Managing the future

Finbarr Bermingham speaks to Vyacheslav Polonski, the founder and president of Europe's largest student management consultancy conference

It's Friday morning, and there's a well-dressed queue snaking its way round the grounds outside the Queen Elizabeth Centre, Westminster. At a glance, it could be a large group of budding politicians, or a hoard of young lobbyists, but the logos on the name badges give the game away. They've gathered for the second annual LSE Student Strategy Management Consultancy Conference, the largest student-run consulting event in Europe, and The Gateway has come to meet its founder and president, Vyacheslav Polonski.

Vyacheslav is a final year student at the LSE, studying Management, Managerial Economics and Strategy, and is a picture of calm amid the hullaballoo around him. "When I had the idea for the conference," he says, "everybody told me it wasn't going to happen. They said it was too idealistic, but I met some friends who believed in my idea and shared my vision, and together we started the conference."

Vyacheslav came up with the idea behind the event when he was an intern at the World Economic Forum in Geneva in 2010. The Forum, best known for its annual meeting in Davos, brings businesspeople, politicians and intellectuals together to discuss the most important issues facing the world. Vyacheslav, inspired by events in Switzerland, wanted to take the template one step further.

"We wanted to create a platform for dialogue between students, professionals and academics," he says. "We wanted the conference to be a place where they could meet, discuss the most topical issues of our time, and come up with solutions to them. Platforms like the World Economic Forum - and hopefully our conference - empower people to change the world. We want to inspire people to make an impact."

From conception to execution

After conceiving the idea, the next step for the fledgling committee was to get the support of LSE, and to find a way to make the project viable. They approached Sir Howard Davies - then Director of the LSE and to this day a patron of the conference - and pitched the idea to him. Vyacheslav and his colleagues were surprised and delighted when the renowned economist and former management consultant gave the project the green light. But the hard work was just beginning. "The most challenging thing," he says, "was building a two-day event from scratch. We didn't have any past experience in event management, apart from various work experience placements. We had no references, yet we still needed to convince a lot of people to support us. We needed to get sponsors on board in order to generate financial backing. We had to persuade the speakers to take time out from their busy schedules to address the event and, of course, we had to convince students that making a trip from China, Singapore, Germany, Spain and around the UK would be worth their time and money. It was a big job!"

In 2010, the conference attracted 1,000 applications for just 220 available spaces. This year, though, demand for tickets was unprecedented. "Interest levels were phenomenal," says Vyacheslav. "We had 2,211 applications, from students in 45 different countries and 120 academic institutions. Choosing who we would invite from the applicants was one of the toughest parts of the process. The organising committee sat down with all of the sponsors and thrashed out a set of criteria for admission. In the end, we decided that the most important qualifications were high academic achievement, great extracurricular activities, demonstrable leadership skills and work experience - not necessarily in the consulting sector, but anywhere that we thought showed initiative. I was very proud to see the backgrounds of the people attending. Not only were there finance and business students, we also had philosophers, chemists and biologists. We had people with experience in technology startups, and even some with military backgrounds."

Guest of honour

Those that made it through were treated to two days of varied, high pedigree keynote speeches and panel discussions. The title of the conference was "Succeeding In A Volatile World", and while it was broadly concerned with management consulting, the speakers approached the topic from a huge spectrum of angles. Vyacheslav deliberates for a while when asked for his favourite contribution to the conference, before plumping for "The Agony and Ecstasy of Entrepreneurship", by Luke Johnson. Johnson has been chairman of Channel 4, Pizza Express, Giraffe and Druckers, among others. He's now Chairman of the Royal Society of Arts and delivered a talk on how entrepreneurs can help combat climate change. Says Vyacheslav: "He told us we should follow our dreams and implement our own ideas on society. By doing that, we'll become the next generation of true entrepreneurs." As The Gateway leaves Vyacheslav to direct his busy team and field questions from excited delegates, we get the impression that he preempted Luke Johnson's advice, and is already putting it into action.