MBA students help Ukraine get back to business

Studying for a business degree is never easy, but Julia Pavlenko has had to cope with more stress than most students. Her work, classroom commitments and personal life have all been radically disrupted over the past few months in Ukraine.

“I’m working from 6am-2am every day with only a few hours’ sleep, and resting only on Saturdays for two or three hours,” she says. “Our class tries to meet online, but we have to shelter underground during rocket attacks up to three times a day and we often have power cuts.”

Pavlenko is one of a group of Ukrainian managers who signed up for an executive MBA programme in 2020 at Kyiv’s International Management Institute. Since February the group has had to cope with both military bombardments and turbulence in their jobs, well beyond the issues that most university courses were designed to address.

“Business is moving more quickly than our professors are,” she says, while stressing that her peers have forged valuable networks during their online and occasional in-person meetings. They are contributing to broader efforts to keep Ukraine’s economy afloat and to support humanitarian and military activities sparked by Russia’s decision to launch a war against their country.

MIM was founded in Kyiv in 1989 with support from what is now called IMD business school in Switzerland. It aimed to help reorientate Ukraine westwards in a post-Soviet world. More than three decades later, it has had to adjust to the consequences of the unresolved legacy of the east, following Vladimir Putin’s efforts to bring the country firmly back under the Kremlin’s influence.

“The idea was to create business education in Ukraine, to bring in international standards,” says Iryna Tykhomyrova, MIM’s president. After shutting briefly in February and suffering some bomb damage, the school reopened in April, with female faculty working largely from abroad while the men remain in Kyiv. “We are showing that the war will end, preparing to build a new society and a new future,” she says.

“Some people have dropped out to take a break or to save their business,” says MIM student Maksim Korolenko, who was partly educated abroad but returned to Ukraine to join the family tourism business. “The most valuable part of the course for me is not the knowledge but the interaction with colleagues. You see their resilience and how everybody is participating in the war effort. It brings you closer.”

We need to move quickly and creatively to support the army and our economy. My approach is if you agree, let’s start. If not, we will change our partners

Like many of his friends, he has had to restructure his company, pivoting from offering advice for Ukrainians taking holidays abroad to supporting foreign humanitarian volunteers travelling to the country to offer assistance. He has also launched a website to fundraise and provide information on the conflict.

“Crisis management has become the paramount subject,” he says. “You constantly have this feeling that you are a party to writing a new chapter in business education, dealing with things that not that many people have had to deal with before.”

The shake-up of the business due to Covid-19 lockdowns meant that Korolenko and his family had already started to change the way it trained and rewarded staff, and found ways to support them even as revenues shrank. But the war has brought fresh difficulties in operating, not least in coping with rising interest rates, difficulties in borrowing and exchange rate costs.

Fellow MIM student Dmytro Derevianko from PMI, a tech services company, agreed that the pandemic had helped to prepare Ukraine, with many staff working remotely including from Cyprus. But the war has brought far greater turmoil. “Emotionally, you can’t concentrate. You need to contact all your teammates and friends to see if they are safe and alive, and if they need anything.”

He stresses the importance of maintaining his business activities, including for patriotic reasons. “We understand that we are not only doing our work but fulfilling a responsibility to pay taxes to help win this war. We are also donating a lot of money. Every day you have somebody asking for help. You need to work to help all these guys. The financial need is huge.”

One common issue for the MIM EMBA students — as well as for other Ukrainian businesspeople — has been the need for very rapid, flexible decision making. “We have a dynamic economy and you need results very quickly. The curriculum can’t move at the same speed,” says Pavlenko, who after just five years at Ukrposhta, the state postal service, is now director of its international operations.

When civilian air flights to and from Ukraine were cancelled after the war began, she swiftly switched to chartering planes via Poland, for instance. After many Ukrposhta trucks damaged, it stepped up use of the country’s railways. With more than 900 post offices destroyed and staff leaving their jobs to fight or flee, it opened in churches and schools, hired commercial drivers and created mobile post offices operating from a fleet of ordinary passenger cars.

“We don’t have time for long negotiations or bureaucracy,” she says, describing deals signed within a matter of days. “We need to move quickly and creatively to support the army and our economy. My approach is if you agree, let’s start. If not, we will change our partners.”

She has launched videos to advise the country’s small businesses how to sell and ship clothes and other handmade goods abroad. With the need to generate money in the absence of support from the state, Ukrposhta issued a special stamp to commemorate the infamous “Russian warship, go fuck yourself” riposte of Ukrainian coastguards to their adversaries, which has since sold more than 6mn copies around the world.

Despite the turmoil of war, Ukrposhta still faces more everyday issues such as competition with rival delivery services. “We joke that when Kharkhiv and other villages in the region were liberated, there was such a race for who would be first to re-establish services that sometimes we set up even before the Ukrainian army!” she says.

If MIM’s current students are receiving a very different practical and intensive training on the job in their daily business activities, Derevianko nonetheless does not regret taking the EMBA. “Sometimes the studying helps you to change your mind a bit and forget about all the problems we have at a time when I can’t change much,” he says.

“We can talk to our network about our problems, ask for help, recommend something and they find solutions. I would definitely say that we are the coolest class at the business school ever, because we survived Covid and Russia. Nobody will have the same experience.”