not overtly communicative and even shy on the first encounter, they can be very warm and friendly once you pass the initial absence of a smile. Russian speakers often don’t know how to and why they should engage in small talk, and simply avoid it as a waste of time. If one is not assertive, it may lead to plentiful pauses in a conversation: when your Russian counterpart has nothing to say, he will most likely remain silent. This is particularly true for those who are not completely at ease with English. Therefore, when talking to a Russian, one would be well advised to initiate a conversation with a clear thought path and expect a certain degree of intellectual play.

Younger Russian speakers are more open and ready to plunge into a conversation to see if there is an opportunity to develop a possible business connection. A representative of this new league of twenty- and thirty-somethings describes the group as follows: “Russian businessmen are quite engaging and lavishly entertaining in small talk, which is more acerbic than that of Americans, and is reminiscent of the English country club; it’s the precision that counts, not volume. Dressed to kill (or at least to strike), their appearance is often representative of the behavior.”

Russians indeed are extremely brand-conscious when it comes to cars, fashion and travel. Career titles matter, and business card exchange is welcome. Dressing well and with style is extremely important to Russians, and if you don’t appear well accessorized (from shoes to watches), you might have trouble building credibility. It is incomprehensible to many Russians why one would choose to dress-down at an important occasion. For instance, a Russian would consider a woman wearing a skirt and sneakers as careless and lacking any sense of style. Yet, ultimately, it is your intelligence, achievements and eloquence that will make or break a meaningful connection. Russians innately have interest in fine art and fine things in life and will be impressed by someone who knows his Renoir and Rembrandt, and of course Chagall and Kandinsky. If you can show knowledge of Vasnetsov or Repin, you will certainly make the right first impression.

Russians love a good joke, but more often than not, American humor does not translate into Russian, and vice versa. So, before you make a joke, make sure that your counterpart can understand the references. In addition, successful Russian businessmen (especially those who live in Russia) are often arrogant and could have very sarcastic sense of humor. Russians do like to drink, but don’t kill your good intentions by offering someone a shot of vodka just because he is Russian. Many Russian businessmen are connoisseurs of scotch, and will expect you to know the brands. Women mostly drink wine, and will find it offensive when offered vodka as it will seem a usual case of stereotyping.

Russians abroad are typically well assimilated and don’t have a desire to define themselves as a separate ethnic entity. For example, there is no Russian Parade on 5th Avenue in New York. Russians socialize in well-established, closely-knit circles, both in terms of friends and business. A personal reference is the best way to join any such group. Online networking is far more “user-friendly” and open: people readily sign up and develop relationships without personal references, drawn together by the same cause (business, art, education, etc.)

Russian and Russia-related Online Communities

There are very few exclusively English-language online Russian communities for self-explanatory reasons. Those described below normally have both Russian- and English-language sections, where the latter is often a digest of the former.

U.S.- Russia Business Council [usrbc.org]

The U.S.-Russia Business Council is a Washington-based trade association that represents the interests of nearly 300 member companies operating in the Russian market. Its mission is “to expand and enhance the U.S.-Russian commercial relationship.”

Since its founding in 1993, the Council has been chaired by Robert Strauss, who served as U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1991 and U.S. Ambassador to Russia in 1992. Eugene K. Lawson is the President of USRBC.

Council members receive commercial updates, issue briefs and event summaries via email listserv. In addition, the web site serves as a “virtual connection to the Council, and as a library of information on political, economic and commercial developments in Russia. More than three-quarters of the site is dedicated to an extensive members-only section that contains an online membership directory, … biographical profiles of Russian and U.S. Executive and Legislative branch officials” and more.

Membership fees vary: $1,250 yearly for non-profit organizations; $1,500 for companies with sales under $10 Million; $1,750 for companies with $10 Million – $100 Million in sales, to $12,500 for companies with sales over $10 Billion.

RAND’s Center for Russia and Eurasia Business Forum

[rand.org/nsrd/cre/blf]

The RAND Center for Russia and Eurasia provides policymakers, scholars, business leaders, and citizens with an in-depth understanding of developmental processes in Russia and the New Independent States in Eurasia since 1948. Jeremy Azrael has been the Executive Director of RAND’s Center for Russia and Eurasia since 1985.

The Center provides organizational and analytical support for the RAND Business Leaders Forum—a membership organization that facilitates in-depth discussions among leading corporate executives from Russia, the United States, and Western Europe of strategic opportunities and challenges in the development of economic and business relations.”

One of the CRE Business Forum’s missions is to “promote mutually beneficial commercial relations and to overcome obstacles to economic cooperation”. To fulfill its mission, the Forum holds two plenary meetings per year—one in the United States in May or June and one in Russia in November. The Forum also conducts focused meetings and workshops and sponsors research projects on issues of special interest.

CluMBA — Club of Russian-speaking MBAs [clumba.com]

CluMBA unites over 950 Russian-speaking MBAs around the world and aims to develop trustworthy business relationships among its members. Founded in 1999 by Andrey Gusev (Wharton) and Alexander Gorbunov (Harvard), cluMBA received its current name in 2000. Its word play incorporates references to the Russian word klumba (flower bed) and the MBA.

