As a woman, being timid in a male-dominated workplace will get you nothing. This is the story of how I went from a nobody in Moscow to an expert on Wall Street, and what I learned along the way.
For as long as I could remember, I always wanted to live and work in the U.S., but it always felt like the deck was stacked against me. As an immigrant to this country, I never imagined I would be where I am today.
After over 10 years of personal struggle and false starts, I finally found the career I’ve always wanted. I currently manage a program for Eastern European business owners that gives them access to the New York market. Today, we are working successfully with over 50 companies and have invested over $3 million. But getting to this point in my career wasn’t exactly a walk in the park.
When I first visited New York in 2004, I stayed with my friend’s sister, who worked in the garment district. I soon became fixated with the endless shops there, flipping through fashion racks and absorbing the vast selection. I knew that these relatively inexpensive items would easily fly off the shelves back in Russia, so I started looking for a way to partner with some local manufacturers.
I soon struck up a series of deals with two small stores in the garment district. Luckily, they were looking for exporting opportunities, so with little more than trust, each store permitted me to take ten dresses back to Russia. With the help of a friend, I started a website, modeled the clothes, and soon the orders started pouring in. I paid off the New York shopkeepers and ordered more stock. On average, each dress cost me around $25 in New York and I sold them for around $500 in Moscow.
As thrilling as this business opportunity was, all I could think about was leaving Russia and returning to the United States. Yes, I’d struck gold and found a way to make a living in my home country, but I had to see what else was out there. To make matters more confusing, my boyfriend had just proposed to me. He didn’t want to leave Russia, so I was forced to make a difficult choice between settling down or going off alone on the adventure of a lifetime. The choice was clear: I had to go.
Welcome to New York
When I arrived in New York, I only had a tourist visa. Even though I secured many job interviews, as soon as they learned I didn’t have a proper work visa, they’d pass on hiring me. About a month later I got some consulting work. I was netting the same salary in the U.S. as I was in Moscow, but I quickly realized what living in New York was all about: getting ahead.
At the time, my top priority was getting a work visa, the problem there was finding an employer who would sponsor me. A friend informed me that a company was looking to hire a marketing strategist, which required a background in economics and an in-depth understanding of the financial markets. It was a match made in heaven – I majored in economics in college and I wrote my thesis paper on the changing dynamics of the financial markets. I sent in my CV, and two weeks later I was called for an interview. After a lengthy trip to Staten Island and a rather promising interview, I was eventually offered a position in which the company could sponsor me for a work visa.
It was a fast-paced startup, and I really had to hit the ground running. I worked in close quarters with the partners, which gave me a crash course in how to run a trading business. At the time, our marketing budget was just $20,000 per month – meager by today’s standards. But after only a couple of months, we started showing a steady profit. We soon realized we could afford to move out of the sticks, so we found a spot right on Wall Street. My salary was now twice what I was making in Moscow. Somehow, the life I’d always wanted was suddenly within reach.
The Art of Business
Despite being at a well-paying job in the heart of the trading industry, my mind became restless. What began as a simple hobby on the side soon developed into a full-fledged enterprise.
I had a friend who was a pioneer of body art – popularized by women who posed in Times Square. Our concept was simple: my artist friend would paint great masterpieces on a customer’s body – envision Mona Lisa on your back – and, once they were dry, we’d arrange a photo session to document the work. Then, they’d shower off and, while the paint went down the drain, the customer would forever have a series of images to immortalize their crazy session as a human canvas.
Thinking this would be a magnet for art lovers and thrill-seekers, I contacted several big coupon services, who all declined. When we tried to promote the service and the experience, the problem was that the art was displayed on bodies – nude bodies! You couldn’t exactly take out a full-page ad of a naked woman, unless we wanted to advertise in Playboy Magazine. But soon, I was able to locate a hip, young website called Tippr. They ran our listing and within one hour we sold 150 vouchers at $99 a pop. Within sixty minutes we raked in over $10,000!
So much work was pouring in and we needed to expand, so we opened a new studio and hired more artists. I was forced to take a brief hiatus when I was diagnosed with a tumor, but while convalescing from the operation, I collaborated with an editor on a book about the business. In January of 2015 we launched “Making Art Work.”
As the body art business continued to take off, my full-time job at started to feel like more of a distraction than anything else, and I knew I had to make a choice.
An Indecent Proposal
A week after leaving my Wall Street job, I got a phone call from a competing company that wanted me to be their next marketing director. I wasn’t looking for more office work, so I decided to make them an offer I couldn’t refuse: double my previous salary and get me a coveted green card. And they accepted.
From day one at this new company, I built a strong team and managed an annual $6 million marketing budget. Soon into my tenure at the company, I got married and got pregnant. But apparently, that was a deal-breaker.
Over the next few months, I started to show, and my pregnancy became a point of contention around the office. I could feel my colleagues’ impression of me starting to change. Amid the awkward stares and not-so-subtle demeaning comments, I steadily found my working conditions intolerable. Clearly, they didn’t want a pregnant employee, and they were trying to force me out. I agreed to leave provided they still helped me with my green card. They agreed, but only if I signed a statement stipulating that I wouldn’t file a sex discrimination lawsuit. I agreed to the terms, knowing I had to stay in the U.S.
Learning to Be Bold
The single lesson I’ve learned from all this is to never be afraid to fight for your rights. As a woman, being timid in a male-dominated workplace will get you nothing. I hope other women and immigrants feel confident enough to ask for what they want instead of ceding to the man in charge. People tend to respond to those who go after what they want, not those that beat around the bush. There are new opportunities everywhere, you just have to think outside the box.
No one is going to give you an inch in today’s cut-throat economy. If women and immigrants are going to get ahead, we can’t be afraid to ask for more.