About Success Builder
How do you find your place in life? How do you find something to do that both comes naturally to you and makes you happy? The answer is that you have to apply the knowledge you’ve gained from university and from life itself correctly. The Success Builder Project features HSE University graduates who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences and lessons learnt and talk about how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
HSE University ICEF graduate Yaroslav Kolodyazhnyy switched from the investment industry to IT and is now a project manager in the Yandex Corporate Development Department in Dubai. In this interview with Success Builder, he spoke about the benefits of student networking, the right way to approach a job search, and what project managers do at Yandex.
How did you decide where you wanted to study? Why did you choose the ICEF programme at HSE University?
I graduated from high school in Volgograd, but despite the fact that it was considered a very good school, I didn’t know a single person planning to attend university in Moscow who could share their experience with me. So, in choosing a university, I largely had to rely on publicly available sources, ratings, and my own intuition. Once, for example, my parents and I just happened to be near the HSE University campus in Moscow and decided to visit the admissions office. They told me about the different faculties and the ICEF dual degree programme. After that, HSE University ended up on my personal shortlist. My choice of subjects in the Unified State Exam meant that I could apply to a number of universities using a single set of test scores. So I applied to HSE University, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, the Plekhanov Russian University of Economics, and the Financial University.
To improve my chances of getting in, I took part in the HSE Academic Olympics in Economics. But my high school didn’t teach this subject at all, so I bombed at the Olympics. Since English was my strong point, I liked ICEF quite a bit. In seemed promising to study by standards of Western universities with an international staff of teachers. The range of majors also attracted me, so I made a firm choice in favour of ICEF. As part of the admissions process, I was interviewed on my level of knowledge in language and mathematics to decide in which group I would study. I saw the inspiring Jeffrey Lokshin (who no longer works at ICEF), cool classrooms, and leather sofas, and heard people speaking foreign languages—and I was seized with anticipation of something new, interesting and cool. I think I chose the best option available in Russia at that time.
How has HSE University helped you grow as a person?
The effect has been huge. My path in life has largely been the result of my studies at HSE University. The first thing that caught my eye about classes was how many teachers were passionate about their subjects. Teaching was a pleasure for them, not an obligation. During my first year, I was constantly in a state of either fear or hunger for knowledge. There was fear because I realised that my school had not prepared me adequately and that I would have to work harder to maintain a top ranking at HSE. And the hunger for knowledge came from the fact that there was so much that could be known that I really wanted to learn. So, I attended not only my own seminars, but also those of other groups and availed myself of my teachers’ office hours.
HSE University is like a huge machine for generating passion for new subjects. In terms of well-rounded skills, I can say that an HSE University bachelor’s degree is definitely one of the most outstanding in Europe, and maybe the world. This is largely due to the quality of teaching, especially in the exact sciences that form the basis of economics.
I think that any first-rate education consists of three things—hard skills, soft skills, and socialisation
I saw all three of these components both at ICEF and at HSE University as a whole. In talking with students from other faculties, I didn’t get a sense that the education at one was better than at the others. This explains why my fellow students have followed such a diverse range of career paths. In addition to having an outstanding command of statistics and mathematics, it is important to be well-balanced and a good listener, and to be able to present your argument and debate, even with those in positions of authority. When your school environment deeply reinforces these qualities, you develop a sense of maturity and responsibility as early as your first year.
Was it difficult to study economics, especially given how limited your previous knowledge of it was?
Numbers can explain this best. I ranked 56th among 151 students after our first exams and moved up to the Top 20 by the end of my first year. Yes, I might have worked harder to achieve that than those who attended university prep courses, but by our third year, we were all equals. The programme is organised in a logical way that enables everyone—both those who were top finishers in Academic Olympics and former students of the humanities—to reach approximately the same level. What’s more, I take pride in tackling difficult challenges.
In general, what prompted you to think about getting a master’s degree? Why did you choose London for it?
It was prompted by the need to have the qualities that recruiters look for in candidates. Along with skillsets, employers look at the university’s brand. I already had the strongest Russian brand on my résumé as well as an international diploma. But the chance to go study in a different country and experience its culture promised a major step up that opened opportunities that had seemed inaccessible before. When you go live in another country, your perception of what’s good and bad changes. Right before your eyes, your whole notion of values and your behavioural patterns change as well.
For me, the most important thing about the master’s programme was that it enabled me to take a broader view of many things and grow socially. But I didn’t want to spend money for nothing, and so I tried to choose the master’s programme that would give me the most applied knowledge. Imperial College London turned out to be the right choice and a way to get a lot from one year of studies. They offered great courses in the exact sciences and I was able to improve my knowledge of the social sciences as well. I was very impressed with the teachers, who also worked in industry. For example, the M&A course was taught by Robert Stefanowski, the former head of General Electric who, at that time, was CFO of UBS Investment Bank and is now running for Governor of Connecticut. The teachers’ knowledge and experience inspired confidence. Imperial College also has an excellent water polo team, which was the icing on the cake.
How does graduate school work in terms of networking, especially in London?
