Monday, April 6, 2015

RBS Visits Russia - Spring Break 2015

During our Spring Break this past March, a group of Rutgers MBA students visited Russia as part of their Doing Business in Russia course. William Pollak, Full-time Class of 2015, is here to share his experience...

Students in front of Saint Basil's Cathedral in Red Square in Moscow, Russia

27 Rutgers MBA students answered the call of Doing Business in Russia, an elective class that includes academic study of the Russian socioeconomic climate, as well as a 10-day trip to Moscow and St. Petersburg.  I was one of the 5 full-time RBS students who attended, along with 22 flex students and 3 faculty members.   Professors Jeff Robinson and Alex Settles, who teach Entrepreneurship, Corporate Social Responsibility, and International Business at Rutgers, designed the trip’s itinerary, which included city tours, cultural attractions, and visits to businesses and startup incubators in Russia’s two most prominent cities.  We flew in to Moscow on March 12th, and returned from St. Petersburg on March 22nd, 2015. 

We spent our first days becoming acquainted with the historical and cultural sights in Moscow.  We toured the Kremlin, Red Square, St. Basil’s Cathedral and other landmarks, ate in restaurants suitable for royalty such as Turandot and CafĂ© Pushkin, and saw a ballet at the Bolshoi Theatre.  Moscow is a magnificent city that also has a night life to rival or surpass that of any major city in the world.  A night with more than 3 hours sleep was a rare occurrence on this trip.

Of immediate note was the importance of reading and speaking Russian.  English is not widely spoken in this city, and nearly all of the signs are written in Cyrillic.  Basic commerce is possible through hand gestures and a smile, though Muscovite retailers are less motivated than their American counterparts to engage with customers, particularly foreigners. 

After a few days of sightseeing, we visited the Higher School of Economics and listened to speakers from the Russian business world articulate their experiences doing business in Russia.  We also toured Startup October, an incubator connecting financiers with startup entrepreneurs, and learned about Moscow’s growing entrepreneurial culture.   Finally, we visited an industrial park which housed Oriflame, a Swedish cosmetics firm, as well as other tenants.  The industrial park generated its own power as opposed to connecting to the local power grid, which can be a prohibitively difficult task in Russia.  I was sad that Oriflame did not offer Swedish meatballs in their cafeteria.

An overnight train brought us to St. Petersburg on the 19th.  St. Petersburg is the same latitude as Alaska, and has few sunny days throughout the year, though we were lucky enough to enjoy unseasonably warm weather.    We heard from consulate and state department officials who provided insider knowledge into how to protect our data and identity, as well as the secret, non-touristy spots to visit in St.  Petersburg.  We also spoke at length with business leaders such as the CEO of Subway in Russia, and a software developer for Oracle.  At night, we saw the Jenufa opera at the fabulous Mariinsky theatre.  I’m glad I packed my tuxedo.

Our last day in Russia did not disappoint.  We took a tour of the Hermitage, a palace converted into one of the largest museums of art in the world.  We saw original artwork by all of the masters, and took hundreds of pictures of paintings and sculptures.  No amount of time seems sufficient to soak in all of the art at the Hermitage.  For lunch, we followed the state department employee’s advice and found a secret Indian restaurant in the heart of St. Petersburg modeled after a prohibition-era speakeasy.  The entrance was located behind a secret passage in a bookstore, and inside they served cocktails made up of their own special blends of alcohol.  This was the best meal I ate in Russia, even though Beef Stroganoff was not involved. 

It is truly hard to capture in words how rewarding this trip was.  We explored two of the greatest cities in one of the largest and most misunderstood nations in the world.   We also experienced Russian academic and business culture, and learned about the similarities and differences which make Russia an intriguing but challenging place to do business.  I hope to go back again soon.

Visiting the Oriflame Distribution Center in Moscow

Enjoying the sights in St. Petersburg

Attending the Hamlet Ballet at the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow

William at the World War II Museum in Moscow

William Pollak is finishing up his 2nd year in the full-time RBS MBA program. He is a fellow of the Rutgers Center for Supply Chain Management and former treasurer of the Student Government Association. After graduation, he will begin his career in Inventory Control Strategy with Dell in Austin, Texas. 

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