I grew up during the fall of the Soviet Union. Many people lost their livelihoods and were thrust into poverty. Because of that, my family could only afford to send me to an average local literature school instead of a mathematics or economics lyceum, which are specialized schools that open opportunities for their graduates.
Unlike kids in other parts of the world, I didn't have many opportunities to explore hobbies. Still, I eventually picked up the button accordion and ballroom dancing, which surprised my parents, as they weren't musically inclined.
Although I excelled in my extracurricular activities, my school grades took a slump. I barely achieved the minimum, which prompted my father to give me an ultimatum that shook me to my core: Either I work hard and get into a university or be forced to join the military and serve in the Chechen War.
This threat woke up something within me, and I worked harder than ever to avoid facing the horrors of war. My efforts proved fruitful in the end, as I received a scholarship to attend Baltic State Technical University with a borderline entrance grade. Fortunately, my school's mathematics teacher spent hours with me after classes to help me learn math concepts beyond our curriculum to enter a technical university, which indeed worked. I was looking for a programming job from the second year of my university studies and was the first among my peers to find such a job, which helped me gain the necessary experience and skills early.
With the programming experience I gained by starting work early, I got a chance to complete my master's studies at ITMO University, which is globally famous for being the only university to win the prestigious ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest seven times. Later, after my master's supervisor noticed my achievements, I was invited for an internship at the prestigious National University of Singapore (NUS).
A year later, I returned to NUS as a Ph.D. student. That was when I envisioned the artificial intelligence (AI) prototype for digital marketing that would later become the foundation for the SoMin.ai platform today.
My life’s journey was tough at times, but I learned many lessons along the way that I believe will help other leaders navigate a rough road. Here are four of the most important ones I discovered:
1. Help is all around you. All you need to do is ask. I've never been afraid to ask for help. I discovered that by admitting I didn't know something, there was always someone willing to steer me in the right direction, from my peers to my mentors.
After all, we're only human, each with unique strengths and weaknesses. We can't hope to know everything. Instead, we should be ready to accept our shortcomings and seek help to improve them. This is also why I was invited to join ITMO as a professor later—and it allowed me to help my students improve themselves the same way my peers and mentors helped me.
2. Life isn't one but many journeys with branching paths. As I mentioned before, growing up during the collapse of the Soviet Union was hard. At the time, I thought the only career options available were to become a literature or history teacher. However, as my passion for programming flourished, I persevered in exploring the subject.
Guided by my mentors, who freely gave their time to help me, I ultimately achieved what I set out to do—to fill in a gap I observed in digital marketing that would eventually help other companies achieve growth. Of course, the process of reaching that point was no easy task. In the beginning, I failed, but I finally attained success through meticulous planning and a deep understanding of my subject.
3. When you feel stuck, take a walk. When it came time to identify a topic for my Ph.D., I hit a brick wall. It needed to be a unique subject that would double as something I could later turn into a business. So, I decided to take a walk.
It was during one of my evening walks that the idea came to me. It was very simple, yet quite intriguing, and the bonus was that none of my peers had ever considered working on it before. The idea revolved around the use of machine learning to understand and analyze user data across multiple social media platforms to identify patterns and, therefore, predict the users’ next move—which I eventually turned into a business.
So, when in doubt, take a walk, meditate or do whatever activity helps clear your mind so that you, too, can conceive a unique idea.
4. Never neglect your hobbies—they can add value to you as an entrepreneur. Hobbies should always be viewed as another set of skills that run in parallel to your more formal skill set, as you can't gain them through conventional forms of education. For instance, my years of performing the accordion on stage helped me build up my self-confidence in front of large crowds, which made it much easier for me to interact with others more fluidly, especially when delivering public speeches to potential investors and new prospects.
In addition, ballroom dancing taught me about having a strong work ethic. This is because, as a dancer, you're trying to achieve your personal form of “perfection” by repeating the same dance steps repeatedly until you get it right—a craft that requires discipline and a lot of hard work to master. Likewise, building an AI platform required me to have the same level of dedication in programming to get it right.
I hope that my life’s story and the lessons I learned throughout my journey will have a positive effect on you. I believe that if you truly stay focused on what you want to do and where you'd like to end up, you'll undoubtedly arrive at your desired destination someday.