I moved to Russia in 1992 with a friend. That was the year the economic reform started and it was possible to do foreign investments. We were here at the very early stages and in order to live here, and do anything, you needed to speak Russian. We didn't, so that prompted us to start the school and the courses.
We knew pretty little about Russia but we thought it was exciting to be here witnessing history. The school was one of the many ideas when you come to a country which is just opening up and you ask yourself, "What are we doing?" There was nothing here, we could have opened a bicycle shop, anything, because there was nothing.
There were scary moments
It was not a very safe environment. You had to be careful. We had one or two encounters which I hope nobody else had, but because we were dealing with education all the time, we weren't importing cars or setting up casinos, I think that's why we're still alive!
One thing I have learned is
'Don't blame the country if something fails'. In order to be successful you need a good product. It's very easy when you travel to a different place to blame it on the host country when you fail but economics are the same across the world. If you're not going with the market you will fail. My advice is look at yourself and at what you've done.
My proudest achievement
We have consistently been very popular with agents; we were a five-times-in-a-row winner of a StudyTravel Star Award. We can't participate anymore but we were one of the earliest Superstars. It shows that we're really good with agents. In terms of international accreditation we were the first Russian member of Eaquals and of Ialc. It proved that we could deliver the same sort of quality as in the West. These were milestone achievements showing the rest of the world that in Russia yes we can deliver.
The contact with those in the industry and with students and interns because they are a different generation. When we started, I was the same age as them and now I'm talking to people who are 1.5 generations younger and that's quite refreshing.
Striving to be better
You need to have a desire inside you to get better, you can always improve. You can never be satisfied with what you have, you can always aim higher so that's the internal motivator not to get bored. And the industry is changing very much; technology has entered the classroom big time so there's always something new. We started to develop our own text books, opened new market segments, it's a rapidly developing environment and each new year is different from the last.
We're a global bunch of friends, no matter what religion or what language you speak or what country you're from, we all have a common goal. We want to facilitate international understanding. We're definitely in the business of promoting tolerance which is very important now. We certainly play our role in trying to make this world more peaceful. It's very important that when young people travel and learn languages and different cultures that it will foster understanding.
I love my freedom
What I couldn't do is work on a payroll. We take risks; we have a lot of responsibility for staff and students. But either you're an entrepreneur or you're not. For me, I could have done something else but I cannot imagine myself being employed, it wouldn't work. It's either one or the other. I haven't worked anywhere else and I wouldn't want to.
You need to make sure that the product is good. You need to invest yourself 150 per cent; you have to give it everything you have. You have to force your luck to a certain extent and you have to pursue it. It will be tough and you will be poor but this fighting quality will help you every time you enter a crisis in the future because the environment is volatile, bookings go up and down, this is normal. If you had a tough time at the beginning it's quite helpful later on because you can always relate back to those survival qualities. If you're prepared for a fight, even for several years, you're in for success. If it's too easy in the beginning, I think you will lack these qualities later on when you enter stormy waters, because this happens to all of us. With international education it fluctuates, it's just part of the environment.
Changes in the industry
There are too many receiving countries now that are clamping down on visas and that's not helpful. These countries - the UK, South Africa, Russia - make this equation that international students are immigrants and they don't see that actually when they finish their studies they will add to the economy. And also for the universities, it's extremely important for them to have an international student body if they want to get anywhere close to high rankings, so it's very short sighted, it's something that has gotten worse. Also, generally the quality of schools has gone up in premise. Thanks to the help of the internet, social media, review websites you can't really cheat; you can't really run a bad school for a very long time. You could have done 20 years ago but now you will be penalised very quickly thanks to social media and that's a good thing.
There are many rewards
We have thousands of students, we are not only teaching young students but also many professionals, and we are a partner of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office so we teach diplomats, adults who need Russian for professional purposes, journalists. When you have contact with these people you can have interesting discussions with them because Russia is a country where it's very important to not just see black and white. When you work with diplomats and take them out for coffee or dinner you have extremely interesting discussions with them, particularly for me as a former student of political science, this is an interesting add on.
Putting pen to paper
In 10 years I will still be with the company. It depends on the environment, you can't take anything for granted. I did write a book and I've toyed with the idea of writing down some of my, what I consider 'unique experiences', especially coming into Russia when I did. It's something worth considering. So I'm toying with the idea of writing down something, but let's see when I will have the time. At the moment my kids are small and there's a lot of day-to-day family management as well.
We will add more destinations; we have one or two plans in the pipeline for next year. We're moving forward with blended learning, there are very important changes being planned for next year. There are academic developments. As a successful language school you need to have a combination of brilliant academics, you have to use technology in a smart way and you have to have first-class premises in a nice area of the town. Only when you have all the elements together, people are ready to pay a premium and they still get more out of it. As I said before, you can always improve.
Interview by Clarissa Waldron,