About the project «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 graduates from the Higher School of Economics who have discovered themselves through an interesting business or an unexpected profession. The protagonists share their experiences, and talk about the big shots they’ve schmoozed and how they’ve made the most of the opportunities they were given.
After graduating with a master’s degree from the HSE Faculty of Economic Sciences in 2002, Danila Vaskevich dreamed of the easy life, but the economic crisis in 2008 forced him to rethink his values. He left his management positions in consulting and retail to open the private Darovaniye (Gifted) school with the goal of, at least, helping children overcome ‘digital autism.’ He told Success Builder what HSE was like two decades ago, how to stop worshipping money, monetize your dreams, and create a ‘children’s MBA.’
Did you first learn about HSE 20 years ago? How did that happen?
Yes. It was the result of a series of random events. I am originally from Akademgorodok (Academic Town) in Novosibirsk. At the turn of the century, there was no systematic labour market in Novosibirsk. Jobs were scarce and people could only find vacancies through friends and relatives. I had no idea how I could build a career, but some acquaintances went off to study in the graduate programme at HSE in Moscow and so I started gathering information about it. Having learned about the admissions process, I arrived in Moscow to take the entrance exam and managed to qualify for a full scholarship without any prior preparation other than what I had learned at the Economics Faculty of Novosibirsk State University (NSU). I was an exemplary student for the first year and a half and was happy to study full-time as long as the money held out from the sale of my car. I lived on a budget of about $100 a month. I scrimped on everything, but like every student at that time, I bought my first cell phone for $230.
Were you intimidated by the experimental nature of education at HSE?
I had always studied in such schools. I graduated from the NSU Higher College of Computer Science that I had entered after the ninth grade. It was a very elite educational establishment at the time where the best NSU instructors taught in an innovative programme. After graduating from college, I was allowed to enter the university’s Economics Faculty as a third-year student. I recall how easy it was to get into the master’s programme at HSE and can say that I received a very solid grounding at NSU.
HSE inspired me and I felt an endless flow of energy. Macroeconomics was taught by a young guy who wore a beard and smoked a pipe, which was shocking for the early 2000s. He spoke about the subject as if it were poetry. All of the teachers were wonderful: they were on fire with their subjects. A group of youth formed at HSE who wanted to gain a deeper understanding of management and entrepreneurship and do hands-on projects. The Centre for Corporate Entrepreneurship was opened. It hosted lectures by leading business people and organized real-sector internships for students.
Immersed in such an environment, why didn’t you start your business then?
I did some work in sales while studying in Novosibirsk, but I didn’t have a clear feeling then that I wanted to be my own boss. I have only started referring to myself as an entrepreneur in the last three years — and that is after 14 years as an employee. At that time, I followed a conservative ‘by the book’ strategy for an economist: first, you become a manager, then a senior manager, then the CEO, and by the age of forty you can start your own business. After that, you have either a meagre pension from the state or else a yacht and your own island, depending on what you managed to achieve.
Why didn’t you stick with consulting after PwC?
I left because I wasn’t able to realize my leadership potential. I also felt frustrated over the lack of meaning in the work: I did not create a product with a clear value for people.
Now I run a business that transforms the world, and I feel good about that. I have a reason to give my all every day. My activity is now focused on people, which gives me a greater value as a specialist than if I were occupied with financial modelling: I have a direct influence on the quality of current and future society.
Didn’t you ever want to just get rich?
Although working in the industry was a good training ground, I pursued an ephemeral goal at the time: earn a big bonus from some company offering its IPO (which happened often), then use that bonus to become a financial retiree or investor and live a free life travelling the world until the end of my days. I’m actually glad that the events of 2008 changed not only the world but my goals.
That is why, from the first grade, our Gifted school teaches soft skills and non-standard thinking focused on, for example, how the world works and what place money occupies in life. It is important, but not all-important.
The sooner you stop thinking that money is sacred and recognize that it is only a tool, the sooner your actions take on a deeper meaning
Okay, so you reached the point where you were ready to start your own business. Why did you decide to open a school?
I understood that it was not the type of project that would enable me to support a family, but I dreamed that the time would come when I would ‘get rich’ doing only what I wanted to do. I thought of it as sort of a side venture, but I had to speed things up. We lived in the suburbs and in 2014 a neighbour began looking for a school for his child. He couldn’t find anything other than the usual state schools. We teamed up to first create a kindergarten that used elements of the Waldorf method — a magical, fairy tale environment, natural materials in the play environment and toys, and lively games and activities that gently guide the children towards real-life processes and in which all activity has a purpose. From the kindergarten, our school inherited its furniture and soft, warm interior design with an abundance of wood and eco-materials.
Why the focus on natural décor and materials?
The artificial and the natural — these are important elements in a person’s life and there should be a balance between them. For example, gadgets tend to distance people from each other, leading to what some refer to as a ‘digital autism epidemic.’ We see how living one’s life online is reflected in the results of education. Constantly shifting one’s focus of attention leads to ultra-short attention spans, adversely affects concentration, leads to the inability to recognize cause-and-effect relationships and to perform complex tasks properly that require prolonged focus.
We prohibit the use of gadgets in the elementary grades at our school, and rules govern their use in the upper classes. But even with such ‘digital hygiene’ in place, children still discuss video games, apps, news picked up from social networks, etc. — that is, artificial understandings instead of thinking based on the real world. My oldest son of seven does not have a cell phone yet.