A typical member of the community is a 25-45 year old banker or consultant in an entry or mid-management position. To become a member, one has to be a native Russian speaker who holds an MBA from (or is a full time MBA student in) one of the following schools: Berkeley, Cambridge, Carnegie-Mellon, Chicago, Columbia, Cornell, Darden, Dartmouth, Duke, Erasmus, Harvard, IESE, IMD, INSEAD, Kellogg, Kelley, Kenan–Flagler, LBS, Michigan, MIT, NYU, Oxford, Rochester, Stanford, UCLA, Wharton, or Yale. There are no membership fees.

CluMBA offers its members several options for online networking, including discussion boards for registered users and global/regional mailing lists. CluMBA holds occasional career seminars with speakers on various topics. Social events are held quarterly in a trendy urban location. Non-members can participate in CluMBA’s social gatherings if invited by a member.

AmBAR – American Business Association of Russian Expatriates [ambarclub.org]

AmBAR is a non-profit organization with a mission to “build a full-fledged networking platform for Russian-speaking professionals to spur cooperation and technology innovation.” Founded in October 2002 by a group of Russian-speaking entrepreneurs in the Silicon Valley area, the organization has grown to over 500 members in less than a year, and is rapidly expanding into other areas.

“AmBAR was created to foster the entrepreneurship and develop a pool of human capital representing IT and business professionals, angel and VC investors.” Its membership consists of a “healthy mix of professionals, executives, entrepreneurs and academia” and is headed by a respected Board of Directors. AmBAR hosts regular events at Stanford University, which range from speaker series and panel discussions to workshops on business and technology topics. A recent panel of speakers included Sergei Brin, President of technology and Co-founder of Google. Each event is attended by several hundreds of participants.

The Web site offers various forms of online networking, including mailing list, discussion forums and job postings. Annual membership of $30 (free membership until 2004) allows access to various premium resources services, including discounted entry fees to AmBAR events; full access to the membership base; private mail to AmBAR members and regularly updated job postings. Members also have an opportunity to make a 30 seconds announcement to the entire membership during meetings and are eligible to purchase a table at the Mini-Trade Shows held during the meetings, for demos, recruiting, and other promotional activities.

New York Russian Club [nyrussianclub.org]

New York Russian Club was formed in January 2002 with the goal of uniting and serving the Russian-speaking business and professional community in the greater New York area.

The Club is a private, non-profit organization uniting almost 100 members under the directorship of the art collector Natalia Kolodzei and the lawyer Michael Solton. The club is a full-fledged charitable organization for various worthy Russia-related causes, namely not-for-profit scientific, literary and cultural projects in the former Soviet Union and within the Russian community in the U.S.

Besides online networking via mailing lists, the Club regularly organizes a variety of social and educational functions for its members and invited guests (book readings, wine tasting, concerts). The Club enjoys a close relationship with the Russian Consulate in New York, where it holds its meetings and functions. In 2002 the club organized two charitable receptions at the consulate, one benefiting Russian orphanages and another the American-Russian International Orchestra The average member is a mid-level associate at a law, brokerage or accounting firm, 30 years of age or older. The Annual membership fee is $285.

YCROP — Young Creative Russians Online Portfolio [ycrop.com]

YCROP is a community of creative Russians in the USA. Founded by Radion Schwartz in 2000, the community profiles over 150 artists, photographers, writers and musicians residing in New York and other states. YCROP is an open community with no membership fees. Artists are encouraged to post their profiles on the site through a user-friendly interface. Each profile lists a short bio, samples of works, and a photo and provides the e-mail/Web site address of the artist.

The online community offers daily updates on cultural events in the Tri-State area, a periodic e-mail newsletter with art-related announcements; features prominent artists, and holds occasional social gatherings in New York’s East Village.

e-xecutive.ru

e-xecutive.ru is a project of Ward Howell International, an executive search and consulting company, aimed at the “creation of an online community of professional managers who are working in Russia, are related to Russia or interested in the country.” The larger part of the site is in Russian. The recently launched English version states the Community’s motto as: “Building Russia’s Human Capital”.

The goal of the community is to create a system of online services which would allow its members to advance in their professional careers and develop business on a qualitatively new level; to bring together experts with unique professional skills and knowledge; to create an environment which fosters the exchange of ideas and provides professional assistance.

The community offers various services, including executive search; management search and selection; career counseling and information exchange.

Vica Vinogradova is Vice President of Corporate Communications at DataArt (www.dataart.com ), a software outsourcing company with headquarters in New York and an R&D center in St. Petersburg, Russia. Graduate of Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, she has contributed to the development of Sonicnet, AOL’s Digital City and is a co-founder of Ladno Communications ( www.ladno.com ). A St. Petersburg native, Ms. Vinogradova has long been a link between Russia and the United States through the development of marketing and Web capabilities between the two countries. She has served as Director of Marketing & Advertising for the Kremlin Cup tennis tournament and for TBS/Goodwill Games. She is also an adjunct professor at Hunter College, CUNY.

David Teten recently wrote his first book, The Virtual Handshake: Opening Doors and Closing Deals Online (www.TheVirtualHandshake.com), published by the American Management Association, and coauthored with Scott Allen. He is CEO of Nitron Advisors, LLC (www.NitronAdvisors.com), which provides institutional investors with access to frontline industry experts. He was formerly CEO of an investment bank specializing in internet domain names. He has spoken before audiences at Wharton, Columbia Business School, Yale, Princeton, and at industry conferences. David formerly worked for Bear Stearns’ technology/defense investment banking team, and was a strategy consultant with Mars & Co. He holds a Harvard MBA and a Yale BA.