Igor Smelyansky to Graduates: Lessons in Leadership During Wartime
When Igor Smelyansky (MBA’05) graduated from Georgetown McDonough in 2005, his goals looked much different than they do today. He was on his way to a successful consulting career in New York City where he hoped to build upon the lessons he learned during his joint business and law degrees in Washington, D.C.
Nearly two decades later, as the leader of the Ukrainian postal service, his primary goal is to ensure more than 3.5 million people across the nation receive critical mail services during the chaos of wartime.
It’s been over a year since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022, yet for Smelyansky and his team, war is a daily reality that requires extraordinary courage and calculated risk-taking to keep postal operations running amid bombings, shellings, and attacks.
Calculated risk-taking was one of the personal principles Smelyansky shared in his commencement address with the 815 graduate students in the McDonough School of Business Class of 2023 – and one he credits as a defining factor in his career both in consulting and as director general of Ukrposhta.
He took a risk last spring when Ukrposhta released a stamp depicting the Ukrainian defenders of Snake Island who famously told off a Russian warship during an exchange caught on open radio. The iconic stamp is now a symbol of Ukrainian’s fight for freedom.
“Demand for the stamp was viral and global – we became the first postal service to open stores on Amazon and eBay, later raising millions for our military, schools, and animal shelters,” said Smelyansky. “The postal service was such a hot topic that Russia began to suspect that we were part of the special ops team plotting to sink the Moscow, so they attacked our postal infrastructure. Risk-taking is often a careful calculation, but there are also moments where guts can accomplish something as impossible as making the postal service seem cool and capable of sinking enemy ships.”
Smelyansky is no stranger to taking an innovative approach to challenges. Prior to the war, when he first accepted his role with Ukrposhta, he inherited an organization with a poor reputation that was known for failing infrastructure and rampant corruption. Within months, he adopted social media as a way to enforce transparency practices, expose corruption, and better serve Ukrainian citizens. He invested in new technology and equipment, incentivized younger workers with competitive salaries, and modernized the postal service at every level – earning the reputation as one of the country’s most exciting and productive employers.
Within hours of Russia’s attack on Ukraine, Smelyansky again exercised innovation to keep his company running during a crisis. He devised new strategies to circumvent disruptions and serve the millions of Ukrainian citizens that needed deliveries to survive, such as basic medicine, food supplies, pension payments, and mail from loved ones. He continues to navigate the challenges of war every day, taking each obstacle in stride with his eyes set on the people he serves.
“No one would have blamed us for stopping deliveries or pausing pension payments in such circumstances. But the easiest choice is not always the right choice,” said Smelyansky. “Remember the Jesuit phrase, inscribed in Georgetown’s core values: cura personalis – care of the whole person. With human life, it is much easier to keep the heart and body running than to resuscitate it when it stops. And in Ukraine, the postal service is a human lifeline.”
He told the Class of 2023 that Georgetown’s Jesuit principles continue to be a guiding force for him as he works to keep his employees safe and support the people of Ukraine – a mission that gives him purpose when he wakes up every morning. And he shows up every day to be the hope and assurance his country needs to keep going.
“I remember bringing pensions and medicine into a city that had been without power, mobile connection, and gas for over a month. Most humanitarian convoys, unfortunately, did not make it that week, but we did,” said Smelyansky. “When we show up and pay attention, we begin to act from an urgent sense of purpose and calling.”
As the primary organization responsible for parcels and mail throughout the country, Smelyanksky has seen his fair share of boxes – both literally and figuratively. He advised the graduating students that while it’s easy to fit themselves into a box, sometimes the best answer to unprecedented challenges is to break through the norms and discover their own path.
“Life will offer you numerous box cutters. It is then up to you to accept the terror and thrill of emerging into the undefined space in which you will discover your full potential as a leader,” said Smelyansky. “If you work hard to be the best at what you do and you can think in non-standard ways, you will never be replaced or boxed in.”
In addition to delivering the McDonough School of Business commencement address, Georgetown University President John J. DeGioia awarded him an honorary doctorate at the ceremony.
For the Class of 2023, commencement is the culmination of their time at Georgetown and a celebration of how far they have come. Graduates from the MBA, Executive MBA, Executive Master’s in Leadership, M.S. in Management, M.S. in Business Analytics, M.S. in Finance, and M.A. in International Business and Policy programs all came together to reflect on their academic achievements and look ahead to the next chapter of their lives beyond the Hilltop.
The graduates of the M.S. in Environment and Sustainability Management program also celebrated their commencement activities with the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences today, which marks a personal accomplishment as well as a milestone for the program. The Class of 2023 is the first cohort to earn their MS-ESM degrees from Georgetown.
As Smelyansky mentioned during his speech, there are a broad variety of countries represented in the graduating Class of 2023 with a diverse range of backgrounds and experience levels. This was particularly important to Daniel Xavier Zarate Badong (MBA’23), who shared reflections on his time in the MBA program.
“The MBA program has provided me the opportunity to meet a diverse group of professionals, not just from the United States, but from around the world,” said Badong.
For Vivian Sweha (MiM’23), the opportunity to be around her classmates today is the culmination of her experience in the MiM program.
“I am really excited to be around my friends today – the energy is good. Throughout the MiM program, I have learned about the power of teamwork and how important it is to form relationships with your classmates,” said Sweha.
Watch the video recording of the ceremony.