By John Harrison
Gil Petersil came to Russia seven years ago and has always been the non-standard networker who has gone out of his way to encourage communication between foreigners and Russians through events and innovative businesses in Russia.
How did you come to be living in Russia?
Let me start from the beginning. I was born in Israel; my family goes many generations back in the Holy land and at the age of ten my parents emigrated to Canada. After moving around Canada and accumulating some good experience, I eventually made my way to England. I lived in London for seven years, doing many things from banking to engaging in Whole Food and Organic health businesses, which was actually quite interesting. That was what brought me to Russia. A couple of very nice foreign gentlemen who were active businessmen in Russia and investors in the Health Shop business in Moscow asked me to join their team to see if I could help build a chain of health food shops. So I got on a plane in 2007 with a 48-hour visa to check it out. My hosts explained to me how business in Russia is done, I met many people. Moscow welcomed me very very beautifully, and I wanted to stay.
What are you doing now in Russia?
My life is split up between two things at the moment. One is personal coaching and public speaking, and the other side is a company that I run with my wife called MeetPartners, which specialises in bring talented people to Russia, and helping talented Russians make contacts abroad.
I have noticed that Russians donât seem to do business so much with people they know. Why is that?
In Russia, I would put people into two categories, the people who you know and the people you donât know. Many Russians are afraid of doing business with friends, they would be really careful of bringing business into that relationship. But if you have a really good relationship with someone, why not bring business into that relationship to help each other? But for many Russians, the word business is somehow connected with something that will end up harming somebody else.
My standpoint is that before you start doing business, you spend some time getting to know that person, before jumping into asking about the possibility of new investments, finding clients or whatever. For many Russians it is the other way round, they donât want to talk about families, or whatever because they consider these things to be way too personal.
Have you ever thought that your way of seeing things is wrong for Russia?
The interesting thing about what I have been doing for the past year is that I have been getting a lot of demand from large Russian corporations here to come in and teach their account managers and sales people how to build relationships. Before that it was really me holding mega events and having two or three hundred individuals showing up, who wanted to know what networking means. Not so many people do actually know what the word means. One of the more mature ladies in one of my events recently answered the question: what is networking, with: ânyet workingâ. I keep on telling people that networking is working. You have to put a lot of work into it. You have to build relations and follow up with people.
Is there a prejudice here against you now in Russia because you are Israeli/Canadian?
Absolutely not. Russia has welcomed me with open arms, not just Russia, but Belorussia, and Kazakhstan especially. I am now been invited to every single corner of Russia on a weekly basis, I have to say no to a lot of people, it is just too much travelling. They donât usually ask me where Iâm from, that doesnât seem to be an issue. Russian corporations are not against foreigners; they are interested in bringing in people who can train their staff in skills that they can use now. They are looking for motivation, inspiration, for more skills and content that they can use tomorrow. We have only recently introduced a new project called Meet Speakers and have discovered that there is huge, massive demand for foreign speakers to come and speak on a very wide range of subjects. I think that the West and Russia have stopped talking on some aspects, but when it comes to development, I think that a lot of Russians have learned that they need to learn from the West.
There is a stereotype about Russians not being entrepreneurs, is that right?
Over the past 7 years that I have been living in Russia, I have had the opportunity to work with over 200 start-ups, Iâve been blessed to set up 15 of my own companies, all with Russians. I was the only non-Russian person in all the organisations that Iâve set up and worked with. Iâve learned that they are entrepreneurs, but they are more opportunistic than western entrepreneurs. I would say that they are more eastern than western in their entrepreneurship. To me, entrepreneurship is all about finding a problem and resolving it, about making a difference in society, building a business that will survive on its own, that will be sustainable, that will give not only take. The biggest issue for me, which is starting to change but it has a long way to go, is the ideology of customer service, which is just not there yet. Businesses are built and then customers are searched for. Customer loyalty as such is not really a priority.
But Russians are family orientated, they are confident, they are not afraid, do they really want or need the western approach?
I would say that Russians by default are people who want to be free because they are ruled by fear. Most people are not meant to be entrepreneurs. Many entrepreneurs I meet here simply are not, which is something they cannot face because Russians are very proud. Failure is not an option for them, which makes them totally different from the western entrepreneur who will speak openly about his failures, and share them, and try to learn form them. Here, so often, people grow up with an existing community around them and donât necessarily try to bring in new people into that circle, or they donât try to step out of that community to build another community around them. This creates a lot of barriers around you, which stop you expanding as an entrepreneur.