Studio Etica
Studio Etica

Research Proposal - Toptal Scholarship

Research Proposal - Toptal Scholarship

Who am I

My name is Vera Cherepanova, and I'm a compliance professional with more than 10 years of experience in the field. Born and raised in Moscow, Russia, I have spent most of my professional career working for CIS branches of international corporations as a Compliance Officer. On the most recent position, I was responsible for compliance program development and implementation for the region of Eastern Europe at Hilti - a well-known building materials manufacturer from Lichtenstein. In 2011 and 2016 I was awarded for "Best Compliance officer" at the International Compliance Association in Compliance Awards. After a number of years of working for several multinational corporations as an in-house compliance officer, I’ve realised that the Compliance world is lacking a fundamental base in many aspects – so I’ve left corporate job to pursue my research and academic goals.

I have written the first and only book to date on compliance in the Russian language, «Compliance program of an organisation», a hands-on guide for compliance professionals on how to build a first-class compliance program.

With my belief in constant self-evolving, I then went back to study – and in 2017 I graduated as MSc from University College London, University of London, UK. During the study program I first came across the research on behavioral ethics. It turned out to be a very different paradigm to look at the challenges of compliance profession. To certain extent, it was an eye-opening experience in terms of a totally different perspective on corporations' ethical footprint, and why despite all the resources currently invested into compliance the programs still fail quite regularly.

After this dramatic realisation and following my passion to grow, I have moved to Italy where I founded a boutique start-up consultancy that provides advice on corporate ethics and compliance programs to companies around the world - ‘Studio Etica’. The start-up is registered in Milan area.

One of my goals is to spread my knowledge and findings: I am an experienced speaker in the compliance profession and a regular contributor to prominent ethics & compliance blogs, including FCPA Blog, Corporate Compliance Insights, and SCCE Compliance & Ethics Blog. I am conversant in Russian, English, French, and Italian.


What’s my vision to change the world?


In recent decades, the world has witnessed a proliferation of interest to the domain of business ethics and the problem of unethical decisions. With many corporate scandals, the policymakers have responded with the new and revised legislative norms and regulations, both national and international. By the same token, there has been a surge in corporate misbehavior investigation cases.

However, there is still no shortage of unethical practices and following corporate scandals across the globe. One of the most recent examples is the 2017 FCPA enforcement case against Telia Company AB which hit the new record of $965 mln in fines and penalties for corrupt practices in Uzbekistan. So why do compliance programs fail? Why unethical behavior in corporations still regularly takes place?

Description for Department of Justice and Securities Exchange Commission FCPA Enforcement Actions per Year

Description for Department of Justice and Securities Exchange Commission FCPA Enforcement Actions per Year

In response to these challenging questions the researchers have developed elaborate models designed to identify antecedents of unethical behavior. Recent research in behavioral ethics has challenged the assumption that (un)ethical decision-making is a cognitive process. Academic progress in this field is dramatically expanding the view on corporate ethics and compliance. The conducted experiments demonstrate that social and psychological factors influence (un)ethical decisions in business.


My plan 

Despite the success in the academia field, there is still a gigantic disconnect between the accumulated scientific knowledge and actual Compliance & Ethics (C&E) programs. Professors in business schools are conducting and publishing a great deal of research on the social and psychological factors that encourage or discourage ethical behaviour in organizations, but the research is often divorced from the experience and needs of business people. Businesses, on the other hand, and especially compliance officers, are facing increased pressures to measure and improve the ethical cultures of their organizations and are doing so with little guidance from the academic community. It’s time to change that status quo - working in silos doesn’t seem like an option any more.

Inspired by all the recent research, I have developed a plan to connect research and practice – and finally provide the answer for the following question:

How can we leverage behavioral ethics research to increase the effectiveness of compliance programs and mitigate the risk of potential misconduct? 

I believe that I can solve this disconnect by using the language that both business and research understands – the language of modern technology. Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning are widely used tools amongst the researches – but also already bring massive operational efficiencies to businesses around the world.

In the current compliance context, Artificial Intelligence (AI) would be the software that can quickly analyze large amounts of data and use correlations and patterns within that data to draw pre-programmed conclusions (such as raising a red flag). However, as AI becomes more advanced, the machines could end up with making more complex decisions normally made by humans.  

Teaching ethics to machines is no easy task – as we have seen earlier, humans don’t always have a sound understanding of morality that we can all agree on. There is still no lack of unethical practices and following enforcement cases. However, to be able to proceed with AI in compliance field, ethics should be conveyed in measurable metrics that make it easy for a computer to process. Machines need explicit and objective metrics that can be clearly measured and optimized.

To do that, AI researchers together with ethicists need to formulate ethical values as quantifiable parameters. In other words, they need to provide machines with explicit answers and decision rules to any potential ethical dilemmas it might encounter. And that’s exactly what behavioural ethics research could help with.

Connecting modern Compliance world with the latest academic achievements via technology – so there is less corporate wrongdoing in this world – this is my plan.


