Mentoring next generation of entrepreneurs is not without risk

Kendrick White, who wrote an undergraduate thesis on Soviet economics before completing an MBA in 1990, came to Russia in 1992 as an economic adviser with the Peace Corps and founded Marchmont Capital Partners in 2005. Source: Personal archives

Kendrick White, who wrote an undergraduate thesis on Soviet economics before completing an MBA in 1990, came to Russia in 1992 as an economic adviser with the Peace Corps and founded Marchmont Capital Partners in 2005. Source: Personal archives

Will an American expert be allowed to continue guiding Russian inventions to success?

When Kendrick White went on vacation in early June 2015, he wasn’t questioning the security of his job as vice rector for innovation at N. I. Lobachevsky State University of Nizhny Novgorod (UNN).

White, 52, spent nearly a month with his family on a small island near Florida before checking his e-mail. That’s when he encountered an inbox stuffed with more than 1,000 unread messages.

The Russian and world press assumed he had been pushed out of his position, which he had held since 2013, and perhaps out of Russia. But White had no idea what happened, he told RBTH in a September interview, and he still doesn’t know.

“I was told that the rector would tell me what was going on,” White said. “He still has not. I have to explore other options.”

The rector’s office at N. I. Lobachevsky State University did not answer a request for comment.

A report by TV channel Russia-1 on new developments at the university, produced at the end of May and aired on June 28, focused mostly on the fact that an American held such a high position at the university, with little attention to his work.

But those who have known and worked with White spoke in glowing terms of his work helping Russian students advance and market their inventions, including Todd J. Lefko, an American businessman with a long history in Russia.

“He’s one of the few non-Russians who believe that Russian scientists could build a future in Nizhny Novgorod, Moscow, Irkutsk, Tomsk or any of a hundred Russian cities,” Lefko said in a statement made available to RBTH. “Kendrick White understood the future.”

White, who wrote an undergraduate thesis on Soviet economics before completing an MBA in 1990, came to Russia in 1992 as an economic adviser with the Peace Corps and founded Marchmont Capital Partners in 2005.

White’s work has been rooted in the belief that although problems at the grassroots level have blocked technological innovations by Russian scientists from making it to the global market, the country has enormous scientific potential.

In other words, Russian scientists “have the ideas, but they don’t always know what to do with them,” White told RBTH.

“This is Russia’s main conundrum,” said White. “And it has been for a long, long time.”

To help scientists get over various financial and commercial hurdles, White took a job at UNN and created a regional Proof of Concept Center (POCC).

“Kendrick primarily has helped scientists evaluate the commercial potential of their technology, helping to assess the market … and package it for investors and attract investments,” said Arseniy Dabbakh, a managing partner at RMG Partners who has known White since the mid-2000s. For many Russian scientists and entrepreneurs, White “has acted as a mentor,” Dabbakh said.

These include UNN spinoff company WirelessInMotion, a startup developing next-generation wireless video monitoring and alert and diagnostics systems, including remote monitoring of motor vehicles. The company was among the first to travel to the U.S. in 2013 under White’s guidance, through the U.S.-Russia Innovation Corridor (USRIC) program. The trip led to the creation of U.S.-registered subsidiary WirelessInMotion LLC and an outline to start North American sales within the next year.

“We are trying to build something similar to an innovation ecosystem like in Silicon Valley or the Despande Center at MIT,” White said. “We wanted to be a model for other cities and regions.”

White has seen huge progress since he arrived in Russia, he said, but in the past two years, much of it has been undone. He is not naïve, he said: Some people feel threatened by his projects and their grassroots development. And there’s another factor.

“I am not happy about what has gone on,” White said. “I love Russia. I love America. I don’t like this attitude of you’re ‘with us or against us.’ Russia is trying to make people choose.”

Still, White sounded hopeful the situation at the university would be resolvedRegardless of the outcome, he will continue to work with Russian entrepreneurs, he said.

“They are the future,” White said. “Entrepreneurs will run this country some day. Russia will get rich from their brains and not just from whatever they can find in the ground.”

 

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