Was sacrificing your 20s for your career worth it?

I spent all my 20s in South Korea (12 years in total to be precise). When I was 10 years old my mother started working in the Korean Consulate in Vladivostok, a small town in the Far East of Russia, and just like that my “Korean dream” was born. I fell in love with this magical foreign land and so, I started learning Korean when I was 15, majored in Korean studies in the university in Russia and left for Korea all by myself when I turned 18.

Did I expect that my “Korean dream” would crash when I embarked on this journey and leave Korea for good after spending all my 20s building career in Samsung? “Was it worth it” you would ask? To answer this question, I have to share with you my story full of ups and downs.

My first destination in Korea was Changwon, a small industrial town in the South of Korea. I received a scholarship to study Korean in the local university; I felt that I was living a dream. I spent all day memorizing new grammatical structures, words and expressions. I was fascinated with the culture and language. I did a few part time jobs that I was really proud of, such as being an official interpreter during the university principle’s visit to Russia and representing Russian businesses in Korean fairs. I felt that I learnt a lot and grew as a professional. I didn’t really know exactly what my career choice would be in the future, but I wanted to feel that challenge and growth in whatever I chose to do in the end. However, my aspirations were about to hit a wall.

The company’s president Mr. Ko who provided my scholarship decided that my Korean was already “good enough” (gosh, I hate that expression) and that it was time for me to start working in his company DongHwan Industries, a small manufacturer of air conditioning systems in Changwon. My job title was… a secretary. I was devastated. But since I didn’t have any alternative plan and returning back home to Vladivostok was equivalent to failure, I decided to give it a try. This was the start of my 20s. It was not at all how imagined them.

I had to wear a uniform of an indistinguishable color and style. My day started at 7 am and my first task was to dust an executive floor that I was in charge of. While performing my duties, I was unconsciously thinking about my mother, my “Korean dream” and my future which seemed dim at that moment. One skill that I truly mastered while working in the company was serving green tea, which had to be prepared and arranged in a very particular way. To me, it was the skill that was absolutely useless in what I actually aspired to do.

I hated that bloody uniform and serving green tea, so I had no other choice but to quit and return home. But I retuned with an even more burning desire to “make it” and return to Korea in another capacity that will give me a real opportunity to realize my full potential. So, I invested my time applying for scholarships and eventually got a prestigious grant to study in one of Korea’s top universities, Yonsei, in Seoul. Maybe, my experience in Changwon coupled with my burning desire to learn and succeed professionally was what touched the hearts of the admission committee?

Seoul offered a lot of opportunities. It was a year of 2005 when BRICs (Brazil, Russia, India and China) were getting a lot of interest from Korean businesses as an investment destination and Samsung was not an exception. In case of Russia, it offered abundant opportunities in oil and gas sector. And so, thanks to my language skills coupled with a business degree from a prestigious university, I got a job in Samsung in Seoul, where I was in charge of business development in Russia and ex-Soviet countries in the petrochemicals sector. I was in my mid 20s full of energy and big expectations, which were about to crash yet again.

You see, being a young woman is a liability in the corporate military-like Samsung culture. I was at the bottom of Korean hierarchy. In addition, I was a foreigner. An outsider. However, because of my fluent Korean, I was expected to behave like one: to obey my manager’s orders without questioning, not to leave office before my boss, join team dinners with heavy soju-drinking and karaoke and not to count on any career breakthroughs. There was a reason why there was only one female manager, an interpreter of the CEO. Women were often asked during the job interviews about their marriage plans, as this was the time when the company would expect them to quit to take care of the family. This was the norm at the time.

So, there I was. I was trying to survive and thrive in the environment not made for women. I would dare to say that I did quite well managing multimillion dollar projects in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, which was not typical for a woman. However, a glass ceiling was shining bright right on top of my head. I knew I hit it and it would take me another 5 years to reach the next level, and then 10 more to reach the next one and so on. The rules of the game were also clear and to grow I had to comply. I chose not to. I decided to quit after getting an acceptance letter to one of the top MBA schools, INSEAD, which opened a lot of possibilities.

Now, here I want to make a point. You see, each of my experiences shaped what I am today. My secretary work made me realize how much I wanted to “make it” in Korea and I was not going to settle for whatever. Thanks to that experience I was able to get in to the prestigious university in Korea, which is important if you want to make career there. Samsung equipped me with experiences that inspired me to write a book about it, which is exactly what I am doing now. You might think your past career was a waste, but I am sure if you take a deep look inside your heart, you will see a thing or two that shaped you who you are today.

It also depends on what you were looking for. I was chasing my “Korean dream”, it hit a wall but instead I now have a new one. Looking back, I know that I made the most of all my ups and downs and they truly shaped me as a person. And now I can share my stories with you J.

Leave a comment

All comments are moderated before being published