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Belarus consumer-business relationships challenge alumnus
STANFORD -- After spending a full day looking for brown shoe polish, Dan Trubow longed for a K-Mart or yellow pages in Minsk, Belarus, a city of 2 million in the former Soviet Union.
Nearly everything the 1992 Stanford University graduate wanted to buy could be found in Minsk, including shoe polish and what he said was better-tasting fruit and vegetables than in the United States. The problem was no system beyond word of mouth for finding what he needed when he needed it, and no single place to buy everything.
"I soon realized people didn't read or go to movies very much because everyone in the family was busy shopping," Trubow said.
To get around the shopping hordes, Trubow learned to shop during the hour that the soap opera "Santa Barbara" was aired on local television.
At work, in an American-Belarus joint venture company assembling personal computers, Trubow glimpsed a stark example of the failure of the marketplace: a 10-percent owner of the factory had sold only six computers.
"I knew there was a market for the computers because the firm was backlogged with orders," he said. "This partner wasn't selling many because their employees spent most of their time selling thermoses."
That was what customers knew to come to them for, Trubow said, and the partner didn't think to advertise the computers.
"I think they felt too important to go out and solicit business," he said.
The story is one of many insights the graduate in engineering management gained from the newly established "enterprise fellowship" program of Stanford's Center for Russian and East European Studies. Aimed at alumni who are "looking for a career and not just a camping trip," Trubow said, the program helped him to see more realistically how he might fit into the culture and business transition.
What surprised him most, he said, was that the company he worked for needed his technical skills less than his more general creativity and exposure to how business works in a capitalist system.
"A person schooled in the fine arts, if they have confidence, can make just as much difference as I made over there with my engineering management and electrical engineering degrees," he said.
Someone who understands how to price products based on costs, for example, could be extremely helpful to the local business people he met, he said.
"There is a tendency to try to sell a product for $50 because that is what it is sold for in the U.S.," Trubow said. "But when shipping costs and retailer markup are considered, $10 is a more realistic price in order to stay competitive."
There is a great opportunity to undercut the competition, he said, because "they have low capital and labor costs, and their employees can eat lunch for a nickel."
American techniques of "motivational management" were not especially helpful in Belarus, he said.
"The workers there have a terribly long history of conforming, of not being stand-out performers, of obeying and having the government make all the decisions," Trubow said. "When I tried to explain a new way to do things, they nodded their heads and agreed with me, then went back to doing it the way they had done it before."
Out of frustration, Trubow said he finally tried "management by edict" and discovered it worked.
"I didn't like that part," he said. "It contradicted my experience with American workers - at IBM and in the Navy - who expect you to explain why you want them to do something differently.
"There are two proverbs which I repeatedly heard when my co-workers saw me working long hours without taking a break: 'The slower you go, the farther you will get,' and 'Work is not a wolf; it won't run into the woods."
Translated, the second proverb means the work won't disappear, so let it stand for a while.
"These proverbs reflect a work ethic grown out of 70 years of communist rule, perhaps even having roots in the former institution of serfdom," he said.
Trubow, who also studies Russian language but quickly found out he doesn't speak it fluently, will go back to one of the former Soviet republics for a longer stint, he said.
"I feel very close to the people, respect their strong sense of community and am impressed by their exceedingly important family-based value system," he said.
"A friend in Belarus is a friend for life," he said, and he hopes to help some Russians start their own small businesses.
"Because of what they've seen in the past, they think of business starting off with thousands of employees and hundreds of trucks," Trubow said. "I hope to teach a few how to run a small one- or two-person enterprise. After just a few weeks, I was thinking about the possibilities for a one-person pizza parlor."
The Stanford fellowship program can match applicants with a variety of jobs in Minsk, he said, ranging from university lectureships to advertising or marketing positions. The Academy of Science in Belarus wants someone to look at the potential and capabilities of process, product and advertising requirements to sell in the West, as well as someone to develop appropriate packages of workers' rights and benefits.
The Stanford Center for Russian and East European Studies is interested in alumni applicants and recommendations from Stanford faculty of graduates who are ready to make a commitment of three to eight months.
"We are looking for people who want to learn the culture so in the future they can work successfully in this field," Trubow said.
Russian language skills are important, but in some cases the host may be able to provide the fellow with an interpreter, said Irina Barnes, assistant director of the center. Placements can currently be arranged in Russia, Belarus and Uzbekistan, she said.
The trial program is funded by Tom Sege of Woodside, Calif., a former chief executive of Varian Associates, who was born in eastern Europe and said he hoped to encourage Americans to become directly involved in business, government and public service institutions.
"Applicants for Minsk need to know that there is the possibility of radiation in the food, water and air," Trubow said. "No one there seemed concerned about it, and I myself was not worried. People need to realize we live in a country where there are watchdogs, but in Belarus there are very few."
Fellows going to Minsk will be supplied with personal dosimeters, he said.
The host organization provides accommodation and airfare and in some cases pays a salary in rubles.
"Your costs to survive plus a little extra are covered," he said. "Basically, even if you are broke, you can get by."
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