St. Petersburg: From Gum Warrior to Entrepreneur

The most fun part of this trip has been dropping back in on people after 10 years, having no idea how they might have changed. Some people look absolutely the same, while others have changed so much I hardly recognized them -- you just never know. Yesterday, I was reminded of that once again when we saw Larisa Fedotova.



Larisa Fedotova, former Wrigley's gum sales manager, has transformed herself into an entrepreneur and business executive.(David Hillegas)

Way back in early September, we'd spent a frustrating few days in Khabarovsk trying to track Larisa down. I'd been searching for a few months already, as I suspected she'd probably left Khabarovsk for a bigger city. Larisa was an ambitious young sales manager for Wrigley's gum back in 1995, and seemed destined for bigger things.

On our last day in Khabarovsk, we finally made contact! Larisa emailed to say she'd moved to St. Petersburg and was running her own advertising company. We made plans to see her when we arrived here, and yesterday we met outside a metro station near her apartment. I expected your basic 10-years-later version of Khabarovsk Larisa, a no-nonsense, khaki-raincoat-wearing businessperson. Okay, so I was mistaken.

Larisa, now 35, arrived clad in a neon pink jacket with lush fur collar, stylish jeans and bright red shoes. Her hair, then the epitome of the sensible short cut, now cascaded down her back. She looked fantastic. "Wow," I exclaimed, "check out the pink jacket!"

"Hey," she parried with a smile, "I'm in the advertising business!"

As we went back to her apartment and talked, it became clear that more than just her clothes and hair have changed. Over the last decade, Larisa has transformed herself into an entrepreneur and business executive, building her private company, Primedia, into a serious player in indoor advertising. It seemed clear back in '95 that Larisa would do well in business, but I have to admit, I hadn't expected her to launch her own company, grow it so quickly, and do it with such... verve.



Larisa watches as her daughter Diana, 8, practices on the piano.(David Hillegas)

As we talked in the apartment she shares with her husband Viktor and 8-year-old daughter Diana, Larisa radiated energy and ideas even as she bustled about, preparing dinner and pouring wine. I asked her how the business world had changed over the past 10 years.

"It has become more civilized," she said. "There's more concentrated capital. In theory, it's not that hard to start your own business." That said, she acknowledged that in the first two years after she founded her company, she spent untold hours, including evenings and weekends, working to build it up.

I was happy to hear of Larisa's success, partly because ever since we met ten years ago in Khabarovsk, I just plain liked her and wanted her to do well. But more generally, it's nice to see a young woman succeed on her own terms in the Russian business world. And on reflection, I realized it's not that Larisa has changed so much since 1995; she's just given freer rein to the more entrepreneurial, daring parts of her personality. I have to say, I envy her that -- and I can't wait to see where it will take her in the next ten years.

Tomorrow: Join me for a Live Online discussion at noon, for answers to all those personal questions you've been too shy to post in the comments section!

By Lisa Dickey |  November 16, 2005; 10:15 AM ET
Previous: St. Petersburg: The Grand Dame Has a Facelift | Next: St. Petersburg: Five Generations

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"Entrepreneur?" Sounds like mafia-bait! What's up with the Russian mafia? The blog hasn'tt mentioned them much.

Posted by: Steve | November 16, 2005 01:05 PM

Hi, Steve - People don't talk nearly as much about the mafia now as they did in '95... When I asked, a few people told us that whereas before, businesses had to pay under-the-table money to their "krisha," or protection man, now the mafia protection guys had all gone "legit": they've opened security companies and charge big fees for essentially the same thing. As to whether they pay taxes or not, who knows... but at any rate, it's been surprising how little people talk about the mafia compared to 10 years ago.

Posted by: Lisa Dickey | November 17, 2005 11:07 AM

What an awesome story! I wish her the best of luck.

And thanks for the blog, it's really put my Russian history classes into perspective! Not to mention that I've been hooked!

Posted by: Crystal | November 17, 2005 01:43 PM

My sister in law was robbed recently in Chelyabinsk but I think it was street crime, or perhaps someone heard from someone she was carrying a lot of cash due to a deal. I don't think she has to deal with the "mafia" per se in her meat selling business. There are probably too many small and medium size businesses now as compared to 10 years ago for the mafia to shake down everyone. They have bigger fish to fry.

Posted by: aprilushka | November 18, 2005 08:50 AM

Now the main problem is corruption...

Posted by: Ivan | November 18, 2005 10:46 AM

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