— Silvia, your educational background is that of a political scientist: you studied the economic and political transformations of the countries of Eastern Europe. And then, suddenly, at the beginning of the noughties, you moved to Moscow. Why was that?
— I haven’t been working in my specialized field for a long time now. At the start of my journey I wrote several works on Russian politics and economics during the transitional period. I was asked to stay on at the university faculty, but I really wanted to work in Russia. Luckily, my dream has come true.
Silvia Mandruzzato was born in Genoa. In 1994 she graduated from the faculty of Political Sciences at the University of Naples “L’Orientale” where she studied the economic and political transformation of the countries of Eastern Europe. During her studies she gained practical experience in Moscow: at the end of the 90s she came here for the first time on a student internship with the staff of a delegation from the Italian oil and gas concern Eni.
In 2001 she moved to Moscow permanently.
In 2005, she and a female friend/partner set up the Italian Cultural Centre which in addition to the spiritual satisfaction it brought, also became a profitable and steady business for them.
Speaks Russian and English beautifully. In her spare time, she carries out business and technical translations, as well as writing short stories for translating with her students.
— And where did such an interest in Russia come from?
— I was ill once when I was eight. I stayed at home and found in our library the book “Heart of a Dog” by Mikhail Bulgakov in Italian. You see, my dad is a great lover of Russian literature: his library also contains those books which were banned in the USSR but had been translated into Italian. At that age I, of course, didn’t understand all of the subtext. I just felt sorry for Sharik, the hero of the book, whom Professor Preobrazhensky transformed from a dog into a human being. He didn’t, if you remember, turn out very well as a human, so Poligraf Poligrafovich became a dog once more…
— After university, did you move to Russia straightaway?
— What? No! While I was still at college, I had a student internship in Russia with the Italian oil and gas concern Eni. And when I finished university, I was offered a job with an Italian company that supplied Russia with packaging material. So I turned up here. I spent some time living and working now in Italy, now in Russia. And at the beginning of the noughties, I moved here permanently. I started working for a furniture company which sold high-class fabrics and interiors. It was a golden period for that kind of business.
To open a foreign languages school, first of all you need a starting capital of at least 300,000 roubles. Monthly expenses will be 150-200,000 roubles, and approximate income about 200,000 roubles. In recoupment terms you will get all your money back in a year. I believe the monthly profit could be about 100-150,000 roubles.
When opening a private school in Moscow, you have to take certain opposite tendencies into account. What is required now is not only study of the language with a native speaker, but also a well-prepared and well-thought-out teaching complex. There is growing interest in foreign languages, not only for practical use (work, travel abroad), but as knowledge of another culture. For example, the worldwide tendency to perform opera in the original language, which Russia has recently joined, arouses such interest, particularly because the Italian language sounds beautiful and melodic to the Russian ear.
On the other hand, the Moscow market is quite saturated with foreign language teaching offers, and you must present yourself very well to stand out from your competitors. There is also competition from online teaching. Cheap audio and video guides are available, and sometimes even free services in this field.
Therefore you have to offer not simply teaching, but a club atmosphere, in which there is conversation and immersion in culture, in an atmosphere of festivity, joy and emotion, particularly as this corresponds to the image most Russians have of Italy.
Of course the economic situation in Russia is difficult at present, forcing many people to economize and to refuse services which are not vitally important. But on the other hand, there are companies which are developing actively and whose staff have not lost any of their income. Even when money is short, people find opportunities to develop themselves and meet their own educational requirements.
— And how did you come to start your own business?
— I already had experience teaching in Italy, and I decided to do this in Russia in my spare time. At first I taught friends and anyone who wanted to learn Italian for free, getting some practice. Then I taught at the Institute of Culture at the Italian Embassy in Russia for two years, where I met my future friend and partner. She is a professional educator and she came to Russia with the sole intention of teaching people Italian. In 2005, evaluating our strengths and professional experience, we decided to start our own business. Thus our Italian Cultural Centre was born.
— How did you divide up the duties between you?
— My partner is responsible for the whole learning and teaching process, for recruiting the teachers, and training them professionally. I took on the commercial side and a few of the management chores. I myself teach only rarely now: just some specialized courses like the history of Italy as depicted through cinematography. But combining teaching and managing is very hard: you are thinking first and foremost about how to pay the wages on time, the taxes, the utility bills, the rent…
— How are you building your business in Russia? What difficulties do you encounter?
— All our teachers are native speakers and education professionals. They are Italians. And the main difficulty is getting working visas for them. A specialized agency deals with this: it makes more sense for us to outsource this.
— Is your centre inspected exceptionally frequently?
