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Olga Vysokova: From Bank to Breakfasts

Russian Gap has already written about the “Women Who Inspire” meetings held in London for Russian-speaking businesswomen and entrepreneurs. The organiser of these events, Olga Vysokova, sees demand among women who are tired of female conversations about handbags, children and holidays. They attend her events to get business ideas, share experience, and make contacts with like-minded people. Russian Gap met with Olga to find out where she got the idea from, how she decides who to invite, and what this work means to Olga herself.

Olga, you used to run Center-invest Bank’s European office in London. Are you still working in banking now?

I spent a whole ten years working for the bank. I began working in Russia, at Center-invest Bank’s head office in Rostov-on-Don, which is my home city. And then I set up and ran the bank’s representative office in London. We opened the office in 2006, but we had to close it in 2013, and so I’m not working in banking now.

Did you move straight to London from Rostov-on-Don?

I left Russia to study in Moscow. I graduated from the Moscow State Institute for International Relations (MGIMO), and then I went to London for two years, to study for a Master’s degree in banking in Cass Business School. Afterwards, I went back to Russia. In effect though, as I started running international projects, I was living in both countries. I was responsible for attracting funding from international capital markets, and also international shareholders. There was a point at which our international deals reached critical mass, we had 500 correspondent banks, and we needed a presence in Europe. We decided to open an office in London, and I was put in charge of this project.

Just for the record, is there a family connection with Center-invest Bank?

It was my parents’ start up business. They founded the bank in 1992, but thereafter it grew organically, attracting new shareholders, including European ones.

When I joined the team, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, the German federal corporation DEG, Erste Bank and Raiffeisen became shareholders in Center-invest. This reduced our family’s share far from a controlling share, and so I can’t say, “It’s my family’s bank.” It belongs to the European shareholders I’ve just mentioned, and they have very strict requirements regarding management and corporate governance.

Was it nerve-racking undertaking this work?

I had no time to be nervous. There was so much work to do, and besides, there was such a buzz of excitement! The banking sector grew from 2000 to 2008, and everyone felt euphoric. We were moving full steam ahead, doubling our results year on year, everything was great. There was a lot of money, a lot of projects, and big celebrations of success.

And then what happened? The crisis?

2008 didn’t affect us so badly; it was the sanctions that hit us harder: our shareholders were prohibited from giving us credit lines, correspondent banks couldn’t provide us with finance either. We weren’t allowed to place bonds or arrange syndicates. So what was the point of being in Europe? Our business was confined to Russia. In 2013 I had a choice: to move to Rostov, or to stay here. I could have moved, because I really liked my job, but I have two children and had to take their interests into account. They love their school here in London and they wanted to stay.

Before the closure of the London office, were you juggling work with raising your children? 

Basically, yes! I remember how in 2008 we were signing a syndicate. The signing was scheduled for 29th of February, and my baby’s due date was 5th of March. I was terribly worried that with all the stress from work I would go into labour early, and that my baby would be born on 29 February! I had 55 banks due to sign; if any of them didn’t turn up, my deal would fall apart. There was a lot to worry about. But everything went well. My first child was born on 5th of March just as planned. I spent three months with him on maternity leave, but then there was an important meeting of the Board of Directors in Vienna which I really had to attend, as I was the intermediary between the foreign shareholders and the Russian shareholders.

Sometimes it wasn’t even the language that was the problem; it was things to do with different cultures and world views. Arguments could easily arise and it was very hard to reach consensus. Our objective was to avoid arguing, to stay on the same page, and to address issues in a constructive manner. And so I went back to work.

How exactly did you help shareholders to overcome this barrier? Did you develop any special techniques?

The most important thing was to work out the justification for the Russian shareholders’ decisions, and the justification for the foreign shareholders’ decisions. Sometimes there were ethical issues, sometimes there was a lack of understanding about Russian legislation or ways of doing business. European and Russian bankers can have completely different ideas about business management, and so there is always something to be clarified, something that both sides need their attention drawn to. You ask: “Why exactly are you proposing this? What is the objective?” The objective could be reached by approaching the issue from different angles, while if investors were fixed only on their way of achieving the objective, then of course we would end up in conflict, because we have different methods.

Did you find it easier to work with Russian or European bankers?

It is easier to work with European business people because they always have clearly defined rules. With Russians everything is always so emotional. It is much easier to work when you know the rules of the game and you can understand how and why people take these decisions.

The London office closed and you didn’t return to Russia. So what did you do next?

I started trying to find myself. I realised that bankers do not in fact have many marketable skills. Bankers know how to hold negotiations and develop contacts, but they don’t know how to sew or bake or dance. They don’t produce any kind of end product. And so I decided to try to achieve my childhood dreams, and as a child I dreamt of becoming a teacher. So I went to my children’s school and I asked the director to give me a chance to test myself. He allowed me to spend a month working as a classroom assistant with the younger children. And I discovered that it’s the hardest job in the world! You are looking after young children from 8am to 4pm, helping them with literally everything. You constantly have to think about how you respond to a child, what conclusions they will draw after talking to you, you don’t belong to yourself at all. And for this the salary is £25,000. I decided to discontinue the experiment, and I started looking for opportunities in the banking sector again.

At least the salary is higher!

Yes, and it is much more straightforward being a banker than a teacher!

