Job seeker to business owner

moscow | When Elina Vilenskaya started her own business a few years ago, the economic situation in her hometown of Volzhsky in southern Russia offered little promise.

With annual inflation running in triple digits, no loan system and few laws to help small-business owners, the only thing she could rely on was her own energy.

“Most of my friends complained about unemployment or their husband’s pitiful salaries. I couldn’t live just complaining,” she says.

An aerobics teacher with a master’s degree in economics, she quickly realized that starting her own business would be the only way to rise above the poor economic situation for many in post-communist Russia.

Vilenskaya now owns a fitness club and a small consulting firm that works with the local energy industry.

She was among some 100 Jewish businesswomen from Israel and the former Soviet Union who met in Moscow to form a social and professional network.

The meeting, organized by the Jewish Agency for Israel, was part of a larger initiative designed to establish exchanges between Russian Jewish and Israeli businesswomen — and create avenues for business partnerships among women entrepreneurs from both regions.

The forum between the former Soviet countries and Israel is modeled after similar regional forums that have been in existence in Israel for a number of years.

Russian society has traditionally been male-dominated, and this tradition dies hard.

Communism helped to break down some of the barriers between Russian men and women, but many Russians still find it hard to accept women in positions of power, although an increasing number of women now hold positions in Russian management.

Zlata Elbaum, who first got involved in business management 15 years ago, is one of the pioneers of Russian women’s entrepreneurship.

Even today, she more often sees “men’s suits across the negotiating table,” says Elbaum, an owner of a successful tourism company and the vice president of Moscow’s Jewish community.

Despite this disparity, statistics suggest that starting a business is a Russian woman’s best chance to support her family.

Approximately three-quarters of those who recently became unemployed in Russia are women, and the trend is not expected to change soon.

Moreover, an average female worker in Russia makes only two-thirds of what her male counterpart makes.

Vilenskaya says that in starting her own businesses, she hoped to reach a certain quality of life.

She says her designer business suit costs what for many in her town would be a monthly family income — which is easy to imagine in a country where the average salary is below $200.

The challenges of running a small business in the former Soviet Union are numerous, and not necessarily similar to those faced by entrepreneurs in the Western world, including Israel.

If a small business were to pay all required taxes, Russian entrepreneurs say, they would equal 50 percent to 75 percent of income, making it almost impossible for the business to survive.

As a result, all businesses try to avoid these payments by using legal and illegal methods, says Lyubov Samoilova, who owns a dental clinic in Chelyabinsk, in the Ural Mountains.

Though the rules of the game are different in Israel and the former Soviet Union, Vilenskaya says there are networking benefits.

“They are so optimistic and self-confident,” she says after a day of meetings with Israeli businesswomen. “This gives me additional strength and makes me think that I’m on the right path in life in doing what I’m doing.”

The Jewish Agency has another motive for the forum: helping unaffiliated diaspora Jews to connect with the Jewish state.

“We are trying to connect people with each other and with Israel, using those things that speak to them. It’s a new outreach concept,” says Lisa Gann-Perkal, associate director of the Jewish Agency’s 2-year-old People-to-People Center, which co-organized the event.

With the numbers of Jews making aliyah to Israel consistently declining in recent years, the Jewish Agency has been busy tuning up its mission in the former Soviet Union.

“We recognize that not everyone is going to make aliyah and that aliyah is a process,” says Gann-Perkal, the former director of the S.F.-based Israel Center.

In fact, for many businesswomen in the former Soviet Union, their entrepreneurial activity and the relative financial stability it brings are their main reasons not to move to Israel.

But the agency officials say that regardless of these women’s future decisions, being part of a Jewish- and Israel-related project could bring them closer to their Jewish heritage.

“Some will make aliyah down the line, but the goal is to create ties between them and Israel,” Gann-Perkal says.