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ICEF, Oxford, Yale: ICEF graduate speaks about his education in 3 universities

ICEF, Oxford, Yale: ICEF graduate speaks about his education in 3 universities

Dmitry Aksakov completed the ICEF BSc programme in 2008, then entered MSc programme at the University of Oxford and, after having worked at Deutsche Bank, studied for an MBA at Yale University. Now he is Vice-president at the VEB Development Corporation

How did you choose the university when you were at school?

This is a family ‘tradition’ in a sense. My younger brother followed in my steps, and I followed in my father’s. My father in his time studied at the Faculty of Economics at MSU under Sergey Yakovlev, who is now the ICEF Director. Despite my father’s complete trust in ICEF, I still attended preparatory courses at MSU so that I could learn about two leading universities on my own. For me it was important to meet teachers in person and compare educational programmes. I understood that at ICEF I would study under the strongest professors and on top of that – in an international programme. Add to this high quality of students – winners of All Russian Olympiads in Economics go specifically to ICEF: who doesn’t want to study among the best? As it turned out, it was a defining moment – certainly, the environment forms us, and without it many advantages of a university wouldn’t work.

There were emotional factors too. In my last year at school I was studying at the HSE preparation classes and we were visited by ICEF representatives, including Jeffrey Lockshin and they told us about the University of London (note: ICEF BSc programme allows its students to obtain degrees from two universities – the HSE and University of London). 

I was amazed – one of my music idols Mick Jagger had been a University of London student, not a conscientious one, though

I did not pay any attention to other graduates, including George Soros and Nelson Mandela, at all. I was 16, Jagger absolutely stole the show.

Did you already have a ‘professional’ dream?

The Russian economy was growing rapidly at that time; many companies wanted to invest in it; offices with nice names and interiors were built; such companies as Deloitte, McKinsey, J.P.Morgan expanded their presence in Russia. I wanted to be there, work in such an international company, solve important issues for clients. This mysterious foreign culture where you can do business talking freely in Russian and English really attracted me. 

At that time, I did not have any idea what exactly these companies do. I only knew that it was something important and interesting. I merely imagined myself in such a company, I knew exactly what I would like to look like and, funnily enough, the international financial education that ICEF offered fit with these dreams. This is naive, but I think many people choose university rather emotionally than consciously and these motives are strong until a certain moment comes.

When did the realization of the true purposes of studies come?

By my 4th year I had already dealt with the international environment, many of our classes were held by foreign professors, we had visits by academic ‘stars’ from different countries and world class financiers. After my first year I visited London School of Economics Summer School and saw that legendary university.

With a brother, Alexander Aksakov, ICEF graduate as well
With a brother, Alexander Aksakov, ICEF graduate as well

After my second year I spent summer in Harvard; in my 3rd year I immersed in the investment banking as an intern and tried to understand what these people in expensive suits with beaming smiles do. At the same time many fellow students did internships in famous companies, including consulting, so I received firsthand information. I began to understand what I really like doing. Investment banking certainly caught me. 

What kind of practical experience was it? Why did it lead to studies again?

Before Oxford, where I went straight after graduating from ICEF, I did not have any full-scale job experience, apart from internships. At that time, it was very popular to go for prestigious MSc programmes right after BSc. The best students from my year applied for the leading international MSc programmes, many of them went to the LSE, four fellow students entered Oxford, a couple of others went to Cambridge, Warwick, Columbia University. 

During one of my internships I asked a senior colleague whether I should go to the MSc or start working. ‘Now’ – he said, - ‘is the best moment, and when you start earning money it is unlikely that you will want to go back to studies’. And I believed that.

It was not very difficult to enter Oxford – surprisingly, ICEF is well-known there, partially because Oxford professors visited our university a lot. Moreover, ICEF prepared us very well for GMAT and essays. 

I constantly had a feeling that there is a beaten track that leads from ICEF to western universities, a track beaten in just ten years

Everyone who wanted to be admitted succeeded, and our background was very strong. I never lost my nerve, I had (and still have) this utter certainty that we are all great, each ICEF graduate had a solid basis in a big number of mathematical subjects, and we easily enter the academic community of the most famous universities.

What was your impression of your first and much-anticipated work?

After Oxford I started working as an analyst in Deutsche Bank. This is a starting position for banking where they take novice specialists even without a master’s degree. The main value of studying at Oxford for me was rather the cultural experience. To spend time in the oldest British university with such a campus and unbelievably big rich educational traditions – in my opinion, this was a unique chance. I was captivated by this special spirit of secular student traditions, and that broadened my horizons a lot.

Oxford people greatly develop you. They are all very different here and the community itself is formed in a way that no one lives in his own world; people of different interests and academic spheres meet constantly. Oxford is a system of colleges, where students of most different specializations study.

Every day I informally debated with biologists, philosophers, chemists, political experts and artists; this let me look through a broader lens

Knowledge of what people of my age are interested in made me reconsider my approach to life and my profession. When I was in Deutsche Bank, I saw how this background works. I worked in Moscow and then in the London office with a very international community. I managed to get on with people of different cultures quickly. This is very valuable for effective communication in a team and for a healthy office environment, in general. At the same time I learned to see beyond thanks to deep understanding of correlations between economic processes that are based on cultural and social phenomena.

Has the social aspect of economics ever interested you? Economics is about society above all.

When I was at Oxford, I have started having a deep interest in that. In lectures and debates with professors we wondered what would a company give priority to - profit-maximization or consequences of its actions for the society? I was suddenly astonished that the classic economics neglects this question and students, as a rule, don’t encounter value-based analysis. But the world has taken a great leap in this direction.

That is exactly what I’m engaged with on my current position – our projects are aimed at the long-run development of Russian economy and improvement of citizens’ welfare. Now at VEB we are developing for Russia best practices for so called ESG financing, that is financing that includes ecological, social, and corporate management factors.

ESG (environmental social governance) is one of the main investment trends in recent years and we would like Russian companies to be involved in it as well.

Why did you decide to study again, at Yale this time?

The company certainly encouraged me to obtain an МВА – but this was my own decision. Over the five years that I had worked, I accumulated a great number of questions. I felt that I need mentors from different spheres that would give answers. Usually, such mentors can be found on good MBA programmes, and that includes both professors and students. Moreover, it was interesting to live in the USA, get the feel of American culture and business. On top of that, there is an academic superstition, that if you have not completed your education until 30, then it might be difficult and even too late.

At the graduation ceremony at Yale with a daughter
At the graduation ceremony at Yale with a daughter

Why did you return to Russia?

When I was leaving for Oxford, I did not consider it to be a one-way trip. I was planning to come back and apply my knowledge at home. First, I am not indifferent to what is going to happen to my country, I want to boost the Russian economy. In a way, this is already a family business, which my grandfather began. Secondly, it was important to me to be with my family. For me this is one of the fundamental things in life, it makes me happy.

For two-and-a-half years I worked in a New-York office of UBS and then left for VEB and now I work in the department that finances key projects for development of Russian economу. For me, it is very important that I can make a real contribution to our country and see results.

Dmitry Aksakov
Dmitry Aksakov
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