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Celebrating 25 years – The early roots of LEADER

Mar 4, 2016


Rallying for a cause

Since 1991, the LEADER Project, a student-driven overseas economic development program, has been making an impact. Both for the Ivey volunteers and those in the communities it touches. More than 800 instructors and 8,000 participants have been involved in LEADER in the past 25 years. On March 4, a special event at Steam Whistle Brewing will celebrate LEADER’s rich past and exciting initiatives to come. In our series, we’ll look at how LEADER has evolved over the years. In part one of the series, we speak with Robert Elensky, MBA ’92 and CEO of Total Insurance Payments; and Chris Albinson, HBA ’90, MBA ’93, and Managing Director of Founders Circle Capital, about the early days with the project. Elensky and Albinson were members of the founding team.

It started with a small idea, but made a huge impact. And left an even larger legacy.

In fall 1990, MBA students Robert Elensky, Scott Hellofs, and Paul Fitzgerald; and Chris Albinson, a Business 020 teacher (now Business 1220) who had just completed his HBA, had just heard a speech at Western Business School (now Ivey Business School) from an East German Ambassador to Canada. The ambassador outlined the problems East Germany would face with the transition to a market economy. Elensky, who had visited Moscow with family that summer, pointed out that the Russians were facing the same fate due to reforms that harshly plunged them from a Soviet system into a free market economy without the business experience and skills needed to survive.

They decided to do something about it.

With support from Ivey Professor Paul Beamish, Director of the School’s Centre for International Business Studies, and money from the International Business Club, they set up Project USSR with Beamish as faculty advisor. Through a joint venture with Moscow State University, they arranged to teach basic business skills to students and business people in the former Soviet Union. The course material and cases were based largely on the Business 020 course (Western’s undergraduate introductory business course). In the summer of 1991, about 27 volunteers from the MBA and PhD programs taught in either Saint Petersburg or Moscow.

The idea had begun.

“That first year was all about trying to figure things out. We were teaching through an interpreter. No one spoke English there and only I spoke Russian,” said Elensky. “The first piece was figuring out what material worked and what didn’t work. We rewrote some of the material in the second year because we were able to see what was resonating.”

Despite the challenges, Elensky said it was obvious there was a real need for such a program.

“As the new market economy started to permeate throughout the country, more and more people needed to get some basic ideas of how to even talk to foreign companies because now the foreign companies were coming in with plans, proposals, and joint ventures,” he said. “There was a huge dichotomy between what the Russians wanted and how they were managing companies and how their Western counterparts were managing companies.”

Expanding the mission

In 1992, the initiative was renamed the LEADER (Leading Education and Development in Emerging Regions) Project. Led by Elensky and Albinson, approximately 54 student volunteers taught in one of five countries: Belarus, Russia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

“The first year we were flying blind, but in the second year we’ve really expanded. Chris and I took a trip to set up things. This was better because we were able to vet our partners and have a better understanding of what and whom we were dealing with,” said Elensky.

Despite their preparation, there were still some surprises. Albinson, who was leading a team in Minsk, Belarus that second year recalls his team being intercepted by the Russian OMON, a special police unit that played a role in armed conflicts following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and questioned at length. This same unit of the Russian army had been killing Lithuanians who were moving for independence.

“That was one of the really sad parts and we were witnesses to that history,” he said.

On the other hand, there were plenty of positive experiences. Albinson has since helped to launch four startups and his company now invests in growth firms. He said he was inspired by the entrepreneurial spirit even back then. He told how one female entrepreneur in Russia started a business that involved buying waste products from Soviet refineries by offering them a 50-per-cent increase, transporting the waste to Poland, and reprocessing it. Not only did she prevent the Soviet refineries from dumping this waste into the groundwater and poisoning communities, but she also made a hefty profit.

Transforming society

Overall, Albinson said he was amazed by the transitions during his three years participating in the project.

“Just seeing every layer of society change before your eyes – the structure of government, how people interacted, and the culture – was pretty amazing,” he said. “Just watching the transition was what stood out the most for me.”

Elensky saw firsthand just how far those transitions extended. One of the companies sponsoring LEADER offered him a job and he ended up working in Moscow from 1993-97 and later doing business there from 2000-2001.

“In the morning when you were driving to work, you’d see new stores opening up. Then, on your way home from work, you’d see double the number of new stores opening,” he said. “Everything was being developed. There was a lot of entrepreneurial activity. It was a time of change.”

Both Albinson and Elensky said they never imagined LEADER would still be going strong 25 years later.

“It’s amazing to see that it has expanded to so many countries. When we started this, the School didn’t quite know what to do with it and now the School treats it as its international experience offering. That’s really amazing,” said Elensky.

Albinson attributes LEADER’s success to team work and an entrepreneurial spirit.

“It never would have happened without Scott and Paul having a lot of energy and Robert having the cultural connection and the interest to go back. None of us could have done it alone, but together we made it work,” he said. “There’s an expression in Silicon Valley that if you’re going to fail, fail quickly. That was the ethos of LEADER when we started – just try it and if it doesn’t work out, that’s OK. There were 1,000 reasons why we shouldn’t have been able to get started. There were 1,000 people saying we shouldn’t do it. But it only takes a few people to say, ‘why not?’ ”


Making an impact

Over 25 years, LEADERites have been making an impact in many areas of the world. Here are some of the sites they’ve visited:

  • Accra, Ghana
  • Addis Ababa, Ethiopia
  • Almaty, Kazakhstan
  • Bangalore, India
  • Belgrade, Serbia
  • Chisinau, Moldova
  • Dnipropetrovsk, Ukraine
  • Eldoret, Kenya
  • Georgetown, Guyana
  • Havana, Cuba
  • Irkutsk, Russia
  • Kathmandu, Nepal
  • Lviv, Ukraine
  • Minsk, Belarus
  • Moscow, Russia
  • Nizhny Tagil, Russia
  • Port-au-Prince, Haiti
  • Riga, Latvia
  • Skopje, Macedonia
  • Tolyatti, Russia
  • Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia
  • Vilnius, Lithuania

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