‘My budget was $5 per day’: How Olya went from poverty to CEO

Entrepreneurs

Cars24 CEO Olya Rudenko grew up in poverty in Russia before heading overseas to try to improve her life. After many sacrifices, including a period of near-homelessness, she now leads growing online car sales platform, Cars24.
The number of women facing homelessness has grown in recent years | Image: Getty / File image

Growing up in a small town in regional Russia where she shared a tiny one room home with her family of five, Olya Rudenko dreamed of a better life. At age 18, when the opportunity came to apply for a scholarship to study in the United States, she jumped at it.

 “I fell in love with the opportunity of not being stuck in Russia!” says Rudenko, who is now CEO of growing car sales platform, Cars24.

Rudenko has met with many obstacles in her life since leaving Russia – including a period of homelessness – however she has overcome them to work across a number of industries and key leadership roles. She now leads the Australian operations of growing Indian car sales platform, Cars24.

Rudenko spent years building her career, starting out in finance in London before heading back to Russia to take on a role in private equity. By the age of 20 she was managing PE deals worth multi-millions of dollars.

“It was a rewarding job for a 20-year-old to be managing hundred-million-dollar deals – it gave me confidence and showed that everything was possible,” Rudenko says.

Cars24 CEO Olya Rudenko | Image: supplied

While still in her 20s, Rudenko made a last-minute decision to travel to Australia to do her MBA. With only around a quarter of the funds required she thought she’d “just figure it out somehow”. It wasn’t long before her money ran out, leaving her without a home and very little money for food.

I guess my pride always gets in the way and I don’t like to ask people for help. I just wanted to have a go on my own I suppose,” Rudenko says.

“There was a point where I thought ‘am I going to make it or not’? My budget per day was $5. I was living in a windowless room at the top of a coffee shop where I was peeling vegetables to cover my rent. That was one of the lowest point. I was coming to school smelling of fried onions.”

Rudenko eventually secured an internship with JP Morgan, which led to a job a McKinsey. It was there that she was championed by a senior female leader, who recognised her leadership potential.

“To this day I believe that a special opportunity was give to me by a partner, who was a role model. She’s a senior leader at Coles Group now. Somehow she saw something in me and she put me through. I feel like a lot of things that have happened to me after that are thanks to her choosing me.”

After years working at McKinsey, Rudenko decided to move into the consumer digital space, where she had leadership roles at Seek and Redbubble. She was head of Head of Consumer and Operations for Australia and New Zealand at Uber Eats before being asked to head up the Australian operations of Cars24.Cars24 was founded in India in 2015 and is now valued at $1 billion.

Admittedly “not a cars person”, Rudenko’s first reaction to the proposal was “but I am not a used cars saleman!”. But the premise of the company – which allows customers to buy a car “as easily as buying a t-shirt on Amazon”, appealed to her.

“As a woman, you often feel like you need a guy with you to purchase a car – to kick the tyres and that kind of thing,” she says. “This totally removes that. I can buy a car at midnight if I want.”

The Cars24 model is designed to take the stress out of buying a vehicle. | Image: Getty Images

The Cars24 model is designed to take the stress out of buying a vehicle. All cars come with a seven-day grace period if customers have a “change of heart” or find the car is not for them and all vehicles come with a six-month warranty. For Rudenko, it’s the new model and growing a global company rather than the cars that motivates her.

“Building a business from scratch, that is what really appeals to me. I’m more of a builder than a transformation person. This is entrepreneurial and building a business – but with a big budget. It was like ‘hang on, let me think about whether I like cars or not!’”


More from Forbes Australia