— No. But they have us in their sights. We have only been inspected by the RF Ministry for Education. Although we were glad of this because it was difficult to navigate our way through the sea of laws and requirements applicable to companies running a business like ours. What they pointed out to us was that we had insufficient paperwork. We even had to pay a small fine. It is hard to call our oversight a serious one but that episode enabled us to put all our papers in order. After all, our activity in Russia is under license, so I consider it right for the supervisory bodies to step up what is required of us. Teaching is not the same as selling potatoes, as I’m sure you’ll agree.
— How many people comprise your teaching staff?
— From seven to ten, depending on the season.
— Who are your students?
— It is only Russians who come to learn with us, women, on the whole. However, recently, more men who need Italian for business have started turning up. Women learn language more for leisure activities. To speak a bit of Italian on holiday, on shopping trips. Young people who are really into Italian football also come to lessons: they too want to know the language better.
In recent times, Russians have been investing more and more in learning and self-development. Hence the number of language schools in Moscow is growing relentlessly. In the majority of them, Russian-speaking staff conduct lessons like in a school: with textbooks. But if you want a successful outcome, you need to say no to this. With the development in the means of communication, the world is changing, and people don’t want to sit in classrooms any more. Therefore, it is a better idea to open a language club or centre where the teaching occurs alongside cultural events. This is especially true of Italian, which people usually learn for themselves, for the soul, and even to help find a life partner.
In my experience, teachers of Italian work easily with managers and pull out all the stops for their pupils to achieve results.
The costs for starting such a business in Moscow include registration of a legal entity, applying for a licence, leasing of modest premises, and staff wages, including native-speaking teachers. All these costs are recouped after approximately one year. As for actual figures, typical outlay is as follows:
1) Renting of premises, depending on proximity to the metro and transport links, costs between 50,000 and 200,000 roubles a month. Cheaper options are available.
2) Staff, at the point of launch, could include 1–2 managers on an average salary of 30,000–45,000 roubles.
3) Administrative charges are about 15,000 roubles, opening a bank account costs 20,000 roubles, and there is the fee for obtaining a licence (I can’t say how much exactly, at this moment in time).
4) To fit out an office at the initial stage you will need a whiteboard, flip-chart, 2–3 tables, some chairs, a couple of armchairs, and a small settee. All this could cost around about 50,000 roubles.
5) In terms of technical equipment, you will need a projector, 1–2 laptops, an AIO, and a telephone. Approximate cost: 50,000–60,000 roubles. Also, in the summer (although, in winter, too) you will need a climate control system, the purchase and installation of which can cost in the region of 20,000 roubles.
6) Naturally, a business will go nowhere without marketing. Setting up a website costs about 30,000 roubles; its maintenance, and adverts for it: about 20,000 roubles a month. But that is at the point of launch.
— And what are the economics of your project? What do you spend most on?
— Taxes, wages, rent, utilities… Like everyone. But, for example, we pay into the RF Pension Fund even though our teachers will never receive a pension here. I understand that money needs to be paid into the Pension Fund – I myself was brought up in the same mindset – after all, the government should make provisions for welfare payments to senior citizens.
— How much do your courses cost Muscovites?
— The standard courses involve attendance twice a week for two academic hours. Two months, thirty-two academic hours. That costs 16,000 roubles. Average rates for the Russian market. Naturally, there is a system of various discounts depending on the attendance time and the intensity of the lessons.
— How much did you have to invest in your business initially?
— Again, forgive me, I won’t talk specific figures, but at the time it was a trifling amount. We were really surprised that compared with the kind of investment that would be needed to open a similar business in Italy, starting with the initial documents, it all turned out to be a lot cheaper and easier in Russia.
— What other kind of stumbling blocks lie in wait for the foreign businessperson in Russia? What do foreigners need to know about?
— I’ll give you an example from my personal experience. Some time ago, we had to start a not-for-profit partnership in order to get a teaching licence. Up until recently in Russia, commercial structures of the limited liability company variety weren’t able to engage in such things. Now, there is the permission from the RF Ministry for Education but the Migration Service has not yet put these changes into practice. Because of this, you sometimes get the impression in Russia that each supervisory body, or, regulator, as is the fashion to call them these days, works in isolation. The lack of proper coordination between the ministries gets in the way of business.
— You manage to make money? Your business is a profitable one?
— Touch wood! Although for the last year and a half, due to the crisis, due, in the main, to the appreciation in the euro, we are finding it difficult. Our teachers’ salary is in roubles but, as it is pegged to the euro, it has now almost doubled. Yes, they live in Russia, but we pay them European rates.