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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.

A former Goldman Sachs consultant and the architect of numerous Yandex projects, ICEF graduate Vahe Ovasapyan now holds the post of Head of Fintech at Ozon. In this interview with Success Builder, Vahe shares his views on how to remain an overachiever and why it’s good to take risks.

You did your bachelor’s at the HSE Faculty of Economic Sciences and your master’s at the HSE International College of Economics and Finance. What prompted your choice of economics and finance?

It’s hard to tell. I think it was my family. My brother graduated from the same faculty, my father was a banker. I’m more into technical majors, and economics seemed a perfect match.

Do you remember anything from your econometrics classes?

I certainly do. Something funny happened with one of my econometrics tests. It was in my second year of master’s studies, when I was already working at Goldman. I normally finished work at 12 am, so I always studied for exams at night time. The econometrics exam was an open book exam. It was 4 am and without realising it, I grabbed the answers to the questions and took them with me to the exam. The teacher of course noticed I had them among my texts and notes and ordered me to resit the test. That was the first and only resit I had to do as a student.

In your experience, are the courses taught at HSE useful in the workplace and career-wise?

Humanities majors often say, ‘All these sine and cosine functions… I wonder if you ever use them in real life.’ I’d say studying at university is not about learning to use specific things. It’s about learning to think, structure, solve, and find answers, and in this sense, all those courses did help. They were hard work and therefore valuable.

Our B2B manager comes from a humanities background. He started out as a social science major at HSE, if I remember correctly. And he’s the one who’s most experienced with all the studies that we do at Ozon Fintech—UI research, UX experiments, A/B testing. Whenever questions arise regarding the interpretation of results, we turn to him to tell us if the reason is in the problem statement or in the sampling itself.

You can’t know what kind of knowledge will prove useful in the workplace. Overall, the purpose of education lies rather in cultivating the ability to structure, solve, and tackle problems than in the ability to use specific knowledge for a specific purpose.

HSE is known for its excellent networking opportunities. Have you made the most out of them? Are you still in touch with any of your classmates?

I’m afraid I don’t quite agree with the perception of networking as a major value of university education. Networking seems more a by-product. It isn’t the first thing to look for in a university. I probably feel that way because I’m not the biggest fan of networking.

But yes, I made a circle of friends while a student. We have a group chat on Telegram where we talk about different topics, including business, investment offers, help finding candidates or just to chat.

Vahe Ovasapyan with fellow students, ICEF (class of 2012)/ Photo courtesy of Vahe Ovasapyan

For students, how important are the learning environment and the people around you?

Crucially important. I’m not sure about now, but in my time, I mean 2006–2007, HSE was very different from all other schools in Russia. We wanted to lead the academic ratings and be knowledgeable, rather than drive flashy cars or have trendy possessions, as was the case with students in some other schools. For us, being top dog was about being a truly educated, capable person.

You joined Goldman Sachs while a master’s student. Had you done any internships before that?

Yes, I’d done one with Troika Dialog. It was 2009, just after the global financial crisis. I was looking to start a job, but vacancies were scarce after the crisis. The one I came across was in the affluent clients department. I got hired as a sales intern, but soon realised I wasn’t much of a sales person.

What made you think so?

The job involved cold calling people who knew financial instruments very well themselves. Again, it was 2009. Those smart, important people on the other end of the line had lost a lot a year before. Some were already into new sophisticated projects like structural nodes, which few people really knew about. The crisis had completely disrupted the course of things and plans. Credibility was low. And here I was, telling them about investment opportunities… I can’t say I was the best salesman in the world.

Did landing the internship at Goldman Sachs feel like a dream come true?

Absolutely. Back then, Goldman Sachs, and investment banking at large, was at the top of everyone’s wish list. Getting into Goldman Sachs in Russia wasn’t like getting into Goldman Sachs in America. Its American offices hired a minimum of 300 junior analysts per year, while the Russian one hired two or three, if any.

Getting there was quite a challenge given the huge number of candidates. I did some 12 interviews, including three four-hour ones. It was a tough selection process.

A lot has changed since then, and so have students’ priorities. I don’t think Goldman is still at the top of their wish list. Fintech sounds like a more lucrative option. In fact, it is the new Goldman now, with good prospects and opportunities.

What are your criteria for selecting interns? Do you look at the schools candidates come from? Is there a skill test?

I’m not involved in candidate selection, so it’s hard to say. But if I were, degree and university would surely be the number one thing I’d look at, especially in the case of those with no previous experience.

