Stanford Russian-American Forum: From Idea to Project
Every year, 20 American and 20 Russian students come together to participate in the Stanford Russian-American Forum, which begins with an autumn conference in Moscow, continues with six months of joint work on research projects, and finishes with a spring conference at Stanford University. Kirill Kopytov, a first-year Master’s student at the International College of Economics and Finance (ICEF), spoke with us about his participation in the forum.
— Kirill, why did you decide to participate in the Stanford Russian-American Forum and what were your expectations?
— First of all, I wanted to feel part of a big international project. And this wish came true; during the work on the research, we communicated with Russian, American, and even Israeli experts.
Second, shortly before the forum began, I became interested in venture capital financing, so I was interested in the topic of our research, which was entrepreneurial ecosystems, such as accelerator and incubator start-ups. We focused on local systems. In Russia, they were the Tyumen and Samara regions, and in the U.S., Stanford and Los Angeles. We chose these regions due to the size and interconnection of the ecosystems. For each of the ecosystems, we tried to determine the factors that influenced their success. For example, in Russia, the role of the state in the development of the ecosystems is strong, which is not a surprise. And the state plays rather a positive role in the development of incubators and accelerators.
We found some considerable differences in how venture capital financing is seen by investors themselves. In the U.S., many people are ready to invest ‘for the sake of idea’ and accept the possible risks of start-up bankruptcy. In Russia, most investors are risk-averse, and are inclined to invest only in start-ups that will definitely bring profit. That’s why when we look at the local project we see a lot of start-ups related to technical improvements of production mechanisms. This happens because investors can understand the mechanism of return on investment in such developments. But Russian investors are suspicious of the products that create new markets, such as Instagram or Uber.
And last but not the least, I wanted to get more experience in communication and team work. There were a lot of talented and interesting participants at the forum. My team consisted of four people, two from Russia (I and a student from St. Petersburg State University), and American students from Stanford and George Washington University.
— You have to go through a serious competition to become a forum participant. In your view, what helped you to pass the selection? Do you have any advice for students who are going to apply?
— The competition was really serious. Last year, if I’m not mistaken, 800 applications were submitted, and only 40 of them passed the selection. As for what helped me pass the competition and what is important in the selection, first, it is a proactive attitude and independence. No one will hold your hand there and make you do something. You’ll have to decide on your own how to conduct the research, set goals and achieve them. And here, my previous project work experience was very helpful.
Second, it’s important how the knowledge and experience you got during your studies or work correlate with the research topic you select. For example, I graduated from HSE in economics, and, accordingly, chose a topic related to economics. But there were other studies that were interesting for me: in politics, the power industry, and even nuclear security. Now I understand that all the forum participants this year clearly understood why they chose a certain theme. The forum will be especially useful for those who have already formulated certain career and personal interests.
Third is an ‘openness to the world’ – the ability to find common ground with representatives of various countries and cultures, as well as the ability to build business and personal relations independently of any prejudices and stereotypes. That’s why, having already participated in international exchange programmes or working with international colleagues would be an advantage.
— What events did you take part in? How was the work organized during the year?
— The forum essentially consists of two stages, the autumn and the spring conference. The project itself lasts eight months. In August 2015, we passed the selection, and in September we began developing the research projects. In October, we met the organizers and participants in person at a week-long conference in Moscow and Tyumen. We met various specialists and experts, visited Skolkovo, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Technopark in Tyumen. Our team interviewed top executives at Skolkovo in order to determine the general direction of our study before starting work on the project. Such communication with professionals was truly useful.
Generally speaking, I believe that the most important thing I got from participation in the forum is the new contacts. I met people whom I hardly could talk to in ordinary life, such as Dmitry Kalaev, head of the Internet Initiative Development Fund; Larisa Nevidailo, Business Rights Commissioner in the Tyumen Region; Sergey Bogdanov, director of the Venture Investment Development Fund in the Samara Region; and many others. The forum allowed me to learn more about the Russian venture industry, to understand how it works, and what factors influence its development. I became interested in private investment and the venture capital financing sector only recently, and I don’t know yet where this interest is leading me. That said, the forum helped me get real information about how these things work in Russia, and to get a certain vision of their future.
In April, we presented our research at Stanford. We didn’t receive any formal grades, but the results were valuable both for ourselves and for the external experts who participated in the work. We have already finished the text of the paper. Now we are going to amend it a little and publish it in an academic journal.
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