Last Friday, we had the honor to speak with a room full of entrepreneurs in Surgut, Siberia via teleconference. The conference was set up by Michelle Skiljian of the Inland Empire Women’s Center and Dr. Tapie Rhom, an IT professor at CSUSB along with the help of many others. We filed into the tele-learning center at Cal State San Bernardino for a 7:00pm start. The tele bridge started late because the participants on the Russian end had to fight a snow storm to get to the venue. The crowd was slow to build but after about twenty minutes there were fifty or so participants involved in the conversation with about 15 Southern California business owners.
They aren’t all that different than us, except they have higher expectations for what America does for it’s start up nation. Most of their questions centered on sources of capital (with an interesting sidebar about support for parolees), the kinds of businesses we start here and, in particular, the kinds of businesses women are getting into. The Russian audience was majority women and the only three business owners that spoke were women. They explained the split of business owners in Russia 85-15% male, with the majority of women owning care giving or service businesses.
They asked a lot of questions about what kind of government support there is in America for young people starting businesses and were quite surprised to learn that there wasn’t much more than what they had. There is no angel investing as we know it, and most starting businesses are using the equivalent of credit cards, paying 25 – 30% interest for the start up capital they need. “They take these credits,” said one woman, “because it is the only choice they have.” Reminds me of the many start ups in this country started with plastic.
Surgut is in an energy producing part of Russia, so our questions to them about electric cars fell on deaf ears. One participant said, “My friends asked why I would buy a Prius when we are sitting oceans of oil and gas.” There is some call for trash to energy enterprises, indeed one of the participants in Surgut has started one, but most of the businesses were the same as we see being started here. There were a lot of consumer oriented services and merchandise companies with significant construction firms thrown in.
My heart goes out to the translators. There were four students doing the translation and all of them were challenged on both sides. In particular, speakers would forget they were working with a translator and toss off several paragraphs before stopping for the translation. When things went bad, we’d hear the translator say a half dozen words to summarize a hundred. But most times they would work hard to keep up. In fact, many times our group would call out, ‘translator!‘, to remind the speaker to pause. We can hope that the fidelity matched the effort.
It was inspiring to see them. They look exactly like the entrepreneurs I see here. Faces full of anticipation, minds full of questions. Most of them hardly able to contain their energy. There were many times when we solidly connected. One of those was when they asked what advice that we would give them on their journey. At one point someone on our side said, ‘Don’t give up,’ which was met with a cascade of tinny applause from halfway around the world.