MBA students help Ukraine bounce back

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

“I work from 6am to 2am every day and only sleep a few hours, and I only have two or three hours off on Saturdays,” she said. “Our class tried to meet online, but we had to hide underground during the rocket attacks, up to 3 times a day, and we had frequent power outages.”

Pavlenko is one of a group of Ukrainian managers who enrolled in the Executive MBA program at the International School of Management in Kyiv in 2020. Since February, the group has had to deal with military bombing and job turmoil, far beyond what most university courses are designed to address.

“Business develops faster than our professors,” she said, while emphasizing the valuable network her peers build during their online and occasional in-person meetings. They are contributing to broader efforts to keep Ukraine’s economy afloat and support humanitarian and military activity sparked by Russia’s decision to wage war on their country.

MIM was founded in Kyiv in 1989 with the support of what is now known as the Swiss IMD Business School. It was designed to help Ukraine reorient westward in the post-Soviet world. More than three decades later, as Vladimir Putin works to keep the country firmly under the Kremlin’s influence, it has had to adapt to the consequences of an unresolved legacy in the east.

“Our idea is to create business education in Ukraine, introducing international standards,” said MIM President Iryna Tykhomyrova. After a brief closure in February and some bomb damage, the school reopened in April, with female teachers mainly working abroad, while male teachers remained in Kyiv. “We are showing that the war will end and prepare to build a new society and a new future,” she said.

“Some people drop out to take a break or save their business,” said MIM student Maksim Korolenko, who received part of his education abroad but returned to Ukraine to join a family tourism business. “For me, the most valuable part of the course is not the knowledge, but the interaction with your colleagues. You see their resilience and how each one was involved in the war. It brings you closer.”

Like many of his friends, he had to restructure his business from advising Ukrainians on vacation abroad to supporting foreign humanitarian volunteers traveling to the country to provide aid. He also started a website to raise funds and provide information about the conflict.

“Crisis management has become the overriding theme,” he said. “You always have that feeling that you’re writing a new chapter in business education, dealing with things that a lot of people didn’t have to deal with before.”

Business restructuring due to the Covid-19 lockdown has meant Korolenko and his family have begun changing the way they train and reward staff, and have found ways to support them amid shrinking income. But the war has created new difficulties for operating, not least in dealing with rising interest rates, difficulty borrowing and exchange rate costs.

MIM student Dmytro Derevianko from technology services company PMI agrees that the pandemic has helped Ukraine to prepare, including that many employees from Cyprus are working remotely. But the war brought even greater upheaval. “Emotionally, you can’t focus. You need to reach out to all your teammates and friends to see if they’re safe and alive and if they need anything.”

He stressed the importance of maintaining business activity, including for patriotic reasons. “We understand that we are not only doing our job, but fulfilling our responsibility to pay our taxes to help win this war. We also donate a lot of money. Every day there are people asking for help. You need to work hard to help all of these people. The financial needs are huge. “

A common problem among MIM EMBA students – and other Ukrainian businessmen – is the need for very fast, flexible decision-making. “We have a dynamic economy and you need very fast results. Courses can’t move at the same pace,” said Pavlenko, who is now director of international operations at the national postal service Ukrposhta after just five years with the postal service.

For example, when civil flights to and from Ukraine were canceled after the war began, she quickly switched to charter flights via Poland. It stepped up use of the country’s railways after many Ukrposhta trucks were damaged. With more than 900 post offices destroyed and staff leaving their jobs to fight or flee, it opened churches and schools, hired commercial drivers, and created mobile post offices run by fleets of regular passenger cars.

“We don’t have time for lengthy negotiations or bureaucracy,” she said, describing the deal that was signed within days. “We need to act quickly and creatively to support the military and our economy. My approach is, if you agree, let’s get started. If not, we’ll replace our partners.”

She posted videos instructing small businesses in the country on how to sell and ship clothing and other handmade goods abroad. Needing to make money without state support, Ukrposhta issued a special stamp commemorating the Ukrainian Coast Guard’s response to their opponent’s infamous “Russian warship, fuck it” and has since sold more than 600 Thousands of worlds.

Despite the turmoil of the war, Ukrposhta faces more day-to-day problems, such as competing with rival delivery services. “We joked that when Kharkhiv and other villages in the area were liberated, there was a race who would rebuild the service first, and sometimes we even built the service before the Ukrainian army!” she said.

If MIM’s current students receive very different practical and intensive training in their day-to-day business activities, Derevianko has no regrets about taking the EMBA. “Sometimes learning can help you change your mind a little bit and forget about all the problems we have when we can’t change much,” he said.

“We can talk to our network about our problems, ask for help, recommend something, and they’ll find a solution. I’m pretty sure we’re the coolest class ever in a business school because we survived Covid and Russia Come down. Nobody else will have the same experience.”

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