What benefits it would bring  

The solution would bring massive benefits to multiple stakeholders, including: 

Practitioners: the solution would lead to huge cost reductions as a result of automation, increased operational efficiencies in terms of real-time risk reduction and more accurate big data analytics, reduced compliance burdens and free compliance teams to focus on areas of greater value-added within their organizations. Moreover, it would help practitioners work towards the goal of mitigating the risk of corporate misconduct by integrating social and behavioural science research with the core elements of effective compliance programs.

Academia: the solution will build a bridge between academic community and businesspeople providing a better balance between supply and demand side for research on business ethics. It would make it possible for the accumulated research to arrive at its practical application. Academic research will receive the recognition it deserves – and following better funding, can advance even further. 

Society: the solution would benefit the society in the long-term by providing better ethical accountability of business. Improved ethical footprint of corporations would lead to positive impact on the communities and help build trust between companies and clients. This helps deliver public value outcomes that may not have been delivered otherwise.

Global impact: as long as the compliance agenda has a genuinely global scale, the proposed solution would have a world-wide outreach. With the continuing process of globalization, the legal landscape becomes more and more harmonized. Following the lead of US (FCPA law) and UK (Anti-bribery Act), other jurisdictions continue to adopt tougher regulations to promote compliance and ethical business practices. It would be no exaggeration to say that having a sound ethics and compliance program today is a prerequisite to be a global business player.


How to accomplish this goal

I have great passion for this idea and I strongly believe that it will help shape the future of compliance profession.

Once the necessary research will be made and the product is ready to hit the market, this is where my start-up - Studio Etica – comes into play. Being a boutique consultancy, it’s tailored service offering would be an ideal driving force to apply this to its yet small, but fast-growing client base.

But in order to get there, all current activities need to be put on hold – step 1 of this plan is going back to the drawing board and starting fundamental research & development. I clearly see that making happen would require substantial resources – as the bills still need to be paid.

For this reason, I am applying for the Toptal Scholarship. Due to the two-fold structure of the award, it is the best option to address the needs associated with pursuing my goal, namely:

Being awarded with the $10,000 Scholarship would give me an opportunity to advance in my studies of behavioral ethics on a PhD program. The main motive to enroll myself into a PhD in Ethics is to look at today’s challenges of compliance profession through an academic paradigm. It would be a perfect opportunity to extend my knowledge in the domain of behavioral science and accumulated academic results. Moreover, it would allow me to do my own research with a sharp focus on how to formulate ethical values as quantifiable parameters. I am convinced that my experience is relevant to the current research in the domain of unethical decision-making, and I would be able to make a valuable contribution in terms of shedding further light on how to make business more ethical. I have already done some research and found a program that would be a perfect fit for the requirements of my project. University of Birmingham offers promising candidates the opportunity to carry out research and explore ethical issues in the framework of their ‘PhD in Global Ethics’ program. My academic and professional credentials do satisfy the eligibility criteria and I have already spoken to some of the members of academic staff that demonstrated an interest in the research avenue I would like to pursue. The annual tuition fee equals £4,320 (equivalent to $5,700) with a duration of 3 years (full-time option). With the Toptal Scholarship award I would be able to cover 2 first years of the program, as well as some additional expenses.

The Mentorship component would give me an exclusive opportunity to make professional connections in the technology industry and address the lack of supportive professional network that I currently have. My perfect mentor would have an IT background with a focus on AI/Machine learning technology and would be able to advise me on the best course of action to source potential IT partner(s) for my compliance project. I have a clear vision how modern technology can be applied to address current challenges in compliance profession backed up by solid education and professional experience in this field. However, I do not have an IT background and my understanding of AI technology is obviously very basic. For this reason, I am looking for a partner who would be able to help me implement the ideas and methodology in the form of a working code and a deliverable product. This kind of mentorship would make the biggest difference toward making it happen.


What it means for me

My interest in the subject of behavioral ethics to a larger extent is based on my professional experience - for 11 years I have been a compliance officer for large international corporations. Now that I am an independent compliance consultant, I see even more clearly that modern compliance programs have certain shortcomings, which oftentimes makes their impact on companies’ ethical standing ambiguous. My inspiration therefore is based on a desire to resolve these inefficiencies by leveraging the cutting-edge behavioural ethics research which unfortunately has not yet found its way into business world and currently has very limited practical application. Pursuing this idea would require strong focus and dedication to the research.

I am convinced that my idea would make a substantial contribution to the development of compliance profession and benefit multiple stakeholders. It would have a global outreach making the whole society better off due to the increased accountability of business and reduced risk of corporate misconduct. In other words - I make this happen, the business world would be a better place. And this is why I got into compliance in the first place.

I understand that the Toptal program is very competitive due to excellent opportunity provided to future female leaders. Despite the fact that it attracts many prospective candidates, I believe my experience, academic record and passion to pursue my idea makes me a very strong candidate. Thank you for considering my application and I look forward to hearing from you soon.