When you were 17, what did you want to be?
I don't think at that moment I was thinking about what I wanted to do. I was just trying to fit in. I finished high school at 16, and then I turned 17 and went to college. At that point, I just felt like there was too much change going on. So I thought, "Just get to the college part and then figure it out."
How did you decide to attend SUNY Binghamton?
It was cheap. It was far enough from home that I didn't need to live at home. And that's it, yeah. It's a school in the middle of nowhere. When I came to college, I didn't know what I was supposed to do. It was just such a different experience that it took me probably a year or two just to adjust and understand what the hell I was doing.
I went to a Russian high school for people who were coming to America for a couple years, mostly diplomats. It's such a different system. To graduate, you had to pass exams that were brought from Russia. And it was all taught in Russian. There was one English class, which was British English. And the school was in a Russian compound, no Americans allowed. So I had no American friends, and I had no need to integrate into the culture.
When I finished high school, I was speaking half Russian, half English. I was never forced to speak one language throughout. So when I got to college, I realized that I couldn’t speak like that. Although I came to America when I was nine, I only integrated into the culture when I went to college.
It was such a cultural shock. I was too young, unprepared, and I didn't know anything about America or Americans. I didn't blend in with Americans. I didn't blend in with the international students. There was no one who shared my backgrounds, which was very annoying and hard and it took a while to get used to. So I think if I’d had at least had one year before college to assimilate, I would have had such an easier time with everything.
That time period was extremely hard. But it also taught me a lot. It finally took me out of that comfort zone. And I was very uncomfortable for a very long time. I'm shy to begin with - that's in my nature. And my graduating class was 16 kids. We only hung out with each other. We were all best friends. So coming to a school that's thousands of people, not knowing anyone, I didn't know how to navigate [that]. How do you make friends? How do you talk to strangers? And on top of that, what do I do in this huge auditorium with a person talking at me and I can't understand anything they're saying?
None of it made sense, but it took me out of my comfort zone. It took me maybe a year to finally start to become human again. I think that that experience was a complete rebranding of myself. But in the end, it was a good experience. That's when I figured out that I'm okay not being comfortable in situations. And I'm okay jumping into things not knowing anything.
How did you choose your major?
I applied to business [programs] because when I was growing up, my mom said, "Okay, here are your choices. You can be a lawyer and make money. Be a doctor, they make money. You could be a business guy, that also makes money. But then you should probably do finance, because it's money oriented. So all those things make sense." We never talked about engineering, although my dad and my mom are both engineers. But that didn't really mean anything.
My mom worked for a year or two when we were in Russia. I don't actually know why she actually got the engineering degree, because she hates physics. And then my dad is a computer programmer. But he's such an awkward person, and that deterred me from even considering programming, because I thought, "If he's like that, I don't want to be like that.”
So when I was going to college, I said, "Okay, business. That's a big field. Marketing sounds interesting. I guess I'll figure out what that is and go from there." Marketing seemed creative, and I wanted to do something creative.
But I couldn't figure out why we had to take so many core classes when I had already gone through that. I didn't understand the American system; why go to college to figure things out where you've already taken everything in high school? Whatever you're studying, that's what you should be focusing on for the four years.
My last couple years, when I got into what I was actually supposed to be learning, I really did enjoy it. It just took so long. But I started to realize what I like. I took some graphic design [classes], and I did a double degree in business marketing, and art history as well.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
When I got out, I tried to get a job in business, but it was very hard. I remember I had some good interviews coming out, and I would get really close, I would get to the final round, but I would never get the jobs. So I started just working everywhere. I worked at a political campaign, going door to door collecting signatures for a candidate. I worked for the US Open, managing their food court area. Just a lot of random jobs while I was interviewing for something real.
And then I looked into the alumni network, and I looked up everybody who was in marketing. I emailed everybody asking for an informational interview or to ask for help. And out of 100 people, maybe 10 responded. But those 10 people were good. That's how I got interviews with Madison Square Gardenand with Penguin and Random House.
