Home » Russian billionaire Igor Rybakov on business, life and transforming education worldwide

Russian billionaire Igor Rybakov on business, life and transforming education worldwide

by Mfonobong Nsehe

Russian billionaire Igor Rybakov is the original renaissance man. A man of many labels, he is a successful entrepreneur, philanthropist, author, film actor, musician, speaker, blogger, vlogger and social media influencer. And he’s as interesting as they come.

In 1992, at the age of 20, Rybakov co-founded TechnoNICOL with his classmate Sergei Kolesnikov. Over two decades, they built the company into a leading, $2-billion-revenue global producer of roofing, waterproofing and thermal insulation materials, with nearly 60 factories across seven countries in Europe and Asia – as well as operations in Africa.

Rybakov is also an author. In 2017, he published his autobiography, “Thirst,” which won PwC’s Business Book of the Year in Russia in 2018. He is also something of a musician. In 2019, Rybakov released his debut album, “Summer Has Been Going Away,” to critical acclaim. He has produced and starred in feature films, has a popular YouTube channel with more than 1.2 million subscribers, where he provides business advice, and close to a million followers on Instagram where he gives glimpses of his life.

More importantly, perhaps, Rybakov is one of Russia’s most well-known philanthropists. In 2015, he founded the Rybakov Foundation alongside his wife, Ekaterina. The foundation is focused on developing education and entrepreneurship across the world. In 2019, the foundation announced the Rybakov Prize ­– a $1.2-million international award for philanthropists and benefactors, who have invested their personal capital in the reinvention of preschool and school education and have made substantial progress in this field. The prize has been described by Forbes as the “Nobel Prize for Philanthropists in Education.”

Rybakov recently chatted with Billionaires.Africa Editor-in-Chief Mfonobong Nsehe, where he recounted his early beginnings in business, offered advice on how to succeed in business and spoke about his plans to transform education across the world.

– As a high school student, you worked with a student construction brigade. Was it this experience that prompted you to establish a roofing-supply company?

– Perhaps. I realized for sure that I could be a leader when I was in the ninth grade. I found myself in a construction brigade with other students who couldn’t do anything: they didn’t know how to parget or work with a hammer. But I could, because in my childhood I’d spent a lot of time with my grandmother and my uncle taught me everything. The fence around our dacha (country house) that we repaired is still standing. In the construction brigade, I became the foreman and was in charge of the other students. I taught them everything. I even showed them how to add up to 10 percent to the estimate so that the control service could not find fault. How do you think we managed to create a system that no one could cheat at TechnoNICOL later? If I hadn’t learned how to make records in the construction brigade, I would not have been able to protect my company from similar smart guys.

In 1992, the market in Russia was in short supply of everything, including roofing materials. TechnoNICOL was no exception. We were students and we were very successful roofers. Some of the best in Russia at the time.

We repaired one of our first roofs so well that you can still use it as a teaching aid to teach roofers. Once, fifteen years later, we came back to look at this roof and it was as good as new. When we completed work on the roof and handed it over, the inspectors were in shock. They looked at the roof, at us, and simply said: “Who are you? We have never seen roofers do anything like this, not even close.” But we’d just met all the technical requirements. We read the teaching aid, the instructions, and the job complied with all the technological requirements. We just didn’t know how to do it wrong, so we did it right.

However, at some point I realized that I had to move on. Just repairing roofs was not enough: you will not achieve real success. I looked at the market – there was a shortage of roofing materials. There were long queues at the suppliers. It was impossible to buy or deliver products on time without queuing. In Russia, factories did not respond to market demand — they produced the old type of roofing material.

I decided that it was more profitable to trade in materials than to engage in roofing work. However, to do this, the materials had to be manufactured. At the time in Russia, it was the equivalent of deciding to fly to Mars. But that didn’t stop me. I started looking for a suitable plant. I found it in Bashkiria, in the South Urals. The plant was ready to produce next-generation roofing materials, but was standing idle. The management had outdated views.

We managed to convince the director to try, together with TechnoNICOL, to produce a batch of a new type of roofing materials. I took out a loan of $200,000 at 10-percent interest per month. I bought the raw materials, brought them to the plant and — was faced with a refusal to cooperate!

I’d spent all my resources and, instead of the first batch of materials, I was left with just the raw materials. What a disaster!

