Volha Hadunova, a managing partner in TechMinsk accelerator, tells in ItStars! podcast how she had left a large corporation and got in startups field; shares her views on the pros and cons of corporate culture and disclosures one of the first Belarusian accelerators for startups.
Enter an International Finance Corporation by a vacancy announcement
It was a long road to get in TechMinsk accelerator. I had been working in an International Finance Corporation, which was a part of the World Bank Group, for 15 years. I had been working in Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Azerbaijan, where my last job at IFC was. I got into this company quite funny.
It was my parents who saw the ad in the newspaper. I was then a graduate of a Moscow university and was not very actively looking for work. And they told me to go for an interview. Since this, all started.
I started working in a Brest business center. A year later, I became the director of the Grodno business center. And one more year later I moved to work in Minsk. All my activity over these 15 years has been connected with the development of the private sector and advising private enterprises. My specialization is “business planning and financial analysis”.
A lot of time and effort was spent on building a favorable business climate in Belarus. Belarusian legislation has changed a lot over these 15 years. Registration procedures have become simpler, a lot has been automated. IFC will have more recent information on this subject because they continue to work in Belarus. Much has been done to improve investment laws over the past 15 years.
Two weeks in Magadan, or how to love your job
I was really lucky because the work itself was interesting and exciting. I worked on different projects and countries. Once I had a business trip for two weeks to Magadan. I had to assess the possibilities of supplying local products to gold mines, to include local producers in the supply chain, and deliveries were mainly from America.
Just imagine that you visited Magadan in addition to work, understood the topic of catching redfish and fraud with caviar. We learned many local problems of private entrepreneurship because there are always a lot of meetings with different interesting people.
It is very interesting and exciting! Two weeks later you fly to Uzbekistan, and there other people and a different culture.
You are ready to work 24 hours a day because it is exciting.
Corporations add a lot of training and training events. Sometimes you are taught, and sometimes you teach. So work becomes your life.
Quitting the corporate environment and the eastern issue in the career
Still, a corporation is a corporation. And regardless of the field, it is very different from the startup industry.
Working in a startup is a completely different life rhythm, a particular decision-making system, a distinctive responsibility, and completely different money, not predicted or planned.
I quitted the corporation easily because after 15 years of work the only thing I lacked was education, namely an MBA. As a result, I found the “International MBA” program. The first part of “International Entrepreneurship” was in Germany, but after 15 years in this sector, I felt a little bored. The second part was held in Malaysia. This is a completely different culture and a different mentality. It was very interesting.
A whole big Islamic world of money, businesses, and contracts suddenly started.
Investment banks are the main financial institutions in the Middle East. There is an entrepreneur and there is an investor. They put together their efforts and money and divide the result at the output. Moreover, in Malaysia, banks still carry out so-called banking activities but use different contractual schemes. There are Sharia committees at banks that evaluate whether this activity is consistent with what is prescribed by Sharia.
And if there are violations, the bank is obliged to transfer all the profits from this activity to charity.
It is hard for banks to work there. On the one hand, the Sharia committee, on the other hand, the National Bank, and on the third hand, international banking regulation and legislation.
Cool oriental culture and excruciating bureaucracy
We left for Malaysia for six months and stayed for five years. It is a very interesting country with a mixture of cultures, religions, and traditions. Everyone’s getting along, interethnic conflicts are quite rare. That was awesome! We tried to do our own business in the education field there. In the beginning, we wanted to create schools for teaching the basics of finance and business planning. This was facilitated by a well-developed school of English business language. English itself is on par with the official Malay language. Besides, the country is not expensive for life. All this allowed new schools to appear.
Unfortunately, we didn’t succeed in business there. We spent 4 years to deal with legal and market issues and local features of doing business. It seemed that we were ready, so we registered the company. And then we spent the whole year struggling with all sorts of bureaucratic issues. We decided that we were fed up with that.
To open an English school you need to get a license in the Ministry of Education firstly. To get this license, you need to register a company. A mandatory requirement for this — at least 60-70% of the company’s share should belong to the citizens of Malaysia, and more than half of this sum should belong to ethnic Malays.
“It took me two years to start thinking outside the corporate box”
I finished my studies and so coincided that I was looking for something to do, while I did not want to return to the corporation. Because it took me two years to start thinking outside the corporate box. It’s true!
