GoAbroad Interview

Maria Lobanova - Founder & CEO

Maria Lobanova - Founder & CEO

Maria earned her marketing and sales management degree from Saint-Petersburg State University. During her studies, she spent a semester abroad in Austria, studying and interning in marketing part-time. Inspired by this experience, as well as her professional experience with a European internship placement agency, Maria decided to establish ProfIntern in 2010. Today, she continues to lead the organization by widening the network of available placement companies, meeting with business professionals, and ultimately creating more opportunities for international interns to get work experience in Russia.

Before establishing ProfIntern, you studied and worked in marketing. What inspired you to hop into the internship industry?

I would say I was inspired not to hop into the internship field, but into entrepreneurship in general. Having a marketing background allowed me to establish ProfIntern’s brand and organize business processes. Moreover, I was always interested in international projects and I realized that business connected with people’s development in personal, cultural, and professional ways is very inspiring for me. Also, such a project serves the idea of opening Russia and its mentality to foreigners, and I am very happy when our interns from east or west break their stereotypes about Russia.

International interns in Russia

How did you begin to develop ProfIntern?

I started as a representative of a European company, which wanted to open the Russian market for international students. But after some time, it became clear that internships in Russia have to be organized by a local partner (I mean a legal entity registered in Russia) and under very flexible business conditions due to many legal issues. As the company was not ready to implement the changes in their business procedures, our contract was closed and it motivated me to set up my own company.

How have your own early professional experiences and internships helped you shape ProfIntern into what it is today?

When I was a student I also got the chance to travel abroad for an exchange semester, and as an additional activity, I decided to get work practice. It was a very challenging and outstanding experience in both professional and personal spheres.

I organized the internship by myself, so since that time, I know very well all the fears, difficulties, doubts and expectations that an intern faces in a foreign environment while doing an internship abroad. Also, I know how crucial it is to be experienced and have a proper list of “professional experience” in a CV when seeking a full-time position. This is why an internship is something very important and a stepping point for future careers. 

After dealing with international marketing for more than five years and being employed by  Russian and international companies, I gained a wide range of experience and understanding that there is a huge difference in various business environments. It helps me to consult candidates and suggest different internship placements. And of course, a wide professional network helps me to find the most brilliant placing companies.

What makes ProfIntern unique?

First of all, professional and customized internships. Lots of time we hear from our Western candidates that in European countries they face a lack of professionalism and experience while interning. Their mentors spend a lot of time with their trainees, but the input at the end is not essential. Engineers are not allowed to touch machines, for example, and when asking for “work” they just get one more pack of documentation for reading and analyzing. I remember my personal internship experience, when I was supposed to get marketing tasks, and in fact I was spreading leaflets, which disappointed me a lot.

At ProfIntern, we adhere to personalized internships. The placing company is researched and the internship program is developed before the intern arrives to Russia, and strongly in accordance with his/her professional background, goals, and expectations. This allows us to negotiate and agree exact tasks and projects, corresponding to intern’s application information and the current needs of the company. And of course, interns have the choice to accept our suggestion or to ask for another search. 

Secondly, our internship programs can be held both in Russian and in English, in almost any field, which is a great opportunity for those who don’t speak Russian.

One more core competitive advantage is that we place in any professional field. We start searching for a company starting from the first priority field, and in majority of cases, we succeed in finding the best corresponding internship for a candidate. For example, we had one American who wanted to intern in the biomedical field right after her graduation and she requested an internship in English. In the end, we found a great opportunity for her; starting from the second week, she was already helping in the laboratory and working with ingredients. She was happy with this “practical” experience because, as she explained, in the U.S. it is not possible to be admitted to work with biomedical materials without a special permit, which can be given only after several months of special training.

Friends playing a board game in Russia

Why do you think St. Petersburg is a great place for international internships?

For our candidates, we are always recommending they consider Saint-Petersburg as a preferred destination to a number of reasons:

Saint-Petersburg is a cultural capital of Russia and one of the most beautiful cities in the world, offering endless opportunities for cultural immersion.

It's a rapidly developing city with all types of business being present on the market. Considering this, professional experience in Saint-Petersburg is just as effective as in Moscow.

Even though getting more business-oriented internships in Saint-Petersburg is not as easy as in Moscow, it is more comfortable for living and social activities.

Saint-Petersburg is cheaper in terms of accommodation options and life in general.

Saint-Petersburg is very close to Moscow (four hours by high speed Sapsan train and an hour and 15 minutes by plane), so interns can easily travel and visit this city any time when they are free from their internship and studies.

In my experience, the majority of our candidates have picked Saint-Petersburg and had no regrets.

In what ways does ProfIntern support interns before, during, and after their internship?

I would say we support our clients from the moment of their initial request to departure from the country. Before arrival, we help interns on every application step, discuss desired internship experience, provide visa assistance and an invitation letter, and then supply each intern with his or her internship, accommodation, and language course details. We also provide airport pick-up service and accompany interns to their rented room or flat, to show them around and introduce them to the landlord.

During the program, we are at interns’ disposal 24/7 by phone and e-mail. We provide local SIM cards, transport tickets, city maps, and other necessary information. On the first day of arrival, we provide an orientation program and short internship seminar. We accompany them to the language school and placing company on the first couple days, as well as organize additional meetings within the company to help with negotiations one to two times during the program. Of course, we also help in any unexpected situations (i.e. illness, additional help, accommodation for guests, etc.). We also provide a wide cultural program, from going to the theatres and museums to checking out bars and games.

All our participants get certificates upon completion of the program. We keep in touch after interns finish the program and are always ready to welcome them once again in Russia.

What is some of your best advice for individuals contemplating an international internship?

Don't believe in stereotypes, you will be surprised how false they are!

Time goes very fast; before you could bat an eye, your internship will be over. So, make the most out of it: make new connections, be proactive, take initiative during your internship, and organize marvelous cultural experiences for yourself.

The better you know what you want from your internship, the better it will be organized by the provider. So, please, think about the experience you want to gain before applying to a program.

You will be tired, but happy!

ProfIntern has been around for six years now. What accomplishment(s) are you most proud of?

There are several reasons to be proud. Our network of placing companies exceeds 600 members, from more than 35 industries. We placed interns from more than 30 countries, and 97 percent of our participants very highly evaluate their internship experience in Russia with ProfIntern.

Also, more than 10 interns, who were absolutely brilliant, got job offers after their internships and returned to Russia. Keeping in touch with previous interns, we get to know their achievements, and we are always very happy to realize that we contributed a bit to their success.

What do you hope to accomplish in the next year? Anything new we should keep an eye out for in 2017?

We are planning to expand the geography of ProfIntern and soon, in addition to Saint-Petersburg and Moscow, our candidates will be able to get internships and Russian language experience in cities such as Kazan and Yekaterinburg. Also, we are always updating our database of placing partners and plan to achieve 1000 companies in more than 40 fields this year. And, we have one more ambitious idea, which will hopefully be implemented in 2017, so follow our news! For now, we will keep it a secret.