It isn’t easy to network with foreign employers when you have more than 200 fellow students in your class. Of course, the College held loads of career activities, but I didn’t try to find a job in London. I found one in Russia and returned here after my studies. That was in 2013: the GDP of the United Kingdom was shrinking by 0.5% while Russia’s GDP was rising by 3%-4%, which was another factor that played a role.
Do I have any contacts left from my student days? Of course, I made friends as a student that I know I can turn to if I need a job, a business partner, or simply friendly assistance or someone to talk to.
The friendships you form as a student are especially strong because overcoming challenges together brings people closer
For example, all students share the common problem of having to find a job. In this sense, it is useful to have support from those who have already found a place in the job market as specialists and to build up your communication with the professional community. I see that every year Russian students are better prepared for their careers. They are much savvier than I was at that age. I see this by how they perform at company interviews, the qualities they demonstrate and how they communicate. This is obviously because, for example, HSE University students have formed various clubs where they work together to improve their chances of succeeding. In this sense, HSE University differs little from well-known Western universities where the culture of networking has been cultivated for decades.
What was your first job experience like?
I got the opportunity to do an internship followed by a full-time job at Oliver Wyman in Moscow. I knew what I was after with my master’s degree, but now I realise that I could have gone about the job search process a little differently. At the time, I wanted to get as many job offers as possible and so I applied almost everywhere. But I should have taken a more targeted approach and focused only on what best suited me. I should not have been afraid to introduce myself and to invite people out for coffee to learn more about the company, as is often done abroad. From my current perspective, I don’t view prior experience as being so important and I’m perfectly willing to consider recent graduates for entry-level jobs.
More recently, I learned that what can make or break an interview is the last five minutes when you have the chance to ask questions. From the questions a job candidate asks, you can often get a sense of his values and see whether he can look beyond the information he learned at university. Typically, students take the road most advertised by the companies that visit campus. But that doesn’t take into account who you are and your personal strengths. Maybe you can do more than just follow the path taken by students who have gone before you.
My path towards awareness in matters of career was connected with finding myself, with what I like and don’t like. I tried the public markets and consulting before I got into M&A, which I really liked. Judging by the results, the team I worked with also liked it—it seems that I was in the right place.
Your experience is interesting in that you’ve worked in private business and for the state-owned companies Rosneft and RDIF. How has your international education helped?
Rosneft had many international projects when I worked there, despite its large bureaucracy and frequently inconsistent decisions. I oversaw my first transaction at the age of 23. It was valued in the tens of millions of dollars, which was still a small sum compared to others at Rosneft. The team I was on had some outstanding members. For example, one held an MBA from the London Business School, another had studied in Germany and France, and still another had a Western master’s degree, and so on.
International experience in transactions was worth its weight in gold
This work turned out to be interesting because the M&A team was small but the projects were complex and very challenging. I quickly gained a strong mastery of tasks that ordinarily take five or six years to learn. This made it possible to take the lead in my work, although I laboured under the burden of the bureaucracy and peculiar functioning of a gigantic state structure.
Later, I joined the Russian Direct Investment Fund. It was a little easier there in the sense that I did a lot from scratch. I was responsible for not only structuring projects, but also for figuring out how to sell them to co-investors who came from various markets and business cultures. The experience of communication in an international environment, as well as the ability to see and respect other people's values helped a lot here. At RDIF, for every ruble of investment in the national economy, an additional nine rubles came from co-investors. So you first have to explain to the company why it should have a lower valuation, and then you turn around and convince co-investors why this is a great deal. You really build up your chops that way, working in two roles at once, but it’s very tough to keep that up for long.
Why did you switch over to Yandex? That’s a fairly radical move.
Back then, there weren’t many tech deals and the M&A teams were small. At that time, the team for Yandex had only four people. Compare that with the 14 members it has now. The IT industry was booming and it still is. Learning the ropes was interesting. Besides, Yandex is a cool brand in every way. Working there enabled me to see many projects in different parts of the ecosystem. What’s more, my transition coincided with the M&A wave in IT companies. During those years, I managed to work with projects in AdTech, FoodTech, FinTech, e-commerce, software, ride-hailing, delivery, driverless vehicles and others. My work doesn’t require a deep understanding of technology, but you develop certain approaches and gain knowledge with experience. On a different note, working at Yandex demands that you take serious responsibility for results as well as have certain technical skills, skills in managing processes on a large scale, and the ability to find a common language with different kinds of people.
What do you do in your current project manager position?
I was named head of the M&A department in the mobility segment in January 2022. This includes driverless vehicles, taxis, carsharing, and logistics. There are projects for acquiring companies, selling assets, and creating joint ventures. The M&A team serves as a think tank for the projects and provides comprehensive support for transactions. This includes valuation, analysis, preparing materials, signing agreements, and drawing up and signing documentation.
That’s why you have to communicate not only with the counterparty, but also within the company a great deal. The challenge of working in M&A is that you have to build a trusting relationship with the business right from the start, and for this you need to provide some benefit and help shape the strategy. Now I build complete transactions on my own, from start to finish. The transaction isn’t completed when the document is signed. After that comes product and business integration, which is often linked to the structure of the transaction and the settlements involved. In general, the M&A department is an important element in the company: we help businesses look at themselves from the outside.