The corporation devours you… Work has replaced the rest of my life. I missed out how my children grew up.
I had almost no free time. When work was over at the local time, an office in Istanbul or Washington woke up. I could not read developmental literature, my max was something fascinating like a detective story. I had no longer any brain resource left for something. And all this had been lasting for a long time. When it began letting me go, I had a feeling that there was the world around. People do something and it’s not connected with corporations! Our neighbors opened a restaurant, others studied at a medical university in Russia.
I recently accidentally had a conversation with a man who got in a large IT corporation in New York. They found him in a startup and put in the field. He is a young talent, who has hands of gold and brilliant mind. After a year of work, as he said, he did not have any time, effort or desire left for ideas and creativity. The corporation sets goals, objectives, creates reporting.
You become a part to be used, and in fact, it is so alluring. Because you think that you are a very important screw in this entire large system. It seems like you’ll leave and everyone will lose a lot at once. This is a lie.
I would advise those who have been working in corporations for five years and still have no big goal like to become a partner, to leave. Because over time, there is a feeling that your life is a solid job and nothing else. Yes, you earn good money, but that’s all.
Work at TechMinsk
When I was still in Malaysia, I once received an offer from BelBiz. I have known her founder, Tatyana Marynich, since IFC’s work. We have known each other for almost 20 years. BelBiz arose from the IFC structure. In 2012, they had the idea of creating a startup school. Then the terminology of start-ups was still undeveloped, and if you said “startups as a system”, only a few people would understand what it was about. There were very few events.
TechMinsk was an educational center during establishing the startup ecosystem in Belarus. A big plus was the possibility of using personal contacts of the BelBiz and Imaguru founders to attract international mentors. Interest to Belarus was gradually growing, and the startup community was developing. Numerous hackathons, datatons, conferences, and seminars began. Probably here TechMinsk slightly took a back seat.
The idea to return with a new business model did not come about by accident but as a result of the work of TechMinsk program participants. Because many of them took part in accelerator programs. And it happened that we all know these people.
Firstly, we realized that we need to be more actively involved in the program participants’ fate.
Secondly, the signing of an agreement with Google as part of the Google Launchpad program in May 2019 was an important step.
The final decision to launch a new accelerator model with a new program, with a fund, etc. was taken in May. Normally it takes a year, but we did it in a couple of months. Decisions were made very quickly. A group of partners gathered, consulted with experts, looked at what was happening in the world, made a decision. We chose the widest direction of AI, without focusing on the industry, because we wanted to cover a lot of good startups.
On Belarusian investors
Now we are completing the formation of a micro-acceleration fund, we are ready to invest $1.5-3 million. This fund is for Belarus, and it is in Belarus. This money belongs to Belarusian investors. Oleg Khusaenov (“Bison Capital”) is among them. The pool of investors consists of two different kinds of people: one half are those who are not related to the field of startups, but would like to know more about it and take part as investors; and the second half are those who are in this industry already, they are interested not only in investment but also in mentoring, accompanying these teams.
What startups suit for TechMinsk?
Startups we attract to our program are at the initial stage with a minimal product. They have little users or sales stream, and they need to take the next step. The accelerator should give this startup such an impetus and obtain them funding in 10 weeks. Criteria for startups are available at techminsk.com. You need to fill out a questionnaire and go through the selection process. Fill out the form, and right after that, you are already half ours.
We offer 50 thousand dollars in return for 8% in the company and 10 weeks of the acceleration program.
It is an acceleration program, not an educational one because there is is a big difference. The acceleration program is individual for each team. We go with the teams until our exit as a minor investor. We will have two sets a year for 10 teams, the fund is up to $3 million. There will be at least 3 batches: one this year and two next year.
Now we are forming a pool of investors, trackers, and interested mentors. The more opportunities we have here, the easier it will be to us to link them to each of the startups. Some things will come together. Let’s say some teams can enter the American market, they receive a one-day module with an assessment of the current state of sales, receive recommendations on what can be done in our market, and the next step is to clarify how it will work in the American market. There will be general questions for all startups. For example, on structuring transactions, on tax procedures, etc. As at August 2, I won’t say how many startups we took, but more than wanted.
If you want to take part in the autumn acceleration program, register before the deadline, which is August 31. And on August 20, we plan a big event for startups and the entire ecosystem, and for everyone interested in developing a successful business.