Skolkovo Moscow School of Management certainly doesn't look like your typical business school. Located in an old townhouse in a quiet part of central Moscow, it doesn't have any classrooms. You won't bump into students, because there aren't any. And there's just one permanent faculty member. So you may be surprised to learn that such a modest place has high hopes of becoming a leading global player in the highly competitive MBA market within a few years. "The great thing is that we have resources, and there is big political support," says Wilfried Vanhonacker, Skolkovo's dean. "So we can dream, and we can dream big."
Those dreams are by no means crazy. Who wouldn't be feeling a rush of confidence with half a billion dollars to play with? That's the amount of cash, most of it already raised, that Skolkovo will have at its disposal to turn its ambitions into reality. And as that tidy sum indicates, Skolkovo also has a lot of friends in high places.
Founded in September, 2006, Skolkovo is the brainchild of some of Russia's top businessmen. The idea came from Ruben Vardanian, chief executive of Troika Dialog, one of Russia's largest investment banks, and the president of Skolkovo. The school's founders also include several wealthy Russians, among them famous tycoon Roman Abramovich. Several leading Russian corporations also have chipped in, as have Anglo-Russian oil company TNK-BP (TNBPI.RTS) and Indian-owned investment firm SUN Group.
With such weighty backers, the school can afford to splash out. The first thing you see on entering the school's (temporary) premises is a model of a snazzy $250 million campus currently under construction at Skolkovo, a town just outside Moscow, on 148 acres of land donated by Abramovich. Facilities will include four floors of lecture halls, spacious accommodation blocks to house 350 students, a sports hall—and even a helipad. Construction is set to be completed this summer. Executive MBA courses are scheduled to begin next January, with the regular MBA course to start in September, 2009.
Skolkovo's friends aren't just businessmen. Next to the campus model, the glass cabinet also contains a small acrylic slab with a signature in black marker pen. It's the campus' "foundation stone," signed by none other than President Vladimir Putin. (Someone evidently thought better of burying the precious memento in the campus' muddy foundations). And the chairman of Skolkovo's advisory board is Dmitry Medvedev, Russia's President-elect. The government has singled out Skolkovo's development as a priority national project. But on the insistence of the founders, all the school's funding is being raised from the private sector.
Of course, the fact that so many of Russia's rich and powerful are lending their weight to the project isn't a big vote of confidence in existing management education in Russia. Although many Russian universities offer MBA programs, few would argue that these programs, typically taught by Russian staff on Russian salaries, are world-class. In contrast, says Vanhonacker, Skolokov will pay top-notch wages to hire faculty from around the world. Although staff will be both Russian and international, teaching will be entirely in English.
Vanhonacker himself, originally from Belgium and a former professor at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business, already has experience building a successful business school from scratch. He was previously the dean of China-Europe International Business School (CEIBS). Founded in 1993, this school now has the top-ranked MBA program in Asia.
That experience may help Skolkovo as it positions itself to attract international students. Vanhonacker says the target is to attract 70% of students from Russia and other parts of the former Soviet Union, with the remaining 30% from the rest of the world. There will be particular emphasis on China and India, where Skolkovo is already planning to run courses, possibly in partnership with local business schools.
Skolkovo believes its emphasis on major emerging markets will prove appealing to management students from Western countries. "Traditional business schools focus on investment banking and consulting for established markets. They're not really looking at fast-moving economies," says Vanhonecker. "We see fantastic opportunities to grow the talent that will lead in [these] economies. Fast-moving economies translate into fast-track career development."
True to that profile, Skolkovo's courses will have a heavy international component. Students on the 16-month MBA course will spend just three months studying management theory, with the rest of the time spent on project work. That will include three projects in Russia, one in China or India, and one in Europe or North America.
Another draw for budding entrepreneurs: The school's generous financing also includes a $100 million venture capital fund, which students will be able to draw upon to start their own businesses.
Of course, it will be hard for this upstart to establish a global reputation overnight. The biggest challenge: persuading potential staff and students that Russia, a country with a troubled international image, is in fact a choice location for a top international MBA program. Yet it's hard not to be impressed by the ambitions of the project. "My objective is to that the rankings over the next three to five years will always mention Skolkovo as the school to watch," says Vanhonacker.