Babson Magazine

Winter 2015

The Road to Russia

Professor Bill Coyle never expected to become an expert on Russia. He also never expected how the country—its people, its history, its culture—would change his life.

Bill Coyle

Photo: Pat Piasecki

When Bill Coyle first went to Russia, the year was 1993, and the Soviet Union had collapsed a mere 13 months earlier. What he found was a country in shock and disarray. “It was an economic basket case,” says the associate professor of accounting. “They had gone from being a superpower to a third-world country with nuclear weapons.” During the trip, Coyle met with a dean at St. Petersburg State University; a large bust of Karl Marx sat in the dean’s office. “There was Karl looking over our shoulders,” Coyle says.

Coyle had gone to Russia on a lark. Several months earlier, he had received an email inviting faculty members to help with a student trip to the country. The excursion sounded like an adventure, so he signed up. He had no way of knowing the effect the trip would have on him, both inside and outside the classroom. “It changed my life,” says Coyle, who now travels with two groups of Babson students each year to Russia. He has been to the country more than 100 times since that initial trip in 1993.

This fascination with Russia came as a surprise to Coyle. He had no family ties to the country, no proficiency with the language, and no deep knowledge of the country’s culture. But Coyle found himself intrigued by history, influence, and sheer size. This is a country that is never boring, he says. It touches three continents, employs a strong military, serves as a key supplier of gas and oil to Europe, and enjoys veto power on the U.N. Security Council. “The Russians are important,” he says. “You can’t ignore them.”

If Coyle’s interest in Russia came as a surprise, so did his choice of a career. As an undergraduate, he studied accounting and took a job at Price Waterhouse (now PwC) after graduating. Much about the job seemed right—he enjoyed the work and learned a lot—but it wasn’t rewarding. He quit after four years, unsure of what his next step should be. “I was really searching,” he says.

Coyle decided to pursue an MBA. He hoped that business school might provide some sort of career revelation, and it did, though not what he expected. When Coyle needed to make a little spending money, he asked to be a professor’s teaching assistant. Coyle was soon grading assignments and running crowded review sessions. That’s when he suddenly felt it for the first time, the exhilaration of teaching. “I realized I was good at it, and it was a hell of a lot of fun,” he says.

After graduating with the MBA, Coyle decided to pursue a doctorate and become a professor. “I had Wall Street opportunities for good pay, but I passed that up to be a poor PhD student,” he says. Coyle earned a PhD in accounting at Texas A&M, and, in 1992, came to Babson because of its emphasis on teaching.

In addition to the accounting and auditing classes he teaches, Coyle leads a group of MBA students to Russia in the spring, and, together with Professor Brian Seitz in the fall, accompanies undergraduates traveling to the country as part of Babson’s BRIC program. These trips introduce students to the Russian business environment and also examine the many factors, such as religion, politics, literature, geography, and history, that influence it. “The business environment is not randomly determined,” Coyle says. “If you’re serious about understanding the business environment of a country, you must understand its liberal arts.”

Home base for Babson’s Russia programs is St. Petersburg, a beautiful and cultured city where Coyle enjoys attending performances at the majestic Mariinsky Theater, which was built in 1860. “I love the ballet,” he says. “The ballet there is stunning.” His Russia trips also have taken him to Siberia in January, a month when daytime temps dipped to minus 50 and a river was frozen so solid that trucks drove over it. To test just how cold the temperature was, Coyle spit to see if it would freeze before hitting the ground. It did. Coyle was also in Ukraine in the fall of 2013 and witnessed a gathering of some 700,000 people in Kiev to protest the government. “I was inspired by the patriotism of the people, their willingness to go out and say, this is what we want,” he says.

Coyle has spent a lot of time in Ukraine lately, partly because he’s trying to understand the hostilities there. “This is a flashpoint where Russia and the West are engaged,” he says. But something else brings him to Ukraine: love. In 2013, Coyle connected online with a Ukrainian woman, a psychologist named Natasha, and last March they met for the first time. During the following months they grew close, and Coyle took multiple trips to Ukraine to see her. The pair married this past Christmas Eve in the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv.

Bill Coyle with students outside the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Photo courtesy of Bill Coyle.
Coyle stands with students outside the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia.

Loving a woman who lives thousands of miles away in a country in crisis isn’t always easy. Natasha and her 3-year-old son, Arseny, had been living in Luhansk in eastern Ukraine.

While Coyle and Natasha were dating, he convinced her to move because of fighting in the area. “I told her, ‘Things are going south. Things are not getting better.’” Due to visa issues, Natasha and Arseny remain in Ukraine, and while they moved from Luhansk, they still live near the Russian border, which gives Coyle pause. “Will they be in danger?” he wonders. “Will the Russians invade Ukraine?” Before meeting Natasha and Arseny, Coyle could look at the region as an objective academic. Not anymore. “Now it’s personal,” he says. “It’s difficult for me.”

For the foreseeable future, Coyle plans to take frequent trips to Ukraine to see his new wife and stepson. He marvels at the chain of events that have led him to this moment: the teaching job that led him to academia as a career, which led him to Babson and to Russia, which in turn led him to Natasha. It’s a life that the lost young accountant he once was couldn’t have imagined. “I had no idea where my life was going to lead me,” he says.

Bill Coyle

Advice for Students

We get into routines, and we don’t even know why we do it. It’s good to step back. Once a week, close the door, shut off the light, and ask yourself, what the hell am I doing?

A Talent

Getting people to laugh in an accounting class. That’s a talent of sorts.

A Way to Relax

I go to Ireland. It’s beautiful, and it’s peaceful. I have a house on the west coast of Ireland. County Clare. It’s where my mother’s father’s family is from. I go once or twice a year. If it’s a sunny day, I’ll grab my golf clubs. If it’s a rainy day, I’ll write.