I had an interview for a job in private banking with Zurich and they made me an offer, but as I began packing my suitcases, I started to question whether I was doing the right thing. I was a single mum, and I decided not to risk moving by myself, with two children, when I didn’t speak German. At least in London I had the support of my friends, and my children go to a good school. Basically, I got cold feet. I started to work as a consultant in London family offices which help families with capital management.

Завтрак Women Who Inspire в Halcyon

When did you start holding business breakfasts for women, and why?

The idea came to me quite spontaneously, although it didn’t appear from nowhere. I had already done similar things when I was working for the bank. In Russia I was one of the first to promote the idea of preferential lending for businesswomen. We launched this service in 2010, and now it is one of the flagship products. In part it was a marketing strategy, but at the same time we really did want to highlight the role of women in the business community and to express our admiration for them. I know how challenging it is to build your own business when you have a family and children. Moreover, the business world is often so male-dominated.

We’ve given loans also to businesswomen working in traditionally male sectors, such as meat processing, shipping equipment repairs, and the fishing industry.

We wrote articles, a whole book, about these women, and then we started holding business breakfasts for them, so that they could get to know one another, socialise, discuss challenges, and inspire one another.

Ahead of the first event, which was held in London last year at Berkeley Group, I phoned the Financial Times. I used a number that I found on Google. Of course, at first they said “No” to me, but I was persistent: I sent them a one-page description of the concept, and I said that we would be breaking stereotypes about Russian women living in England. That got them interested, and they sent a photographer and a journalist. This meant that we had to speak in English. The following day there was an article on their website and a day later it was printed in the Saturday edition of the Financial Times.

Did anything change after this article was published?

The main thing that changed was my attitude to this project. At first I’d thought that it would be a one-off event. But people started phoning me and writing to me, saying what a great idea it was, and asking what was next. And so I decided to make the breakfast meetings a regular event. I registered the company “Women Who Inspire”, developed a logo, and purchased the domain name. The website is currently being developed and it will be launched soon. At first I thought that as well as Russian entrepreneurs, I would start inviting English entrepreneurs. But actually there are so many interesting Russian women in London that it will be enough to focus just on them, even if I invite 20 people to an event every month.

Does this project have a commercial aim?

I’m not making money from it, but not every success is measured with money. Although there is no financial benefit for me, it is good for my profile. Articles are being written, and I am being invited to conferences, not just as a delegate, but as a speaker, and this gives me great pleasure. I want to change the world for the women so I started with the small world around me.

So who is paying for these events? Sponsors?

Rule number one: I shouldn’t be using my own money, otherwise it will look as though I am buying publicity for myself. Instead, I need people to believe in me, and then to support me. If no one believes in me, and no one wants to invest in these events, then I am wasting my time. And so yes, I look for sponsorship for each event. I approach banks and private companies. It’s easy for me to talk to the banks, and I ask them for £1000 per breakfast. Sometimes the budget turns out to be a lot higher, as was the case with the cocktail reception held at Bulgari boutique with the backing of Credit Suisse. I tell sponsors about the format, and I send them photographs and press releases. I don’t always get an agreement straightaway; sometimes budgets are already committed and I have to wait several months.

Why is it of interest to the banks?

The gender issue and support for the private sector are important trends just now, and when these issues can be combined it’s great for investor reports, for environmental and social responsibility reporting. They support female entrepreneurs, and especially when it costs so little, then why not?

We usually hold our meetings at the Berkeley Hotel, and we invite 20 people.

Once we held an excellent breakfast in the Halcyon Gallery. Admittedly, it worked out more expensive as we had to hire the equipment ourselves.

Where do you find the women who you want to attend these events?

As it happens, I discover some of them by reading Russian Gap. I take note of new names. Some women are introduced to me, and some are put forward by sponsors.

Lots of people ask me how they can attend a breakfast. Does the business have to be a certain type or size? Let’s answer this question now, and then I can just give people the link to this interview.

They should contact me (on Facebook, LinkedIn or by email: o.vysokova@me.com) and send me a link to their website or tell me about their business. We are interested in everyone: from start-ups to companies that have been operating for many years. It makes for a good combination.

Women with more established businesses tend to have some capital which they are looking to invest. When they see an interesting start-up idea, they can help.

Have there already been some such cases? 

I’m not aware of any deals yet, but after each breakfast I am often asked for contact details, and I know for sure that people continue to meet up and discuss joint projects.

Do you know yet how you will develop this further? I think that in a year’s time, one way or another, you will have gone over all the standout examples. The Russian-speaking business community in London is not limitless. 

I’ve never had an end goal in mind. I’ll see how the events go and then it will become clear what to do next. In any case it’s producing an excellent database and contact list. My current aim is to hold a larger event, but it’s harder to find a sponsor as it is more expensive. I can envisage an evening drinks format, where people could socialise and talk about themselves in a less formal environment.

Can you give some examples of impressive businesses run by Russian-speaking women in London? 

Today many successful online platforms are being set up, online marketplaces. Poliklinika No. 1 is a very simple, but very successful business, which has existed for many years. And there is Alla Uvarova from Two Chicks – their business has been going for ten years now, and it is a success story. In terms of online market platforms, Fancy Kids, Little Concept, and Arbuzz come to mind, and there is Katerina MacDougall from MacDougall’s Gallery. The main thing that I admire about them is that they aren’t afraid of their ideas, however difficult they were to implement in the beginning.

Words and photos: Katia Nikitina