Later, I came to an agreement with the plant management and the materials were produced and released. But I’ll never forget the shock I experienced when I found myself with a loan, with prepayment from customers received and spent… but without any materials.

This lesson largely defined how I went on to develop the strategy of TechnoNICOL. If you want to enter the building materials market, you need to have control over the whole chain. You have to have your own factory and produce your own product. Production should be at the core of the strategy.

– What were the highs and lows of building up TechnoNICOL into the dominant player it is today. Also, how did you grow TechnoNICOL into a global company with operations spanning from Asia to Africa?

– The main thing that I have learned in business is the ability to overcome my success. By this I mean overcoming the patterns of thought that kept you successful at the previous level. Let’s look at the early 2000s. We only produced roofing materials. Profitability was declining. The company had carefully set up modern factories all over the country. But the profitability of the production and sale of roofing materials was in decline. 

I compiled a chart, and I monitored the situation. I realized that every month we had less and less money coming in.

I continued analysing the chart. I pinpointed the moment when the company would start to operate at a loss. I could see exactly when we were going “to die.”

I tried everything under the sun but nothing helped. We made no optimization and efficiency gains. I started talking to the clients. They told me: your roof share is only 0.3 percent of our budget…We are not interested. 

I decided: I will fight to the last! And if we die, we’ll be the last to die. The competitors are dumping, but we will defeat them! 

I experienced terrible fear. Even though I’d decided for myself to fight to the death, I still didn’t want todie.” We’d managed ten years in business! The most advanced lines by world standards had been purchased, installed, adjusted and were working to the fullest. We were ready to take over the world! TechnoNICOL were the leaders, TechnoNICOL were the very best. The company was renowned as the best manufacturer of rolled roofing materials. Everyone knows us, respects and even fears us. And then suddenly everything went wrong. Things didn’t go exactly according to my plans. Not at all… 

We were slowly moving towards our own demise. To some extent, we were even accelerating towards it thanks to our efficiency and perseverance. Owing to our desire to undercut our competitors… 

And then cames the tipping point. The upcoming annual corporate conference. The top managers, the directors of the plants, the key specialists — they were all here. It was a full house. It was our CFO’s turn to deliver a presentation. Our CFO comes out, she has been working for the company since the very beginning, and she says, “I’m going to tell you when we’re going to die.” And there was a chart on the screen titled “When We’re Going to Die.” 

There was deafening silence. You could hear a pin drop. Our CFO announced that in twelve months we would start working at a loss. In another twelve months we would exhaust our reserves; the company’s core power would be completely depleted and TechnoNICOL would die. 

At this point, I appear on stage and deliver my killer message: We are not prepared to die! Well, I used some stronger words, which I won’t repeat here.

However, I still had no plan for how to survive. I just had the desire to try every which way. A burning desire to look for a way to survive! And it turned out that the willingness to go beyond the framework of the accepted norms, to start looking — that was exactly what was needed.

It turned out that previously I had always sought out and listened to people with similar views. Or I only heard from my interlocutors arguments that fitted into my worldview, that suited my ideas. Competitors, suppliers, clients, consultants: everyone I talked to, I fit everyone into my template. Into my own plan. 

How could we save a company that produced a single product? It couldn’t be saved. It was necessary to stop being a single-product company. I had to become a supplier of building solutions. As soon as I internally came to terms with the fact that it was necessary to move away from our single product, everything immediately fell into place. I went back to our clients, and started offering them not a single product, but a “roof pie” and complex solutions. And they immediately replied: “Oh! That’s really interesting!” It became clear what to do — to go into the production of insulation. For example, to start offering stone wool. That’s the story. So the main thing is to have the ability to overcome your success. Don’t be rigid. If you are rigid, you are in danger.

Also, I would like to add that I have a stake in the logistics company “Lorry” in Africa. Moreover, TechnoNICOL also continues to develop rapidly, expanding its geography. Now we are considering the possibility of building a plant or buying assets in Egypt or another country in North Africa, while Egypt is our priority.

– In your experience as a successful entrepreneur, what major hurdles must be overcome to encourage the creation of companies?

– All boilerplate strategies are second-hand templates. They’re not for you, they’re NOT by you, and they’re not for here. Be careful with them! 

I hate the word strategy — it has caused serious harm to a lot of people. I like the word business plan. Strategy is something that claims to be of extreme importance and high precision. In fact, it is just an illusion, a pattern of thinking that someone once declared meaningful. 

