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Helen Teplitskaia '00
   
Helen Teplitskaia
EMBA grad warms economic relationship of former cold war rivals

By Matt Golosinski

At the Kellogg School, it's not unusual for students and their professors to exchange insights, each learning from the other. Faculty give more than they get under these circumstances, yet the dynamic is pronounced in the Kellogg Executive MBA program, where the participants are accomplished professionals looking to enhance their careers at the world's top-ranked EMBA program.

Still, Helen Teplitskaia '00 may be unique among such Kellogg alumni. While enrolled in the school's executive curriculum, she was also an adjunct professor in the full-time MBA program, serving as a faculty adviser for a Russian component of the Kellogg Global Initiatives in Management course, which includes two weeks of intensive field research abroad.

"I worked that much harder to ensure my own grades remained high, since it would be difficult to stand in front of my students otherwise," laughs Teplitskaia, a trade expert and native of St. Petersburg, Russia, whose first Kellogg encounter came during a board meeting in her home city where she met former Dean Donald P. Jacobs.

The two connected, sharing an interest in international business, which eventually led to Teplitskaia's enrollment at Kellogg. "This meeting changed my life," she says.

"Helen is a very talented, hard-working person who has come an extraordinarily long way with her grit and character," says Jacobs.

She credits the Kellogg School with "empowering her to do anything." But in truth, Teplitskaia, who today heads the Eurasian consultancy at Imnex International, operating from both its Chicago and Washington, D.C., offices, was already brimming with entrepreneurial intensity that motivated her to tackle no less a task than improving U.S.-Russian economic relations.

The impetus for this effort came after participating in a World Bank conference that she says ignored her homeland. "I was dismayed that ... Russia was not on the agenda," she recalls. Her subsequent investigations revealed that no bilateral chamber of commerce existed at the time to facilitate business ties between the two former Cold War rivals.

So Teplitskaia figured she would start one.

"It was my second year in the U.S. and, as na´ve as it sounds today, I simply walked into the Illinois Secretary of State's office and hand-wrote the application to form the American-Russian Chamber of Commerce & Industry," she says.

Without any support and seed funding, this "emotional move was destined to fail," but in 1992 Teplitskaia did muster the resources to create the organization, which has since become a leader in fostering trade, investment and technological cooperation.

Nevertheless, in the 20 years since former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's efforts at economic and cultural transparency (glasnost), and the resultant economic restructuring (perestroika), building bridges between America and Russia still presents challenges. Witness the tensions that accompanied international debate over the Iraq War, and in particular the initial U.S. prohibitions against Russian investment in Iraq.

Cold War biases, differences in the legal and tax environments and ignorance about investment opportunities have been major obstacles to overcome, says Teplitskaia, but "Russia has undoubtedly come a long way in implementing economic reforms, creating a market economy and building democracy."

Though she does not believe in "pushing democracy on those not willing to embrace it," Teplitskaia supports "encouraging and enlightening people about how their lives will become better in a democratic society."

She says Russia has generally embraced the Western style of management and turned away from a centralized government economy. "Young generations of entrepreneurs are flourishing and many older managers are going back to school to get advanced business degrees," she notes, though bureaucracy still exists and many Russians have found the transformation to free-market rules difficult.

Teplitskaia herself initially grappled with the cultural differences between Russia and America. "It took years to understand and 'plug in,'" she admits. "It was particularly hard to achieve results during my first years in the U.S., when I did not know how to deal with the 'old boys' network."

She credits the Kellogg School with helping boost her confidence, build new business alliances and "dramatically improve" her skills in financial analysis, strategic development, international marketing and team building.

She continues to leverage these talents in her role as executive vice president and head of Russia/Former Soviet Union practice at Imnex, which provides strategic advice to companies looking to expand their international presence.

Though globalization has radically changed the rules of corporate engagement, not all ventures are ready to thrive in international waters. Russia presents a climate with unique hurdles, says Teplitskaia, and misconceptions abound about how to tap this vast market.

"The typical misconception is that 'what works in China should work in Russia,'" she explains. In reality, the countries have very different histories and cultures, and businesses must adapt accordingly. Geography, infrastructure, education and population are all important variables that influence strategy, Teplitskaia says.

"International expansion is not a good idea when a company expects quick profits with very little investment and limited commitment to the region," she states.

Teplitskaia, though admitting to being "no guru in women's issues," also has advice for other female executives looking to overcome stereotypes and expand their career options: Strive to be better than the competition, no matter what their gender.

"Be innovative and learn as much as possible about new trends, technologies and interesting things. Stay flexible and optimistic," she says.

Continue to Stephanie Ruyle '02

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©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University