Meet Maria Lobanova:
Maria is a Saint Petersburg local and operates a business called ProfIntern. She recently contacted me and after a few weeks of talking and planning, I am happy to announce that I am heading to Saint Petersburg on June 11th to work with Maria for a few weeks and participate in the programs she offers to Interns and Volunteers so that I can tell you all about these experiences and how you can have them to, should you decide you want to intern or volunteer in Russia!
Last week, Maria and I talked for about an hour on Skype and I asked her some questions about her business and what it is that she does. She offers a unique experience to people who want work or volunteer in Russia – it’s kind of an alternative to tourism. Instead of just being a tourist, you get to immerse yourself in the culture and language, gaining real life experience that benefits you personally and professionally.
Maria finished her university education in the graduate School of Management, which is a faculty of the Saint Petersburg State University. Her concentration was in the field of Marketing and Sales Management. She loves to travel, practices yoga, and her family owns a house in Spain, where she spends some time every year and is learning the language. I look forward to getting to know Maria more in person when I am there in June!
1) Can you please tell our readers a little bit about ProfIntern – how the business came about and what is the objective?
Maria: In my third year of University, I was given the opportunity to travel and study abroad in a European exchange program. I chose to go to Vienna, Austria, since I also speak German – it was an educational experience (without an internship), but it affected me a lot, not only in my professional life, but especially in my personal life. Living abroad is something that opens up barriers and opens the world to you – you can make many new friends. I enjoyed my experience abroad very much and because I was a “client” in this field of international exchange, I understand it well and I know what people want when studying abroad.
After finishing at the University, I worked for a company as a director of the Marketing department in the B2B sector. I worked there for five years and decided it was time to move on. I was acquainted with a woman who was head of a company that works with exchange students, and so I became her representative in Russia. I worked for her for one year, but differences in law and business in Russia became frustrating for her and we eventually parted ways. That was when I realized that I had all the tools, education and experience necessary to start my own student exchange business here in Russia.
So this is how ProfIntern came about. I wanted very much to bring something significant to peoples’ lives and I think this is the way that I can make foreigners’ travel to Russia more meaningful. They can open new doors to themselves in both the personal and professional life – and I want to expand peoples’ horizons. I think it is a very good experience when you go somewhere, not just for tourism, but when you have to be there alone for some period of time and you have to solve some problems on your own. It is a good personal and professional step to a different future because something changes in your mind after that. Furthermore, I very much want to increase knowledge of real Russia among foreigners – so these are my main objectives.
2) Why is Russia important?
Maria: Staying now in Spain and working in the corporate sector for five years, I would say that many Russians are going abroad – both corporate companies that want to enter into some foreign markets, as well individuals who want to travel or buy property abroad. In every city you have some community of Russians and they are never idle. For instance, in Spain, local people can do nothing for ages – but Russian people who are in Spain are in close connection with each other and actively trying to do some sort of business or open some new opportunities, both to the Spanish people and to Russians. This is very much an active part of Russians abroad and they are very open, so having a good understanding of Russians and being in good relations with Russians, you can go further in your career and personal plans.
Additionally, many companies in the corporate world want to enter the Russian markets and I think that to do this, they should get an understanding of Russians, and for this they will need someone specialized and experienced who knows how to communicate with Russians. Because, I would say that we are almost Europeans, but we have our own history and our own mentality and if you want to be friends with us, you also need to know something about us. It is always the same in every country.
3) Are your main clients students coming to Russia for Russian courses, internships and volunteering programs, or do you also have business clients?
Maria: We also have services for corporate clients oriented around the foreign companies interested in entering the Russian market. We provide language courses for them (virtual via Skype, or here in Russia), as well as lessons in communicative Russian (how to write emails properly, how to answer the phone in Russian, etc.), and we offer business services – e.g. table discussions, partner searches, and others. Russia is an expanding market, you know, and more and more companies are interested in entering it or at least having partners here.
For instance, I had one German company who wanted to enter the Russian market and who wanted to find Russian partners here in Moscow. They described their business to me and what kinds of partners they were looking for and we at ProfIntern connected the German partners with some Russian partners in Moscow and we invited the German company to Moscow for a round table discussion of the main topics between the two companies. The partners of both countries were able to make some business agreements between the Russian company and the production company of Germany. So this is another more professional service we offer to foreign companies (though it’s not yet listed on the website). And of course, we also offer cultural activities.
4) What do you offer your clients that other businesses do not and what sort of experience do participants get from Interning?
Maria: The internships we offer are professional internships. This is the primary difference between us and our competitors, because there are other international and local companies who place interns with companies. But what they offer is not a professional internship – they ask the companies what kind of intern they would like placed with them and then they just look for an intern abroad. But we at ProfIntern work more on behalf of the client. A student can tell us what kind of internship they are looking for and we will try to place them in an internship in their desired field.
For instance, I had one client who wanted to be placed in an internship in Aerospace engineering, which is totally closed to foreigners in Russia; and what we did, we found an internship for him in the field of engineering. So he didn’t just do some useless work for the company where he interned – he was able to learn something new and beneficial for himself and according to his major. Our internship clients get hands on experience, which is valuable for their CV’s and they are the kind of people who are really thinking about their future and professional career.
