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Russia’s New Generation of Businesswomen as Viewed through an American Lens

The following is the English version (what I wrote) of my article published at Forbes Russia today.

(The other option for reading it in English, not in my words, but translated back: go to Google Translate and paste in this link: http://bit.ly/g900OL but please at least click on the article link at Forbes.ru so they know you read it! Thanks!)

Consider the stereotypical American businesswoman: she works hard, juggles professional and family life like a circus performer, takes on enormous responsibilities in the office, and makes it all look easy. Indra Nooyl, Andrea Jung, and Oprah Winfrey top lists of rich and powerful, seasoned by years of experience. Comparing Russia’s women in business used to resemble apples and oranges, but now, twenty years after Russia became independent, the new generation of women in business, who grew up very differently from their parents, have embraced opportunity in a variety of ways quite similar to their counterparts on the other side of the globe.

The new guard, comprised of bold, confident, well educated and well dressed women in their mid twenties to late thirties, is so formidable its participants may not even realize their own power. Working and playing as hard as New York investment bankers, waking before 6 a.m. and staying at work until 10 p.m., they are ruthlessly persistent at fundraising while connected to the office 24×7 through mobile phones, taking meetings late into the night. Fighting similar battles to American women in an extremely male-dominated workplace, they refuse to show signs of weakness, and they have refined networking to an art form. In these respects, they are not so different from American women clambering up the ladder of Fortune 500 and the high stakes venture-backed startup world.

When observed more closely, however, a few differences can be found. First, while American women consider looking good at work somewhat important, many of these Russian power women will settle for nothing less than perfection. At the recent Startup Women conference in Moscow, Elena Isheva, TV personality and cofounder of Banki.TV, emphasized to attendees the importance of looking great in meetings in order to get people to visit sites of their businesses. American women often still try to fit in more with their male colleagues, dressing down to be less noticed. It’s rare to see someone like Marissa Mayer embracing fashion in a denim-dominated Silicon Valley. In Moscow, impeccable style is more the norm than the exception in the power women circles. Take, for example, Iulia Sheglova of Microsoft Russia. Clad in Alexander McQueen pants and a trendy blouse du jour, her style resembles more of a librarian-turned-Bond girl, carried with an aura of self-assurance. Witness also the woman CFO who still lives with her parents yet wears high-end designers like Chanel daily.

Second, partnerships with spouses in business seems to be more common in big business in Russia. In the U.S., we see a retired husband and wife starting a bed and breakfast inn together, but rarely will they found a venture-backed Internet company or work together in a big bank. For Russians, this is perfectly normal, and they value that the spouses can help each other build a bigger company. Americans tend to fear personal attachments creating rifts at work and at home, and they fear “putting all of their eggs in one basket.” In addition, women who have children and continue to thrive on the professional track seem to garner extra respect from their female colleagues. American women will often try to hide the fact they have children or wish to have children, in order to keep from being discriminated against or viewed as weaker.

On a more concerning note, in Russia, health tends to be put last – after work, family and social life. Many of these women smoke and drink heavily, eating and sleeping very little. Their American cousins, on the other hand, tend to make more time for the gym and focus on eating a healthy diet. While obesity may be rampant in middle class America, the top business women, typically living in large cities, tend to be active and slim. Neither culture seems to value sleep much, unfortunately. As  Arianna Huffington’s Sleep Challenge emphasized, women are more sleep-deprived than men, and that can lead to reduced performance in and out of the workplace.

Many of these Russian women are major risk-takers who communicate well and make a great deal of money developing a vast amount of experience over a short time. They have little patience for excuses, wanting to be judged by the same standards as men. The word that most often comes to mind: tenacity. There seems to be a higher level of risk tolerance in these circles. In order to play the game in a marketplace with so much potential, those who want to succeed realize that holding anything back means a greater likelihood for failure. Taisiya Kudashkina, founder of Tulp.ru, asked anyone and everyone for money. And she pounded the pavement looking for funding while caring for young children at home.

In 2008, Russia was listed as having more women business owners than any other country. Just a few years later, these businesses have begun to mature. Meanwhile, the number of women in senior positions has increased. It’s more common to see women as venture capitalists and serial entrepreneurs, like Lubov Simonova-Emelyanov of Almaz Capital Partners, Elena Masolova, founder of Darberry.ru (later to become Groupon Russia) and AddVenture, and Alyona Popova, founder of StartupAfisha, Starlook.ru and Duma 2.0. This change, while barely noticeable on the outside world, will prove to be of critical importance in developing other women leaders over time. Yet with all of the innovation and growth in Russia, women still face challenges and the state of the economy holds uncertainties. In order to continue to succeed, they must continue to surmount these obstacles and persevere. As Katya Gracheva, RT reporter, said on Good Morning America, “we have more in common than the Russians and the Americans think.”