Photo: ozon.ru

To know in advance whether a new hire or intern is a good fit for the job, there should be proxies or some kind of indicators to be guided by. All you have is a 100-word A4 resume—not much to judge a candidate’s aptitude by. But when you know they come from a strong school after four or six years of study, this indicates that they put in a lot of effort, spent many sleepless nights studying, and know how to handle difficulties. The university experience is never effortless.

Which universities do you value most?

HSE and NES. I view them as very strong providers of economics education. And maybe a couple of faculties in other places.

The issue with strong universities is that they can never be large in terms of the percentage of their academically bright student population. The higher your percentage score in a large student cohort, the more average you are.

In my day, the HSE Faculty of Economic Sciences had a completion rate of only 40–50%. This brings to mind the words of one professor: ‘Few of you will graduate, but as long as those who do end up having a good life, that’s a good result.’

I think HSE is growing too fast, in all directions. This can take a toll on quality. But I love my alma mater anyway.

You worked at Goldman Sachs for six years. What did you gain from that experience and why did you decide to leave for Yandex?

Countless sleepless nights and lots of stress. There wasn’t a public holiday I didn’t spend in the office, except December 31st. But I gained a lot by being part of a truly intelligent team. Goldman’s Russian office is unique, especially its research department. The people I worked with are now top managers at Ozon, Yandex, Bering and other venture capital firms. They are very interesting to talk to. It’s important to always be around people who are smarter than you. That’s how you grow. This made it a unique experience for me.

I was in Metals and Mining. One important thing I realised there was that it was IT, not metallurgy, where the future lay. Secondly, the job offered a good industry experience—exactly what I needed. And thirdly, it involved taking risks, not merely advising people on where to invest for profit.

Yandex, by the way, had much fewer interviews to pass. The absolute record belongs to Goldman.

What projects were you involved in at Yandex? Was it the experimental unit you joined?

It was New Experiments. My task was to identify the best prospects for corporate development. Yandex is a strong proponent of experimental undertakings. Those small startups have finally grown into stand-alone businesses—Yandex Drive, Yandex.Cloud, Yandex Practicum. We all know them well.

How do you know whether an idea will take off?

By factoring in a lot of things. Calculations, estimates, even factors that defy assessment.

With some ideas, validation showed poor viability in terms of market scope, but in the end they turned out profitable with competitors. Excel calculations may prove wrong; they aren’t a panacea. We call it a leap of faith.

Is there a way to balance intuition and dry calculus?

If only I knew the answer. What I know is that you have to trust your team. While some decisions need to be purely data-driven, others should be data-informed. That means you use data and calculations as components of decision-making, but your figures aren’t the ultimate criterion.

Why did you decide to move from Yandex to Ozon?

I needed my next challenge. Ozon offered me to lead its fintech section, which involved even greater risk and responsibility. Every major marketplace, with very few exceptions, is backed up by a large fintech team. I wanted Ozon to be proud of its own one.

My role involved starting processes from scratch and building a team for it. There’s nothing more exciting I can think of than ‘finance meets technology’.

What are the current trends for fintech in marketplaces?

In a nutshell, the trend is towards even faster payment and maximum benefit. Fintech-driven marketplaces seek to offer fast and easy service with the best value for money—that’s their primary goal.

You rank among the Top 1000 Russian Managers and are second in the Top 250 Finance Managers. How you feel about that? Do you trust ratings?

I don’t, in fact. Ratings tend to miss out on objectivity. My best yardstick is how many customers Ozon Bank has, how many transactions we process, and what benefit we bring to people.

Photo: ozon.ru

What Forbes or Kommersant ratings show is the effectiveness of team effort. They don’t show personal performance; they indicate how well a team has worked as a whole.

At Ozon Fintech, we use a different criterion to base ratings on: we look at the amount of transactions a bank has, as well as the associated indicators. I am more concerned about where we are in the rating for transactions within Russia than about how many top-ranking managers we have.

Some people believe ratings reflect market trends and changes. Rating bodies themselves note that their ratings are constantly evolving as new people appear, teams change, new leaders come—and it is predominantly people in digitalisation, fintech, ESG, and new technologies who lead those ratings.

Well, I can't speak for the authors or their estimates, but one thing is for sure: the world is changing, and so are businesses. Transformations are certainly taking place.

To us, having a digital transformation team means admitting your business is still an analogue business. We don’t have one—we are a team in permanent transformation.

My advice to businesses that wish to quickly change their culture is to move your managers to an open-plan office.

We at Ozon Fintech share one big open space. We don’t have individual offices. It’s hard to tell who’s the manager and who’s subordinate if you are new. Plus, being together in one space saves time, allowing you to communicate and get your message across more effectively.

If I were to join a company with effectively working horizontal hierarchies and trustworthy relations, I’d be delighted to stay. I hope everyone in our team shares this perception. We are a team. We value every member.