• A
  • A
  • A
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • ABC
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
  • А
Regular version of the site

Doing Business No Matter What

How and why young Russians become entrepreneurs


Elizaveta Polukhuina, Associate Professor, Department of Sociological Research Methods, HSE Faculty of Social Sciences.
Anastasia Poylova, Bachelor of Sociology, Master's Student, HSE Faculty of Business and Management.

Having a career as entrepreneur is possible even in adverse circumstances, such as going against one’s family, lacking connections and living in a small provincial community; all of these can stimulate rather than hinder one's entrepreneurial drive, found HSE researchers after studying the life trajectories of young Russian business owners. The study* findings are presented in the paper 'Biography as a Tree of Choices: Discovering the Life Trajectories of Young Entrepreneurs in Russia'**. 

Family Opposition

The researchers describe four institutions of socialisation which can shape entrepreneurs' careers: education, family, social environment and professional experience. All of them can either help or hinder aspiring entrepreneurs on their chosen path.

Many respondents had to deal with parental opposition to their career plans, often due to popular perceptions of entrepreneurship as...

  • risky and dangerous. Many Russians associate entrepreneurship with criminal showdowns, asset-grabbing and other heavy-handed methods of doing business.
  • unstable employment. Families of respondents living in small communities tend to believe in traditional social roles, such as man being the breadwinner with a steady income, which is not guaranteed in business.
  • making fast and dishonest money. Dating back to the 1990s, this perception persists (see Why Russians Do Not Trust Entrepreneurs).
  • bringing no value to society (parents of Moscow entrepreneurs often think so).

According to a 24-year-old respondent from Bryansk, "Mum has always opposed my plans to go to Moscow, U.S. or China [to pursue an entrepreneurial career]. She would rather have me stay in Bryansk doing nothing." A man of the same age who has moved from Novosibirsk to Moscow says that his mother resents his business aspirations because "she is concerned about his safety." A Muscovite aged 29 complains, "My parents still believe that I am wasting my time doing something useless."

However, no amount of parental scepticism was able to prevent them from starting business ventures. Indeed, for some respondents, family opposition served as an incentive of sorts; according to the researchers, even after a setback, many young entrepreneurs would "stubbornly defend their choice" and come up with new business projects. Personal ambitions and aspirations, "seeking to prove to themselves that they can succeed in business," have played a decisive role in shaping their career paths.

According to Polukhina and Poylova, an entrepreneur's gender can make a difference for parental attitudes: young women are more likely to enjoy family support. "My parents have always been involved in everything I liked to do, whether it was science or business," says a 23-year-old female entrepreneur who moved to Moscow from Dubossary (Moldova). According to the researchers, many parents want their daughter to pursue an occupation of her own choice. "How [their daughters] will make money and the entire financial aspect of the matter is not a primary concern," the authors add.

University: Potential for Useful Connections

The role of education in their careers is perceived differently by female and male entrepreneurs: while women are likely to focus more on the subject of their formal training, men tend to appreciate school for the opportunity to make useful connections and rely more on self-education, such as attending chosen courses and workshops and reading books on business.

Men tend to emphasise the social aspect of education and to perceive university as a forum where undergraduates can share their stories and find like-minded peers.

In contrast, women often associate education with a focused and diligent study of the subject, which, they believe, helped them start their business. A female entrepreneur aged 30 who moved to Moscow from Podolsk describes her training as "the foundation of all subsequent activity." A 22-year-old man, also from Moscow, notes that in addition to technical knowledge, university helped him find people he could relate to: "One really needs someone they can talk to and receive feedback on their progress."

Depending on which type of community they come from, respondents differ in their assessment of the contribution which a formal training has made to their career: natives of small towns perceive education as a way to build their human capital by gaining knowledge, skills and clarity about their career choices; and their peers born in big cities mainly appreciate the social capital built at school in terms of widening the circle of one's friends and acquaintances.

Experience: Accept Risks and Find Associates

"We have found that the more often a man changes jobs, the sooner he will start his own business," the researchers note. That said, many respondents came up with their first business idea while still in secondary school or in the first year of university.

According to one respondent, his first business venture was selling water at a school fair: "Together with a friend of mine, we borrowed money from our parents, bought some soda and made calculations on paper: it looked like we would make a nice profit. At 5 rubles a glass, our return would stand at 300%. <...> It was my first experience."

Some young entrepreneurs "work in a number of areas at once and switch between them with ease," according to the researchers. Sometimes, they experience a series of failures before their first success.

"While working for someone else, I was gaining experience and trying to make money," according to one respondent." Then I quit my job and set up an online gift store, but it did not work out, so I dropped it. Then, since I really love tea, I decided to sell tea from a brick-and-mortar teahouse in a shopping mall. But once again, it did not quite work out and I had to close it too. The problem was that I had little experience and I wanted many things at once... I need to think things through but I should not be scared. Both of these qualities are essential."

Later, this respondent discovered another essential component which helped him build a successful business: "Ideally, [one needs] to find a partner... someone capable of thinking systemically. Having opened the teahouse, I met that guy, Nikita, in the same shopping mall. He is now my partner. Together, we started a business, a souvenir shop right before the New Year, and it was a success."

Choosing Self-employment for Freedom of Action

Some emerging entrepreneurs were motivated by adversity, finding it hard to work for someone else and choosing to start their own business instead. Male respondents in particular report choosing self-employment due to "big financial expectations and a desire to be independent."  

Asked about their key values, many respondents mentioned the freedom to act, to make decisions and to manage their time. According to a 24-year-old man who moved to Moscow from Bryansk, "It's really cool to get up in the morning knowing that you do not need to rush around. <...> I like to be in charge of what I choose to do."

Gender appears to make a difference to attitudes towards employment. Female entrepreneurs tend to be more comfortable with working for hire and changing occupations, if presented with "an interesting business proposal, which they may well accept." Women, therefore, tend to show "greater openness to change" and flexibility, according to the researchers. "I believe that everyone needs different sources of income," says a 24-year-old woman born in Podolsk but now a Muscovite. "I could also work for hire, why not, if offered a really good job."

Many respondents credit their choice of occupation to the influence of family members or friends who set examples of successful business careers.

Entrepreneur Taxonomy

Based on a review of respondents' biographies, the researchers have identified four broadly defined groups of entrepreneurs based on gender, place of birth and values.

Followers: men from big cities. Their decision to become entrepreneurs has been influenced by family and social environment. They are likely to emulate, at least partially, the example of other successful entrepreneurs. When parents refuse to support them, e.g. by opposing entrepreneurship as a dangerous or useless undertaking, this often stimulates rather than discourages these entrepreneurs' commitment to business.

Fighters: men from small towns whose career decisions are influenced by education, as well as family and social environment. By choosing business, they often challenge their community of origin, including parents, and rely heavily on building their human capital and social connections.

Adventuresses: women from big cities. Both social environment and professional experience tend to shape their careers. This group of female entrepreneurs are usually comfortable with change of occupation, open to new opportunities and always on the lookout for "the most exciting career option." Doing things they like is a priority for them.

Sloggers: women from small towns. Influenced by their social environment and education, these respondents believe that hard work is essential for success in business.

*The authors conducted 20 semi-structured narrative interviews with entrepreneurs aged 18 to 30, coming from big and small communities (the sample had an equal number of men and women). At the time of the interviews, all respondents lived in Moscow.  

**The article was published in The Qualitative Report, 2017, vol. 22, No. 5.

Author: Olga Sobolevskaya, August 25, 2017