The decisions I describe here changed my life and defined who I am today. Let me tell you how it all happened.
1. GOING FOR MY CHILDHOOD DREAM.
At the age of 10, I knew exactly what I want to do in the future. I had a dream to go to South Korea and achieve success there. It may sound strange to you, but it was a perfectly natural decision to me at the time.
I was born in Vladivostok, a small town in the Russia’s Far East. When I was 10, my mother started working at the Korean Consulate and my world changed at once. It was a year of 1991, the time of collapse of the Soviet Union, and this new foreign land that my mother “brought home” was like a ray of light. I was fascinated with everything this magical foreign land had to offer: music, language, culture, people, food, etc. So, I made a decision to do everything I could to realize my dream.
So, I started learning Korean since I was 15 years old, by taking language classes at the local cultural center, chose to major in Korean studies at the Russian university, and packed my bags and left for a foreign land all by myself at the age of 18.
2. LEAVING MY DREAM LAND.
My life-long journey in Korea started in Changwon, a small town in the South of Korea. I came as an exchange student after receiving a scholarship to study at the Changwon National University.
It was a magical time! I was finally living in a country I dreamt of for so long.
So, I was working hard. My Korean language skills and knowledge of Korea were growing day by day. I would spend hours after classes memorizing new words, practicing speeches, reading Korean news, training myself to speak a business language. At one point, I was even asked by the Changwon University administration to be a Russian-Korean interpreter during dean’s official visit to Russia. And even though I was unsure of what I wanted to do professionally, I was fascinated by the idea of providing value in bringing Russian and Korean businesses together.
The Donghwan Industrial Corporation, a producer of air conditioning systems for vehicles, that provided my scholarship, planned a different future for me. After two years of studies, the company ended my scholarship and offered me to join the corporation as a secretary.
I was devastated. I did not have time to prepare my back up plan and going back home to Vladivostok was not even an option as I came so far already.
And so I decided to give it a chance. I accepted the offer.
I would come to office before anyone else, dust off the glassy top executive floor and prepare green tea in time for executives’ start of the day.
I hated it.
It was not how I pictured my success and I definitely did not see myself working as a secretary. I saw zero value in what I was doing and most importantly I was not learning anything, except mastering the art of serving green tea.
So, I made one of the toughest decisions in my life. I decided to go back home to Vladivostok and start over.
3. NOT GIVING UP AND PERSEVERING.
From my experience, I knew that Korea is a highly competitive job market, where majority of young people pursue higher studies. Fluency in Korean is a must, unless you are an engineer or a highly experienced professional. Plus, most of the recruitment is done through introductions. So, I knew that if I wanted to achieve success on my own terms, I had to build my reputation and network by attending the top university in Korea. And so, the tough application period began.
I have to admit, there were times when I doubted my decision to leave Changwon. There were moments when I doubted myself too and whether I was at all worthy to win the top scholarship. “Am I aiming too high?” – I would ask myself. But I was slowly making one step at a time, moving towards my goal, staying focused, and working hard each day.
I was on heaven when I received the news that I gained a scholarship to study at one of Korea’s top universities, Yonsei, located in Seoul.
4. CHALLENGING MYSELF FURTHER.
Upon graduation with a Master’s degree in business, I was offered to join Samsung in Seoul, the most desired company to work at for many Koreans and also for me at the time, as I craved for an opportunity to bring value to Korean and Russian businesses.
I spent 7 years in Samsung helping identify business opportunities for Korean businesses, developing market entry strategies and executing multi-million dollar projects. I was playing a role of a bridge connecting businesses thanks to my fluency in Korean language, negotiation skills and business acumen.
However, there came a time when I felt that I was living in my comfort zone, whilst I craved to grow and challenge myself on the global arena. I wanted to surround myself with like-minded people to inspire and get inspired, to reflect on my achievements so far and decide where I see myself in the future.
So, I made a decision to do an MBA at the top school in the world, INSEAD.
This experience changed my life forever: I learnt from the best and I made friends from all over the world, each with a unique story and experience. I was now among many others, who had difficulty answering a simple question “Where are you from?”, which I can answer only with a huge BUT. “I am Russian, BUT I lived in South Korea for over a decade”.
I knew that, thanks to INSEAD, I have got the best support no matter where my life and my career takes me.
5. REDEFINING MY FUTURE YET AGAIN.
INSEAD not only lifted me to the global business arena, but also opened my mind to entrepreneurship. A lot of my classmates started businesses after graduation or shortly after.
I did have a few ideas as well: a boutique hotel in an exotic location, a restaurant featuring signature family recipes, and even an UBER-type of dog care (I had tough time finding one for my dog, Rex, when I lived in France and Switzerland). But none of them really clicked.
It was not until some years ago, when my husband designed a jewelry piece for my birthday. It was an old Spanish coin, found in the bottom of the Caribbean Sea, enclaved in gold on a cable chain. Not only that I loved the design myself, but I also received a lot of complements, as the coin was rare and every time I would tell a story of where it originated from.
It was an “AHA!” moment, when I decided to start building our personal brand and share all the learnings and philosophy I learnt in Asia through our unique jewelry designs.
As I am wiring this answer, we are finalizing the final designs and starting to share our stories about our life in Asia and our entrepreneurial journey to motivate and inspire others in their quest to realize their full potential.
I guess… I will end this article by saying “TO BE CONTINUED”. We will be sharing every step and lesson of our journey, as we move forward.
Alex Varova, MBA ‘11D
At the dawn of the Soviet Union, inspired by her mother, Alex fell in love with Korea at the age of 10. Ever since she was chasing her “Korean dream”, mastering the language, living there for 12 years and building career in Samsung. INSEAD was a way for her to get inspired and challenge herself in the international arena. Following graduation, Alex got in a challenging leadership program in Nissan with assignments in Japan, Switzerland and now France. Although, her career undergoes yet another turn, as she launches her jewelry line and writes a book, she knows that thanks to INSEAD she can do anything she puts her mind into.