All of the sudden, I had three job offers. And then I had to actually choose. That was an interesting feeling. So I was working at Madison Square Garden as an assistant. I thought, "Okay, at least I'm in. Now I can figure out how to go in more of a marketing or design direction."
When I was there, again, it was hard because it was such a rigid environment. I had to wear heels every day. I had to wear a suit every day. I was surrounded by men who don't value women at all. So again, I came into this environment that I knew nothing about, and I felt really uncomfortable. That was my first real job. Extremely uncomfortable and extremely shy again. And I thought, "Why do I have to rebrand myself again? What is this? This feels horrible."
I was there for three years. The first year was hard, and then the second year, I started figuring things out. I started walking around asking if anybody needed help. I eventually stumbled upon this person who was doing graphic design, so I just helped him. And then eventually, I started pushing a job that was just creative. So that was a good move. But the environment was just so toxic. The women were not treated very well. And I just wanted to get out.
So then I [went] to an agency. And all of the sudden, I was uncomfortable again, because it was a completely different world, something I’d never done, so I didn’t know anything, and I had to redo everything.
It was very hard to get into an agency when you didn’t have agency experience. But it was this independent one. It was really cool, small. You had to be very nimble, and be able to do everything. But again, it's a cycle; I'd become very comfortable in something, and then say, "Okay, it's time for a change." And then I’d go somewhere where I didn’t know anything.
So I was there for a year and a half. And then I went to a network where I didn't know anything again. But then the company got restructured, and they merged SyFy and USA Network. All of the sudden, they fired my boss, and they put us under a different team. Everything that was fun wasn't fun anymore. I had too much micromanagement and there was nowhere to go. It was not something I wanted.
For me, the hardest part was not having stability, because it's expensive living in the city. For me to leave a job or do something on my own was very hard. But I’d just had enough with my last job. I thought, "This is not what I want to do." I was trying to figure out my next step, and I was looking at coding. I was really interested in that field, and doing something more technological. It looked like it was forward moving, and there was a lot to explore. I wouldn't get bored. And the people are smart.
I was going through all this, and I was trying everything. I was basically just grasping for something. And I thought, "Oh, yoga would be good. Why don't I become a yoga instructor? " So I did that. I was doing that while I was trying to figure out my next step, and that's when We Roam came around.
I still really want to do something with technology. I’ve been talking to everybody in the program and seeing what they’re doing. So in the first month, I just did a lot of research. The second month in the program, I got a UX internship with a remote company for two months. It taught me a lot, but it also frustrated me a lot, because it's hard to be remote and do UX.
And then I think I talked to a friend who was in a coding program, and I found out they had a free boot camp. So I did that for two months, and then I applied for the six-month program and started in August.
When we were in Berlin, I did a hack-a-thon for the first time, and it was really fun. I met some startup people, and I was helping them with their startup, trying to do coding. But it was too hard again. It was too remote, and I'm too new, and I needed more direction. From that, there was one developer who did design work on the side, and he needed a designer to create mock-ups for a website. So I helped him with that, and rebranded a website. And now I can add some visuals to my resume.
Without knowing it from the beginning, I became a more well-rounded person, where I know the business side and the marketing side, but now I know how to make things. I want to come to that developing, creating part. And I think that now I have a skillset that checks off all those points. I have a little bit of experience in a lot of different fields.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
It's hard to say, right? I would definitely do a lot of things differently. But I don't know. Because that would change the whole trajectory. I think one thing that I would have done, just because of my circumstance, is given myself more time to transition. I think sometimes we act based on our circumstances, but we don't give things enough thought. That's when we can maybe get ourselves onto a path that is wrong. You just have to put more thought into your decisions. Sometimes when it's chaotic, when it feels like things are out of control, just take a second. Just breathe. Just stay in the moment for a second. I wish I did that more. I’ve always just reacted.
Even if you don't know what you want to do, don't be so hard on yourself. It will come. Everything comes eventually. But being flexible and adaptive to your environment is probably the most important thing. You just have to learn to be comfortable with being uncomfortable, because you're probably going to be uncomfortable most of the time.