A business plan is a tool. It can be used for specific purposes. If you want to support an existing aim, act on the business plan. You can even call it a strategy.

But when you want to go from good to great — act beyond illusions. All the great things that happened to me happened when I acted beyond illusions. 

By outlining strategies, experts can, in retrospect, explain all my successes, but they are not able to give an accurate forecast for the future based on these explanations. So, these are erroneous explanations.

They are usually called daring dreams. But the reality of an illusion is a belief in smart strategies. Look! Elon Musk recently became the richest man in the world. Here’s a man acting beyond the framework of illusions!

Musk has been accused of all the mortal sins. But at the end of the day, he’s the richest man in the world, and his critics are strategists? Who is under illusions in the end? Strategy is just a structural disproportion; an illusion that one has pursued in vain.

But how can you act beyond illusions? I’m supposed to have the secret, right? Right?

Of course, there is a secret. Strategies do exist, but they are not what we commonly use this word to describe. There are behavioural strategies. Everything else is a figment of the imagination. 

There is only that — behavioural strategies. The rest is either garbage or a business plan. 

So, what behavioural strategies have determined my success? 

1. Accept that the fulcrum is inside you. As Archimedes used to say, “give me a place to stand and with a lever I will move the whole world.” This fulcrum is not somewhere outside, this strong support is always inside you! And if this fulcrum is outside, you will never have a leg to stand on.

“THE FULCRUM is inside you!”

2. Do find co-conspirators to your cause. These are the people with whom you will be a winner and set incredible goals.

“Flow and co-creation generate x10 energy”

3. At least 30 percent of the time, you should be devoted to philanthropic, socially transformative projects and increase public awareness of your personality. That’s how you expand your personal arsenal of self-expression and behavioural strategies.

“Expand the arsenal of behavioural strategies and self-expression”

4. Become part of a community where there are already many successful figures. Let them care about you. They won’t let you be any less bright than is possible. 

“Become part of a collective community of support and development…”

5. Have more than 10 disciples and pass on the beliefs and practices that have made you successful. 

If you want to go from good to great, act beyond illusions.

If you want to act beyond illusions, control your behavioural strategies

– A few years ago you stepped back from TechnoNICOL to focus on philanthropy. Your Rybakov Foundation launched a $100 million education fund as well as the Rybakov Prize, and the foundation also supports and protects the interest of families all over the world on their journey to quality education, success, prosperity and well-being. What are some of the biggest accomplishments the Rybakov Foundation has made to date in Russia, the world, and in Africa? What are your future plans?

– I would like to clarify right away: on Feb. 2, 2020, my wife Ekaterina and I signed the Education Pledge, thus promising to give $100,000,000 of our wealth to education development over the next ten years. The Rybakov Foundation and all our educational initiatives exist precisely due to these funds. And we have big plans.

Ekaterina and I created the Rybakov Foundation in 2015: we were engaged in the development of education, the nonprofit sector, and entrepreneurship. One of our key activities was supporting entrepreneurship. Our initiatives in this area have already become successful independent projects: the “Equium” international business club, and the “Preaktum” program for the development of entrepreneurship among young people.

We are especially proud of our international PRO Women community, which already has 22,000 members: women working according to a special methodology in groups of 6-12 people, developing trusting relationships, with everyone helping each other set goals and achieve them, going beyond the usual framework. And it works! Many participants demonstrate their ability in business and create workplaces. Incidentally, there are no PRO Women groups on the African continent yet, but the potential here is really incredible! We really hope that such groups will be created soon.

Returning to the Rybakov Foundation, our goal was broader — to awaken in everyone an entrepreneurial attitude they can apply to their lives. This means being independent, being able to set one’s own goals that are not imposed by someone else, finding resources to achieve them, and being responsible.

Suddenly we realized that there was no need to awaken anything — we just needed to avoid extinguishing what was already there! After all, all children up to a certain age are entrepreneurs intrinsically. They research, try, and are not afraid to make mistakes until the adults in kindergartens and schools begin to tell them that it’s supposedly wrong to do this, and it’s right to do things a certain way and not otherwise. This kills the entrepreneurial instinct in many. It is then very hard to revive it, people lose control over their lives, it is hard for them to figure out what they want, where their strengths lie.

That is why we decided to focus on education. Having an influence on education is the most effective way to change the future! We ensured that in kindergartens and schools there is an environment that allows children to discover their entrepreneurial potential, believe in themselves, try different roles and gain invaluable experience with which they will enter the adult world, and become successful and happy.