Additionally, our clients are able to get a network of professional contacts – this depends a lot on how active they are in the company. But, we organize table discussions with our interns and top managers of the companies who are able to answer valuable questions for interns, such as: how to do business in Russia, what is marketing in Russia, etc. We also have good relationships with the graduate School of Management and some other universities in Russia where our interns can also take part-time educational training courses, or something similar. So our interns walk out of their internship in Russia with real experience that is tailored to their career and their major and how to relate to international business in Russia. This is the benefit of a company like ProfIntern.
5) Regarding volunteering, why is it so crucial in Russia and what experience do volunteers walk away with?
Maria: Volunteering in Russia will give people a new perspective of Russia. We don’t have a lot of support from our government now – in comparison with Europe, for instance. Volunteering is not such a developed thing here and volunteering organizations need people to help them understand how volunteering should even be coordinated - not only helping to do some concrete projects, but help with organizing the entire process as well. There are many NGO’s – both international and Russian – which do work in various sectors, such as:
1. Critical care for children, teenagers, adults, families and elderly people
2. Development of culture and education in St. Petersburg
3. Development of healthy life-style
4. Looking for missing children
5. Help for homeless animals
6. Racism prevention activities
7. Environmental projects
8. International summer camps for volunteers
NGO’s offer great opportunities to volunteers and interns because working in Saint Petersburg, you can get connected and get involved in an international project, but still gain the experience of being in Russia. For example, one well known NGO that we work with - JCI – has very interesting opportunities in the fields of entrepreneurship (BIG program), education for high school pupils (Compass), and Open Russia, which needs volunteers to help with all their processes. So volunteers and interns will have the ability to not only gain experience working with NGO’s, but they will also get to see the overall picture – how it all works and what is the difference between the Russian NGO and the International one.
There are also many local volunteer companies who are ready to place foreign volunteers because they really need the international support. Many many people do need help in Russia and if they see that you want to help them from your heart, they will become your best friends forever! One of my favorite local volunteer organizations trains people how to become clowns so that they can go to hospitals and make the sick children smile and laugh! This particular volunteer opportunity is a longer term one for volunteers, but it is just one example.
For more information about volunteering in Russia through ProfIntern, please refer here.
6) Personally, I understand the importance of such a company as ProfIntern, but can you please explain to the readers what ProfIntern offers in terms of support and placement in Russia and why it can’t be done without such a company?
Maria: First of all, Russian law has limitations regarding employment. There is no such word in Russian law as an “internship”. Everything that is connected with internship is considered employment. For foreigners, this makes getting an internship very difficult because if somebody wants to intern in a Russian company, that person should be “officially” employed. And for the company, it is very expensive to employ a foreigner – they would need to pay a one time fee of approximately 1,000 Euro and additional monthly fees of about 150 Euro. So there is no sense for a company to place a short term foreign employee, such as an intern, because it does not benefit the company.
We at ProfIntern know the loopholes in Russian law and we know how we can officially and legally place foreigners in Russian companies with professional internships – they can even get certificates or letters from the company mentioning the experience they gained through their internship. Without such a company as ProfIntern, it is not possible to be placed in such a professional internship. Additionally, because of the Russian laws, companies prefer to deal with an intermediary between the client (or intern) and the company. ProfIntern is this intermediary, as we speak the native language and live in the country and therefore, we can go to the company on behalf of our clients. We are the agency who will be liable for the foreign intern coming to work and stay in Russia, not the company.
Also, because of our Soviet history, most of the older generation that work in Russian companies often do not speak English and therefore, we prefer to place interns who speak some Russian or who want to learn and improve their Russian. But we can also place foreigners in the International companies which speak English. So you can see that ProfIntern is able to accommodate foreigners in Russia in accordance with the law and the needs of the companies – this is necessary if someone wants to work and live in Russia.
I would like to add that we are very flexible to our clients and their needs and we have different types of packages. For instance, if a student does not need us to arrange a place to stay, or if they do not want to take Russian language courses, the cost will be much less, but it will still include all things necessary to work at a company. There are also designed packages on our website that a student can choose from – these include language courses and cultural excursions. Finally, we can create a custom program for the student who has an idea of something they want to do in Russia, but need us to help them accomplish their vision. An example of the custom package would be the German company I mentioned that wanted to find Russian business partners and we helped them accomplish their goal. We are very knowledgeable and very flexible to the client – this is what makes ProfIntern different!
From my personal experience having lived and studied in Russia, I realize that even tourism to Russia can be tricky without a company working on your behalf. Getting a visa alone can be painstaking. It’s just how things are and I think it is really cool that Maria was able to start such an agency to help foreigners find their way to interning, volunteering, or doing business in Russia. And I’m super excited to be participating in a program which she will be arranging for me in June so that I may see how it all works and tell you about my experiences. And hopefully, they will serve as inspiration for my readers who are curious about living and working in Russia. Also, for those of you who are curious, ProfIntern began in Russia and Maria represents the Russian market, but there are also internships available in Italy, China and Lithuania through ProfIntern. So please stay tuned as I head back to Saint Petersburg in June and write about my time there and the work I will be doing with Maria!