Leadership Journey (LJ): How did the Kyiv International Economic Forum begin?
Gulya Sokolova (GS): Five years ago, we created KIEF as a purely economic, narrow-profile event. The Maidan had recently ended, and it was necessary to manifest business activity in order to show the state which way to go. We brought reformers from Eastern Europe: mainly from the Czech Republic, Poland, and Georgia. These countries faced similar problems, so their professionals could share valuable experiences. In five years, KIEF has become a business, an image event. During the two days of the forum, we hold about 30 discussions and public dialogues. About 120 speakers from 35 countries and over 2000 visitors come to us.
During the two days of the forum, we hold about 30 discussions and public dialogues. About 120 speakers from 35 countries and over 2000 visitors come to us
LJ: Over the past year, the forum has made a huge leap forward. How did you manage to bring the event to a new level?
GS: First, the time factor has an influence. The forum has been developing for five years. We spend a whole year on its preparation. Other organizers have several events – one after another. We are choosing topics and looking for speakers for a whole year.
Second, we have a great team. The forum brings a constant drive into our lives, and I believe that your business should drive you because, without love, nothing matters. We have formed a team in which everyone has different skills, temperament, and charisma, so we have managed to achieve synergy. For example, I am good at looking for foreign speakers.
We are working on a mission. Both, the faith in your business, and the desire to make it as more interesting as possible, are included here.
Third, we are constantly raising the bar. At the same time, our goals cannot be only quantitative, because these are not sales, where you can say: “Okay, this year we sold 200 cars, therefore we will sell 300 next year”. We are working on a mission. The faith in your business, and the desire to make it as interesting as possible, and the intellectual component of each employee, because the forum helps you to develop, are included here.
LJ: Tell us a little about the team. How many people are there, and who does what?
GS: KIEF has a very small team. When people find out about this, they admire that only 4–5 people fulfill such a large-scale project. We do not have clear job responsibilities: we constantly advise and help each other. Svetlana Oleinik is our marketer and event coordinator. Lesya Yaremenko is in charge of the correspondence with the speakers. At the beginning of the year, we have a long list of speakers from sixty people, and then some are excluded. We keep in touch with all of them; we call them up on Skype. Anton Yermolenko is the designer, who creates the visual part of the project. Yuri Pivovarov is the Head of the Organizing Committee, the captain of our small ship.
LJ: Do you start preparing the next forum right after finishing the previous one?
GS: Yes, but first we are breathing out. Before KIEF, you live on a 24/7 schedule, then two days of the forum with no break. After that, we are coming to our senses for about three weeks and begin to form an agenda and a long list of speakers for the next year. The sixth forum will be held on November 8–9. Our speakers have time; they have the right to cancel participation at any time, and we respect this because contractual and financial relations do not bind us. Ukrainian speakers sometimes cancel participation with an hour or two notice. Then you start to contemplate, who can be a substitute and with what topic. You control the situation as a film director.
Innovation is a popular topic now. Not to talk about it means to be out of the world trends.
LJ: How do you choose the topics?
GS: We look at what people are discussing in the world and adapt this to the Ukrainian realities. There is a number of economic events; the World Economic Forum in Davos is the main one. Last year I was lucky to visit it. Thanks to such events and communication with the speakers, we are aware of the main trends. For example, the topic of innovation is now popular. Not to talk about it means to be out of the world trends.
LJ: You brought to the forum the director of innovation at the DBS Bank in Singapore, the number one bank for innovation in the world. How did you manage to find him and persuade to come?
GS: This was Bidyut Dumra, Chief Innovation Officer in DBS Bank. Singapore is a closed place, and company representatives rarely go to other countries and share their experiences. In Instagram, I have Arturo Brice, an IMD professor in Switzerland who is on the Supervisory Board of KIEF. Once I have seen that he was to give a lecture in a Singapore bank. I immediately wrote to him and asked for the contact information of Bidyut Dumra. We corresponded for nine months – it was like childbearing. He answered once in a month and a half. Apparently, this is an effect of the Asian countries’ mentality. As a result, Bidyut was a speaker at a panel discussion about transformation – one of the strongest forum topics.
We manage to attract the best speakers, although we do not pay honorariums. The mission inspires them
LJ: There are many foreigners among the speakers. Do you often encounter problems related to mentality?
GS: We manage to attract the best speakers, although we do not pay honorariums. The mission inspires them. We cooperate with embassies and bring in foreign delegations every year. For the second year, we have had businesspersons from Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Poland, Turkey, and Finland. They visit KIEF, sightsee Ukraine, and we organize separate roundtables on topics of interest for them.
Of course, everyone has his or her own mentality, but this does not interfere. In Ukraine, almost everyone in the business community speaks English. We conduct part of the panel discussions in English, and for five years, I have been taking notice of how many people use simultaneous translation. Well, the number is reducing.LJ: What do the speakers expect when they go to Ukraine? What impression do they have?
GS: I ask the speakers about this on their arrival and on their departure. The media create such a picture that some fly to Ukraine with fear. Then they say that expectations and reality differ as heaven and earth. They see potential in Ukraine, and I am happy about it. Some people even say that a crisis is the best time to invest if you have skills and you understand the market.
A CRISIS IS THE BEST TIME FOR INVESTMENT IF YOU HAVE SKILLS AND YOU UNDERSTAND THE MARKET
LJ: Is it easier to attract Ukrainian businesspersons and politicians as speakers?
GS: This is not a problem for us at all. On the contrary, there are so many people, who want to speak, that we select speakers with the highest expertise. There are few politicians among the speakers because it is not a political event. However, the forum is held with the support of the Prime Minister. I can proudly say that Ukrainian leaders come as participants. Our deputies sit in the hall and listen.
Now there is a large outflow of young people. We want to change the viewpoint of people, to show that it is not that bad in our country
LJ: KIEF differs significantly from other events, including by the quality of the speakers, and by its mission – to attract people with expertise to Ukraine.
GS: You know, the mission is not to attract people from abroad, but rather to consolidate and keep what we have (in the country). Now there is a large outflow of young people. We want to change the worldview of people, to show that it is not that bad in our country. We want our parliamentarians and businesspersons to learn from the experience of foreign speakers.
We differ from other platforms not only in high-quality content but also in the level of organization. Sometimes, you come on a visit to a beautiful house, but you see an inhospitable concierge and a faulty elevator. Therefore, details are important: the way you meet the participant, the quality of tea and coffee, people you can meet after the event. KIEF is special not only because of interesting speakers but also due to a special attitude to people the very moment a person steps on the threshold of the location. At the same time, the project is not profitable commercially.
KIEF IS SPECIAL NOT ONLY BECAUSE OF INTERESTING SPEAKERS BUT ALSO DUE TO A SPECIAL ATTITUDE TO PEOPLE THE VERY MOMENT A PERSON STEPS ON THE THRESHOLD OF THE LOCATION
LJ: Do you learn from the speakers?
GS: For me, each speaker of KIEF is a teacher. I try to build warm friendly relationships with everyone, to learn about their lives. The forum for me is a kind of a world MBA school. Now there is a trend – everyone wants to receive an MBA degree, and it costs a lot of money. For five years, I have been communicating with people, learning the world trends, regularly reading foreign publications. For me, each case is a challenge and an answer to my inner question.