27 Aug 2020

Interview with a GSOM alumna about employment in the USA and work in the beauty industry

Mariia Merzliakova, an alumna of the Graduate School of Management, Saint Petersburg State University (GSOM SPbU) 2017, Financial Management program. After GSOM, she went to America and graduated from the University of Southern California with a MS in Marketing Analytics program. Mariia currently works for Sebastian Professional, COTY (French-American cosmetics manufacturer) as Trade Marketing Manager. In an interview, she said what prevented her from enrolling in a master's program right away, why she decided to move to America, and why she chose the beauty industry to develop her future career, and much more.



You did not enter the master's program immediately after the bachelor's degree. Please share your experience: is there any meaning in the GAP-year?

When I graduated, I had no desire to enter the magistracy. And, frankly, I advise everyone to take such a break: in my opinion, without getting real work experience, it is difficult to understand why you need a master's degree, and which direction you should choose.


I wanted to start working, and two weeks after graduation I left St. Petersburg for Moscow to work at L’oreal. This period helped me understand that I don't like working in the local offices of international companies: there you have too little influence on decision-making (from product launches to visuals and so on). Then I had the idea to move.


Admission to an American university is a rather laborious and long process: you need to start preparing for a year, or even a year and a half. I deliberately wanted to go to Los Angeles, because this is where the headquarters of many of my favorite brands that I managed to work with in Russia are based: NYX Professional MakeUp, Urban Decay and Sebastian Professional.


You've traveled to the USA. What city spirit did you like more than others?

I don't like New York at all, I feel that this is not my city. This city is a good place for work here, but not to live. I have been to San Francisco, Florida, but Los Angeles I like more then others. I like this city for its energy, mood and versatility of people — here you don't feel like a visitor, this is a city of immigrants, and really interesting people from all over the world gather in it.


For example, the same Silicon Valley for me looks like rich and very expensive village, it is really very boring there: there are no people on the streets and everyone is mostly busy with work. I wanted a balance of life, work and emotions.


Impressions of Los Angeles are crashing against the wall of reality, it is far from as glamorous as it seems from the outside. Do you agree with this opinion?

Some areas of LA are really scary, but you just need to know where to live, which places are safe and which ones are not safe. By the way, my university campus is located in an area that is considered very disadvantaged. It is located next to downtown: historically it was a good area, but then, with development, it moved further to the west of the city, and now, one might say, our campus is an island of tranquility and beauty in the middle of the "ghetto". When you go outside the campus, it becomes scary — there are many homeless people, criminals, bars on the windows. But, frankly, you even get used to it, or rather just learn to avoid potentially problematic places.


Besides, all these facts are balanced by good places and districts, the main thing is to find "your own". And it is best to avoid tourist spots.



Was it difficult to move to a new country?

It was easier than it could have been, because my parents have been living in Miami for many years. Of course, the experience of a tourist and a local is different things. But since I often visited my parents, I was ready for long distances. At first it was difficult with the language: it turned out that 90% of my classmates are Chinese, who speak very poorly and incomprehensibly, and the locals, Americans, speak so quickly that at first it was difficult to grasp the thought and keep the pace of the conversation, despite the fact that I knew English very well. I feel that I am beginning to speak well and “American” only now, after a year of living here.


As for the Americans, you just need to learn to communicate with them, to be polite and always in high spirits: I learned, like them, to greet enthusiastically when we meet, sympathetically ask how a person is doing. This is really not a fictitious stereotype, but a real "American politeness": if you come to any place and don't ask how a person is doing, they simply won't understand you. At first it scared me, but then I got used to it.


Did you feel any difference between the approaches to education in Russia, the USA and Europe? 

Yes, there are certainly differences. But at GSOM I received a really high level education, comparable to international standards with their grading scale, courses and practice-oriented approach. Therefore, after GSOM it seemed to me that the level of teaching here is not much better. However, the main difference is that here, in the USA, and in Europe, there is very little theory: it is asked to read it at home, we do not analyze the theory in the classroom at all. In the classroom, we mainly communicate with invited speakers and conduct discussions among ourselves, which I like much more. Any theoretical information can now be found in open sources in two clicks, and the experience of communicating with speakers is something that you will not get anywhere else, except at the university.


Speakers from top management of such companies as Tesla, Google, Facebook, Netflix and Disney visited University several times a week. It turns out that we received the most relevant information first-hand and were at the very origins. At the beginning, I was very excited about the opportunity to meet with such people, but when I started communicating with them live, I realized that they were simple and friendly people. As a student, it is not so difficult to get to know them, especially if they also studied at USC (and half of LA studied either at USC): here you really feel the student community of each university, a single university spirit.



What helped you to find a job?

It was community. In USA, everyone, even Americans, has an average job search period of 4 to 6 months. There is a lot of competition due to the large number of people, so looking for a job without any communication with people is like throwing your resume into the ocean.


Networking helps to get to the people who make decisions and get to know them. I was interviewed in three companies, and in each of them I knew at least five people associated with the role for which I applied. The one who is in this position now, his boss, several people in related roles, HR — this list is the minimum. Only after that I receive an invitation to an interview. The job search process here is really very difficult, especially for newcomers.


Is there a problem with work visas in the US?

Yes, of course, this is why job search is much more difficult for newcomers. The influx of the best specialists from all over the world greatly complicates the situation. Since 2018, the growth rate of this inflow has also increased. In general, there are quotas for work visas. Now the number of people who want these visas is almost 10 times more than the number of quotas. Companies do not have a shortage of personnel, so many companies generally refuse to consider candidates without a Green Card or citizenship, they openly declare this and make no exceptions. This already sweeps aside most of the companies you want to get into.


