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The rise of modern Russian women in business
When I find myself in front of an audience of Russian civil servants or entrepreneurs, I admit that I often stand out — a young businesswoman who talks about innovation and serves as an investor and consultant for startup projects. Almost all the large enterprises and government agencies in Russia have traditionally been run by men, while women have often been relegated to supporting functions, such as marketing, finance or HR. However, as Russia’s male-dominated business world turns to innovation and entrepreneurship, the tides are changing for women too, and we are seeing the emergence of another key trend in modernization – the rise of the Russian female entrepreneur.
The main impetus for this shift is the fact that the “big business” style of the Soviet era, where scale was a business’ competitive advantage, is being challenged by smaller, more nimble startups that have the backing of venture capital and seed funds. Finally, there is an environment in Russia where people are no longer afraid to found or co-found a small or medium-sized business and risk failure. Since this increasingly horizontal business environment means that more people can be entrepreneurs, Russian women, which outnumber their male counterparts, are being empowered as never before. And considering that women now account for about 65 percent of users of the Russian Internet (Runet), women in regions beyond Moscow and St. Petersburg can access technology as never before, leveling the playing field and creating the right conditions for female-owned and managed IT startups.
Jumpstarting female entrepreneurship in Russia
Seeing that the government’s push to modernize would open doors for female entrepreneurs, I resigned from a large holding company to help jumpstart female entrepreneurship in Russia. I was joined by fellow entrepreneur Masha Kosenkova, who also left a comfortable job at the largest distributor of computer games in Russia. Together we realized that one of the main challenges preventing Russian women from growing as entrepreneurs was the lack of resources and networking opportunities. After attending a Women 2.0 forum in Silicon Valley, we were inspired to create a similar platform in Russia, which we called Startup Women. This offline association serves as a business incubator by bringing together active and future businesswoman and helping them raise money for their IT ideas. Since Internet projects require a minimal threshold and strong communications skills, they are especially easy for women to launch if they have the right tools and mentorship. The First Startup Women Forum was held in April 2011 and successfully provided Russian female entrepreneurs a chance to share stories of success and failure and address female-specific issue in the business climate.
Many Russian women are also using IT startups to promote social entrepreneurship and address some of the nation’s humanitarian issues. Take for example Nastia Severina, a 24-year-old woman who, along with her partner Grisha Asmolov, launched Russian-fires.ru, a startup to help victims of the devastating forest fires in Russia last year. After this, Nastia went on to establish an IT startup designed to help the people of Kizel, which is one of the most depressed cities in Russia. The startup uses crowdsourcing and information sharing technique to help foster an entrepreneurial and innovation ecosystem in the city. I recently decided to establish a fund for the development of social entrepreneurship in Russia and offered Nastia the post of executive director.
Changing Russia’s future landscape
Overall, there are several stereotypes about Russia: bears, vodka, caviar and beautiful women who, as the Russian proverb goes, can “gallop on a horse and enter a burning house.” But while the others are becoming outdated, the last is exactly the truth. These strong feminine qualities are helping to build a new generation of Internet companies throughout Russia, which have already succeeded in saving lives and impressing foreign investors. This startup movement has only just begun. It is admittedly a bit chaotic, but is gradually shifting focus from quantity of projects to quality, and the number of female investors and entrepreneurs in the IT sector is steadily increasing. I cannot say that all is rosy and there are no problems on the horizon, but as the economy allows for this new wave of startups and modernization, Russian women have a unique opportunity to take the reins and define their own role in the future of Russia.
Alena Popova is an entrepreneur and co-founder of Startup Women. Find out more at AlenaPopova.com.