We have held the Rybakov Preschool Award for 5 years. It is a contest for preschool educators. This year it became international for the first time. More than 20,000 people took part in it — teachers, managers, and entrepreneurs. Among the winners of the Educational Community Leader nomination there have been many participants from the African continent: community leaders from Nigeria, Zambia, Kenya, Ghana, and Tanzania. We aim not only to award prizes, we want to form a community of winners. In addition, at our initiative, the preschool educational program PRO Kids was created. It nurtures children’s skills —independence, self-regulation, and interaction — and all this happens in the process of playing. Hundreds of kindergartens and thousands of teachers work under this program. And it is really incredibly effective, you just need to hear the feedback from teachers and parents to understand this! This program is at the core of the Rybakov Playschool kindergartens chain, which I am launching right now.

As for the development of education in schools, we are implementing a model that involves creating school communities. This is an extremely simple and democratic idea. Any school can create a community that will fill it with an atmosphere of trust, support, and will motivate students to learn and develop an entrepreneurial attitude to life. In addition, the community gives power to schools. Imagine that the families of students, alumni, and local and regional organizations — from museums to bakeries — are partners and allies of the school! This is a force that can cope with any task and open up educational opportunities for children, even in a small village.

We are especially proud of the innovative international game-based competition, the Rybakov School Award. In a game format, participants — children and adults — work together on tasks from a chatbot to create a community and attract resources for the school. Thousands of people from 29 countries took part in two seasons of the game. We will launch the new season this fall. In July we invited the participants themselves to design the new season with us. Well, who else but us could do that?

The Rybakov Prize is also a point of pride for us. It is an international award for philanthropists who invest their resources in education. The $ 1 million Grand Prix was won by Abdul Abdulkerimov, the founder of the Luminary educational center in a Russian mountain village. By the way, the creator of the American non-profit organization Educate! — Boris Bulayev — received $ 100,000! His team is implementing an entrepreneurial and leadership development program in thousands of schools in Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda. Graduates of the program find jobs in modern industries or, what’s even cooler, establish startups and create jobs that the local community needs.

It seems to me that our foundation itself operates in a similar way to a startup, and this is also an achievement and a great rarity for the non-profit sector. We are mobile, react quickly to situations, change, consider the impact, release new programs as iterations, and collect feedback.

This is how we recently came across a big idea in the foundation — #familyfocused. We realized that during the pandemic, the family physically became the major platform for the education and parenting of children. It was faced with an enormous burden. But this experience also made it possible to realize that the family has long been the main actor in education: we just did not notice. Just look: school, kindergarten, and universities are losing their monopoly on education, they are just blocks in a large construction set. It is the family that decides how to assemble it based on their ideas. We want to help the family make a decision and choose exactly the bricks they need. We invoke the entire educational ecosystem to focus on the interests of the family. As for ourselves, we determined that the mission of the family is to raise and release into the world an autonomous, capable person, an individual who knows how to love, create, and make choices. The school, kindergartens and all members of the educational ecosystem should be partners of the family in this mission, to create a unified educational environment. We are now incorporating this idea into all our programs.

A great goal, don’t you think? I will do everything I can to make sure that 1 billion families improve their quality of life. To give families around the world a more secure and prosperous future.

Today, no one knows what the future holds for our children, what skills they will need to become successful and happy. I don’t know either. Yet, children continue to be taught, as if adults know everything in line with the programs drawn up in previous eras. 

No one knows what to teach. But I know for a fact that a person’s personality is formed in the first ten years of their life. This period should not be neglected. That’s why I launched the Rybakov Playschool project, a network of kindergartens and schools where children are taught the main thing — to be independent, free and responsible. This is the key to inspiring action in all circumstances. It’s a skill for the future! The education received at the Rybakov Playschool will help bring up the two most important competencies in children. The first one is the generating of protection against abuse of power and control. And the second one is the generating of the ability to conceive — and to achieve what is conceived using the resources that you already have. This knowledge will become the main assistant for the family in increasing the sense of security and quality of life. They will help educate people who build life according to their own rules.

The Rybakov Playschool will change the standards in education for children 3-12 years old all over the world. We will offer educational solutions for the safety, success and well-being of each family. My goal is that there will be 1,000 Rybakov Playschools by 2025, and 10,000 Rybakov Playschools by 2035. 

