Irina Penkina 

Founder, Director of Strategy & Finance, CityKids





Could tell us what you're working on at the moment, please, Irina.


Two years ago, I launched CityKids, a project aimed at improving mobility for young mothers and families with small children and improving standards of care for small children in Russia. I am the founder of the company and manage its operations.


The business currently consists of the following:


  • The CityKids family centre in Bauman Gardens –we plan to create a national network of centres.
  • The unique Baby Sensory early learning programme, developed in the UK, for families with children under three years old. We will not only run this programme at our centres but also offer it to individual teachers throughout Russia.
  • Another area we are actively working on is corporate kindergartens and children's centres; we hope to launch this project this year.


We work with parents with children under six years old, with a particular focus on children under three.


What inspired you to create the project? When did you launch it?


Children have always been important to me –after all, I've been lucky enough to be a mother since 2009 (and of two children since 2013). While still at KPMG, I realised how hard it was living in Russia with young children, especially for mums who try to be successful in everything and don't want to give up their professional and career development when they become mothers.  I opted for a flexible working schedule when my elder daughter was four months old, but even though I worked from home and rarely went into the office I still had to hire a nanny full-time as good nannies won't come for a few hours a week and there was no alternative. It was then that I thought how good it would be to have somewhere –ideally near my work– where I could leave my child for a couple of hours under qualified supervision so I could go to a meeting.


When my daughter was growing up, I felt the need for somewhere where both my child and I could meet people and develop even more keenly, but there was absolutely nowhere suitable for us to spend our leisure time together in Moscow.


I have always felt that the need faced by Russian women to choose between work and their family is unfair. The conditions are not there, either for trouble-free and happy motherhood on one hand or for mothers who go to work on the other. Statistics show that 90 percent of Russian women take up to three years' maternity leave. I doubt that this is a deliberate choice: they simply have no other option. And the fact that 70 percent of working women in Moscow change their job after taking maternity leave shows that observance of their rights is far from universal.


The inspiration to set up my own business came to me in 2011 –I had to create and launch the commercial product from scratch. I made several attempts to put together various business plans and to develop a number of business ideas, but something was lacking. And when I discussed with my friend, also a young mother from consulting industry, how little there was for very young children and how hard it was for young parents, we realised that there was a real need for spaces for very young children where parents could leave their children that provide very young children with development and leisure opportunities. We looked at the western experience and the current Russian market and found that Russia suffered from an appalling lack of services for very young children and their parents. Thus, the puzzle took shape. And most importantly a crucial  aspect emerged: the social mission that, I believe, also guarantees the success of the undertaking: after all, in addition to the unavoidable financial aspect a business should aim to make the world better and people's lives happier in some way. The goal of our business is to improve quality of life for young families and support the harmonious development of small children in Russia.


What was the hardest thing about launching the project? What problems and challenges did you face?


The hardest part was deciding to start it in the first place. *smiles*

In general, I can say that it's not easy for small businesses in Russia. The administrative barriers are huge, and even for people with higher education and experience of working in managerial positions at international companies it can be hard to navigate our system and set up a legitimate and efficient business.


We see a lot of "structural" problems in Russia in the "edutainment" industry, as we call it –from the standards of employees' work to the materials used for master classes and lessons: it is hard to find good quality at an affordable cost. We realise that we need to set a level of quality, requirements and new standards at our company that can be transferred to the industry as a whole, which is not easy but certainly makes our work much more interesting.

The main professional and personal challenge when you're running your own company, especially in an area like providing services for parents and small children, is to "lead from the front" and to understand all the company's processes, particularly those relating to clients. You are the main driving force, an example for your employees and the parents. And the thought of the high standards that you need to meet all the time never leaves you for a moment.


What criteria do you use when choosing people for your team?


The most important criterion is that the employee should share the company's values. Professional experience is important, but anyone can learn; the main thing is to have a desire and passion to develop. We offer the people who join our team dreams; we believe that our company has a big and bright future, and we call on people to accept this challenge at every level of the organisation –teachers, centre managers and administrators. This is what makes us different –we have an ambitious long-term goal to build a nationwide business from this in a few years' time, changing the lives of families with young children for the better. Everyone who joins us is ready to pursue that goal and to give a thousand percent.


What experience did you gain at KPMG? Has it helped you in your current business?


Of course KPMG was my main school of life and professional springboard. Almost six years working at the firm and dozens of corporate clients and solving their non-trivial business problems gave me vast management experience. Almost everything I know and can do I picked up when I was working at KPMG. For example, the KPMG E-MBA course I did in 2009 has been very useful.


Currently we have more than 15 people at CityKids, and HR skills are probably in particular demand: performance management, coaching, mentoring, setting goals and objectives, and performance assessment. At our company, we aim to use all the best principles used at KPMG, specifically continuous 360 degree feedback: we encourage our employees to share opinions and to comment on work by their colleagues and us –the founders. In addition, we set period goals for employees' work in different areas and regularly assess their performance.

In this way, we hope to attract the best talents in the market, by offering them a clear and effective process for managing their growth within the company and that growth itself together with the company.  We can't pay a lot or provide benefits, but we can offer "best practices" in people management and opportunities for people to realise their potential and become part of our exciting future.


No doubt your rapidly growing project requires a lot of time of effort from you. Do you manage to maintain a balance between your busy and demanding work and your personal life? How do you do this?


Running your own business is a 24/7 job. Even when you're not at work, you're always thinking about your "baby" and what still needs to be done for the next leap forward. You quickly get used to this, and you no longer see it as work as such: it's your business, your interest, your calling. A plus side of my business is that I can always combine my work with my children. I often bring them with me to the centre and all the educators are "tested" on our children. Even at a meeting with our partners I might be with my children –it's part of my life. As it happens, I can also make leave decisions independently –and that flexibility is worth a lot.


Personal life requires time and regularity, so my husband and I plan regular two-day trips away as a couple every three months, family trips, and each week we try to do something with the whole family.

I haven't yet managed to find time for sport and hobbies, of course, but I am trying to do that at work as well: we have yoga and Pilates classes. 


What personal and business qualities do you think are important for a successful entrepreneur?


One of the key requirements for a business to be successful, apart from a good business idea and good organisation, is to have a manager who has all the leadership skills and is a capable strategist, is self-confident, takes responsibility and gives leaders around him or her the opportunity to develop. With someone like that, a team can move mountains.


What advice would you give to businesswomen thinking about the "family or work" question?


That question has always baffled me –why should you need to choose one or the other? For a modern woman it is important both to have a family and to work. I firmly believe that a happy wife and mother is the most effective employee at a company. These days, there are many ways of organising your life so you don't have to choose: companies offer flexible schedules, or you can arrange to work from home. Even if your company is no help, there are new industries and roles and work for mums. The main thing is not to stop developing, as a mother or professionally, at any stage.


What objectives have you set yourselves for the immediate future?


We have big plans for this year: for the first time in Russia we will launch the Baby Sensory early learning programme, and we will also be making our current centre operationally efficient and aim to open at least one new family centre and one corporate centre -the first in Russia. In three years' time, the Baby Sensory method will be in every big city in Russia.