How else does the Gifted school differ from ordinary schools?
We admitted our first students in 2015 and worked for four years with a license for supplementary education. In 2019, we were fully licensed as a school and received accreditation. The children stay at school all day, from 9 am until 6 pm and return home with their homework already completed. I believe it is extremely important for children to have a certain amount of control and the right environment. After their lessons, children have lunch, recess, independent study, and a broad choice of different activities and special courses. The classes are small, no larger than 15 children, and a friendly, even family-type atmosphere develops quickly.
We don’t force children to sit at their desks without moving for the whole lesson. Things are fairly relaxed. The desks can be rearranged for working in teams, the students interact with each other more, and there is less of a ‘frontal assault’ between teacher and class. This creates an environment of mutual respect between all the participants in the educational process.
Is running a private school in Russia a good business?
For me, it was initially a charitable project and social experiment. After I quit my work in Moscow, I had to choose what to do next and I decided to put my time and energy into my existing kindergarten and school projects. I devoted myself full-time to them starting in January 2017. We moved to a new building and expanded to accommodate 250 students, enabling those of us who were partners in the business to incorporate personal salaries in the budget.
The advantage of private education is that the teachers are naturally more motivated. For some reason, those in education typically argue that if the state pays their salaries, they are answerable only to the state, and not to parents. And the current law on education says that parents are equal participants in the educational process, creating a temptation for teachers to shift responsibility for education onto their shoulders. At our school, both the teachers and parents have an interest in ensuring that children receive the best possible education, but the school and the parents have different responsibilities: the school should teach whereas the parents should provide support, inspire their children, and instil the right values in them.
Our teachers have a great deal of respect for their jobs: they understand that the parents are paying their salaries and this motivates them to take greater responsibility for what they do
Private education has become extremely promising: it is a good alternative for people who do not want to follow the traditional path.
Which children attend your school?
Many private schools, both large and small, have one common feature: if the parents can pay, the school will teach their children. As a result, some students take to the programme while others cannot, even though they study in small classes with individualized instruction. We decided to work only with those students whom we can teach and to grade their work fairly. Our school resembles HSE in this regard.
We administer an admissions test for children entering the first class that measures their abilities and readiness to study. We also administer testing in specific subjects in classes 2-10. Naturally, children come to us with different levels of values, but the school maintains a certain level of culture and standard of behaviour and so we make it clear right from the start that violations will result in expulsion and a parting of ways.
I recently spoke with one mother whose 6th-grade child said, for the first time, “Mom, I want to go to school.” He had been with us for only two weeks. With a relationship like this, you can start to think about academic results.
How do you develop creativity in your students?
We offer a wide range of activities — art, music, sports, entrepreneurship, and woodshop. Children are free to choose what they want. We support their choice without any pressure. In general, it is very important they understand what free choice is, especially in their creative endeavours.
I had one student who was doing well in her studies, but simply stopped doing any work in chemistry and made a point of refusing. I called her aside and said, ‘You have only four months of chemistry left. I suggest you just work through to the end of the textbook, pass the final, and then never come back if you don’t find it interesting.’ ‘But how?’ she asked. ‘Is that even possible?’ ‘Of course,’ I said. As a result, she got back on track and studied as well as her classmates. This is the kind of understanding of free choice and cause-and-effect that I want the kids to reach at an early age so that they will make fewer mistakes as adults in identifying what they want. They should be able to choose their profession by listening to their inner voice, and not to the opinions of others or stereotypes — and this skill develops from unrestricted creativity and the free exchange of ideas.
Your school offers a Kinder MBA that teaches business from an early age. Do you really think this is necessary?
This project is not only about business and finance, but also about key skills of the 21st century and the ability to manage a project from the strategic level. From the age of seven, children can understand what money is and appreciate its abstract value as a tool for accomplishing specific projects, and through this learn the wisdom of not only the financial world but also of life in general. They learn the peculiarities of business thinking in a modern context, through case studies and the personal experience of the teacher.
The curriculum methodology is original but includes elements of the Singaporean system that ensures all students are ‘on board’ with what’s happening at all times. The result is that twice a year, our team of students presents their projects at the Global School Business Project Awards hosted by the Economics Department of Moscow State University. In my opinion, children who were born in 2012 or earlier are a special group: they will change the world and they will live and create at a higher level of awareness.
How do you recruit teachers?
We primarily get them from state schools. Some have many years of experience and others are just beginners. But in this environment, they share experiences and grow rapidly. As strange as it sounds, the teachers with the most experience carry the most ‘baggage’ and this can be difficult for them to overcome. Our school grew very quickly and now we have a staff of teachers that has developed an environment of self-actualization.
What challenges in terms of business plans and mission do you currently face?
We plan to create an educational cluster of approximately 600 children. We also want to create a model of a ‘modern’ school within the next 10-15 years. Everyone is talking about the profession of the future, but traditional school education changes very little. It would be good to create a system that prepares students for uncertainties in the future, as Silicon Valley visionaries put it. We need to teach children systematically such skills as adaptability and the ability and desire to learn constantly, assimilate new information, and to apply that new understanding in practice.
Our ultimate goal is for Russia’s school education to become one of the best in the world and that many different countries would open branches of Russian schools or schools that use the ‘Russian method.’ Globalism, as recent world events have shown, is already out of fashion.