– You’re one of the major promoters of Famtech. What is Famtech and why do you think it will become a major trend in the coming years?

– Famtech is a technology designed to help families on their path to prosperity and well-being. While the term is not widespread, the famtech industry already exists and it is burgeoning among start-ups and non-profit initiatives. They help families keep their finances in check, monitor their health, plan and manage pregnancy, and hire nannies, teachers, nurses, etc. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, famtech is attracting more businesses and philanthropists. 

Why is this the case? In 2020, families were placed under pressure from a shrinking labor market, rising costs, and the emergence of new functions. Today the family needs support more than ever, and a lot of people understand this.

Another reason is as follows: millennials start their own families with a reliance on technology. While ten years ago babytech and femtech were niche markets, they are now growing rapidly. According to Frost & Sullivan’s report, the revenue of the femtech market will reach $1.1 billion by 2024 with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.9 percent. For example, the AMMA Pregnancy Tracker, an international service for pregnant women and their families, in which I invested $200,000 in December 2020. This startup’s value grew four times to reach $24.5 million within a year. I see AMMA’s future as a leading player in the FamTech segment that will support the family with the information, educational and financial services collected on the AMMA Family platform. My challenge is for AMMA to have an impact on the lives of 1 billion families by 2030. By then, AMMA will be worth $15-20 billion. AMMA, together with the Rybakov Foundation, PRO Women community, and the Rybakov PlaySchool will bring the concept of “make the family great today” to life. 

The family matters. Families and communities are bearing the brunt of the pandemic. People with more social connections have been better equipped to deal with the challenges of lockdown. It is our mission to create supportive social relations that bolster the safety and prosperity of everyone worldwide.

– As a philanthropist yourself, what tips would you give to wealthy Africans on how to donate smarter? How should people go about choosing a cause to support? Even within a certain cause, there are dozens of organizations to support. How do you narrow it down?

– Join the EdHeroes Social Movement

Behind this movement is our idea that everyone can and should be an EdHero. You are an EdHero if you are ready to invest your time, ideas, and other resources with the aim of changing education for the better. You are an EdHero, if you believe that it is possible to influence education and thus change the world for the better, openly promote this idea in any form and have had a positive impact on the lives of more than ten people. 

Every human is endowed from birth with a superpower that can organize your whole life. But if you do not know what exact superpower it is, you cannot take advantage of it. So how can you find out which superpower you have? 

The only way is to meet an EdHero, a person around whom your superpower manifests itself. There is also a way to protect yourself from the disappearance of your superpower — to become an EdHero too, which means that at least ten people around you find out what their superpower is. I realized that all my achievements in life, in family, in business, in any sphere are connected with the fact that I am an EdHero, too. So I urge you to join the EdHeroes Social Movement as soon as possible. 

It will connect individuals and organizations, whose mutual objective is in line with the United Nations SDG4 and family-focused education in an efficient network and accumulate their resources to address the most pressing challenges education faces in different regions. 

We believe that this movement will direct people’s energy — they may not even be professionally in the sphere of education — towards achieving SDG 4. They may be entrepreneurs, school graduates, or people from a range of professions. That’s a massive and untapped resource! 

In March, we held the first global EdHeroes Forum, “Education 2021: Family in Focus,” which was attended by more than 33,000 people from 167 countries. It was held by the Rybakov Foundation and the University of Childhood with the World Bank Education, UNESCO IITE, and the World Organization for Early Childhood Education. The key educators from all over the world signed a manifesto encouraging the educational ecosystem to focus on family needs. 

Joining the EdHeroes Social Movement, you can increase your social impact, meet like-minded thinkers in order to achieve a synergy effect, become a speaker at the EdHeroes Forum in order to spread your values globally, establish a local EdHeroes Forum to inspire people to change the world through education.

I believe in the incredible economic, social and cultural potential of Africa. I believe that the EdHeroes Social Movement and our other initiatives will help unlock this potential, and increase the connectedness between people and families. It will help them cooperate more, learn from each other, and not depend on hierarchical structures. It will help form defences against the abuse of control and power. This is because all our initiatives are based on cooperation, collaboration, and a community of shared values. Africa is the region with the fastest-growing population. I am amazed by the fact that by 2050, the number of children on the continent will increase sevenfold, reach almost 1 billion and account for almost 40 percent of the total number of children in the world. Education in this context is a real challenge. I think it is the right time to act.

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