Spotlight | March 2016 1st Issue
Creating Entrepreneurial Opportunities
By Mateen Syed
Strong on Russian values and well assimilated in Americanism, Alexandra Johnson is erudite, successful and a product of the East – West Osmosis She’s earned her name in the VC circles of Silicon Valley. Growing up in the former USSR in the 70’s, she was part of the class free social strata that Communism was supposed to have created as a growth model for society. For millennials and the gen next who grew up in the internet age, it will be meaningful to look at the Russian society beyond the stigma of its dogma. One of the biggest differentiators Communism tried to make was the establishment of a classless society where the well-being of the citizenry was predominantly under the State’s care. There was no ownership of assets – State was the primary owner. Citizens were taught, fed and provided accommodation on State’s dime. The concept of ownership was beyond the comprehension of majority of the populace. It was based on a theory of equality for all, which in hindsight was self-defeating. You cannot for long confine human nature to an ideology. It is an irony that a system which despised everything the West and Capitalism stood for has been completely consumed by consumerism in the new millennium.
Alexandra was born in Vladivostok – a city in Primorsky Krai, Russia, located at the head of the Golden Horn Bay, not far from Russia’s borders with China and North Korea. A naturally bright student, she went on to finish her PhD from St Petersburg State University (Formerly Leningrad). While in college Alexandra had the opportunity to meet American businessmen visiting Russia. She had picked up good English language skills which enabled her to interact with the US visitors and delegations. She was encouraged by one of the businessmen to apply to US universities in marketing and business management. To her surprise, Alexandra hadn’t heard those were disciplines taught in universities. In the former USSR, business wasn’t part of individuality. The freedom to think of starting a business wasn’t molded in the psyche of the population. Freedom was defined by the government and individualism wasn’t part of it. Business was primarily done by government and people worked for either the government or large business entities run by the government. Everything was provided and taken care off by the government. In pursuit of providing equal living standards to their population, communism in actuality took their people far away from the development pace of the new world order. It may be difficult to comprehend that a scientifically advanced nation, the first to venture in space, which was competing head-to-head with the USA in wargames, could have left their population so far behind in terms of empowerment and economic well-being.
Alexandra was curious to find out about marketing and management disciplines in US universities. In pre internet age, information was not on our fingertips. As many of us would relate, to get to foreign shores for education and better opportunities, application of aptitude was less and hustling was more. Alexandra’s perseverance made her connect with Americans who helped her understand about the business disciplines offered by US universities. She applied for and got a visitor’s visa to the US to go and explore her education opportunities. Those were the good old days when, to get a visa, one didn’t have to prove much beyond the academic scores and intent to study. On her passport, next to the visa was scribbled – prospective student. She landed up on the West Coast in San Francisco intending to go and study at UC Berkeley. She learned about the business disciplines and was interested in applying for MBA, when she got a shock about the international students’ high fees. She also explored Stanford but, according to her, its exclusivity was intimidating. And she decided to pursue MBA from UC Berkeley. Her dogged perseverance helped her find people as mentors who guided her not only in her studies but also in finding work so she could afford the education. Interesting irony is that the Stanford environs which had intimidated Alexandra, now engages with her at many levels. Many Stanford students are mentored by Alexandra.
Fast forward to the new millennium, Alexandra had established herself as a dedicated domain expert focused on empowering Russian entrepreneurship. She feels Silicon Valley should to be emulated by the immense technical talent in Russia. She partnered with a well-known name of Silicon Valley VC community, Tim Draper, and had formed Russian fund – DFJ VTB Aurora, along with VTB Capital – one of the biggest banks in Russia. Post the collapse of former USSR, independently wealthy Russians were investing in established big businesses. Most of their prior exposure was to government run entities. Up until the past decade getting investments for tech startups was difficult, if not impossible. The risk appetite for nascent tech investments wasn’t there. This was the opportunity the DFJ Fund 1 and later fund 2, wanted to leverage and help grow startup ecosystem in Russia. This was a way to share the opportunities Silicon Valley provides and how the risk capital for startups essentially pays off big dividends. If one has the knowledge of the domains to invest in and can mentor entrepreneurs for the next steps, it builds on the trail of entrepreneurial ecosystem. But as luck would have it, the geopolitical scenario changed and things started going the other way than what Alexandra and her team had anticipated. Reluctantly, they had to close the funds and wait for the next big wave of geopolitical positivity between the nations.
A decade earlier Alexandra started a conference focused on tech business opportunities between Silicon Valley and Russia. Over the years the event has mushroomed into a major attraction in Silicon Valley. This year’s Global Technology Symposium (GTS) has disrupted the traditional model of a regular tech conference and changed the agenda to reflect trends and innovation across disciplines. This year’s GTS being held in San Francisco will bring together entrepreneurs, investors and motivational leaders over two days to exchange and share ideas on creativity, disruption and innovation and the opportunities.