Any student who has completed a student visa can stay to work in the United States for another year. I was more fortunate: with my diploma, I can stay in the country for another 3 years. It is believed that I have a diploma of a specialist necessary for the state. But problems remain even with this three-year interval. I’m just lucky that sometimes Coty hires foreign nationals.



What were the stages of selection for the company? What kind of specialist were they looking for?

I worked with Coty brands (Sebastian and Nioxin) in Moscow, in an agency, and therefore I already knew these brands well. By chance, when I arrived to USA, my friend made a one-time company visit to the company, where I met the Marketing Director of these two brands in North America. Then I was looking for an internship and was almost desperate, so I was extremely happy to meet the Director of two brands I adore. When I met, I said that I would be happy to help the team even as an intern, since I know brands well and dream of working with those people who were at their origins (after all, Sebastian was founded in Los Angeles!).


There I also met some of the company's Brand Managers, but Marketing Director was the only one who answered me, despite the higher position. She invited me to a panel interview with five interviewers from the team. The pool of questions was varied: from my personal experience, standard self-introduction to behavioral questions (for example, the classic questions "Tell us about the situation where you showed yourself as a leader", "Tell us about the situation where you faced a difficulty, and how to overcome of these problems ”,“ What are you most proud of ”, etc.).


The interview lasted for about an hour and a half. I knew everything about my interviewers: I looked through the LinkedIn profiles of each of them and even personal pages on Facebook, looked through everything about the brand in general, I studied everything I could. And, by the way, at the university we were exactly advised to prepare for each interview not only morally, but also realistically — to look for information about the company, its history, values, to find out information about the person who will conduct the interview, up to his favorite books, to have something to talk to him about besides work.


Everything went surprisingly quickly at Coty — I was hired as an intern after the first interview. Although before that in another company, GOAT (editor's note: GOAT - Greatest of all time, sneaker-shop, which combines elements of the primary and secondary markets) for the position of CRM-manager, I had six stages of interviews.


I am now moving from an intern to a Trade Marketing Manager (TMM) at Sebastian Professional.


How did you choose the industry? Why beauty?

To be honest, this is a series of coincidences. I even tried to change this area to another, submitted, for example, on Pinterest and Snapchat. But apparently Coty and I were destined to meet.


You have worked in large companies and startups. What's the difference in work?

Working in a startup is lively and cool — no one, in fact, tells you what to do, you are left to yourself in any decisions. I really enjoyed the time when I was working in startups - you work together and live like one family. On the other hand, I felt that I wanted to learn from more mature and experienced managers and understand how business is done in successful companies.


In a large company like Coty, at any time you can ask a colleague a question and find out how certain tasks were performed earlier, what schemes are working. When you are 21 years old and you just graduated from university, it seems to me that it makes sense to gain experience in a large company and understand how everything works in real business, and how these companies make money. 25-year-old guys in a startup have bright eyes, but often they do not know the working schemes that have already been tested by large companies and bring real money (which is important when we talk about startups).


After I left L’oreal, I was called to work at Setters to essentially do the same job, but from a different perspective. There, by the way, the work is structured almost like in a startup. They are all young, the atmosphere is friendly, but at the same time the agency's clients are quite serious, and there was always a lot of work.



What would you like to focus on in your professional development now?


Now for me the role of Trade Marketing Manager is quite new and unfamiliar. TMM is an employee close to sales, which I usually didn't like. But I found in this position many components that I like: for example, I realized that the American consumer, and the market in general, is colossally different from the European one, and I study its features every day. In the future, I would still like to return to Brand Marketing, since this role is closest to strategic planning, since a specialist is responsible for the fate of the entire brand. In fact, he or she is the owner of the business, from the point of view of the brand. Ideally, I would like to rotate to one of the global teams — they make strategic decisions at the highest level: what products and when to launch. Local teams, such as ours in North America, where I work now, still have less influence on the global decision-making process, although we make up more than 45% of the company's global turnover.


What future do you think awaits the beauty industry? Tell us about the hottest trends.


Now I have a strong feeling that all trends really go to the world from America: first they go through their life cycle here and already at the stage of extinction move to Europe and beyond. The same thing happens with brands. For example, the brand I work with is essentially outdated in the US. Although both in Europe and in Russia it is high-fashion.


Now in the USA, clean-beauty is at its peak of popularity — everything is organic, the "purity" of the ingredients. Companies have to respond to such requests. If, for example, one of our competitors launches a line of sulfate-free shampoos, it immediately hits us - part of the population for whom this is important begins to switch to a brand that meets their request.


In addition, buyers are now oversaturated with the number of products on the market, while the time and effort to take care of themselves is becoming less and less. This is a big problem. Therefore, now everyone is moving to multi-functional products, which replace several unnecessary packaging on the shelf in the bathroom and simultaneously solve several consumer problems. This is what we are now putting our strength into.


I think these two trends will soon reach Europe and Russia. 


What do you think, what arsenal of knowledge and skills you need to have to become successful in the beauty field?

The most important skills are transferable skills, which are not industry specific: appreciating those who can get to the bottom of the problem, analyze data, work with numbers, ask the right questions and be creative — this is one of the acquired skills that is appreciated. yet — the possession of aesthetic taste, which can be developed by observation. Love for the beauty industry is certainly also very important. To inspire people around the world with your brands, you need to at least love it and believe in its future.


Give advice to students and alumni who are just starting their careers and trying to their career path. 

To be honest, I am still trying to find my career path. I advise you not to be afraid to try, to change the roles, the company, and the industry in a polar manner - not to rest on one comfortable option only, for example, because of a good salary. If you focus on only one role, your perception of the world becomes too one-sided. I believe that finding what you really like is possible only by trying new things: how else to understand what possibilities exist at all? Plus, in my experience, versatility is appreciated everywhere, regardless of the country and company — the main thing is to be able to present this experience as a holistic image.