This is the first in a series of newsletters that will share my personal experiences in the career of business development, capture, and proposals, detailing the most valuable lessons I have learned over more than 20 years in the field. This is a bit of a long story, sharing the journey from my days as a foreign student from Uzbekistan struggling to find a job, to today as the CEO of my own company. It is my hope that in telling some of my experiences, you may find some career advice and professional tips, and maybe relate to your own professional journey.
For this first installment, we will start at the beginning, and focus on one of my favorite mottos: “Easy decisions, hard life. Hard decisions, easy life.”
Like many who end up in the business development field, I did not plan to make this my career. In fact, I didn’t even know this profession existed. I left Uzbekistan in 1993 to study international affairs at the University of Colorado at Boulder. I was multilingual, and I thought my linguistic aptitudes would serve me well as a diplomat. But as I explored the diplomatic field and had opportunities to interview diplomats, I found that I was more suited to the C-suite than an embassy. I am blunt to a fault at times and care little for authority. These qualities made me stand out in Uzbekistan, but not in a good way. There was no shortage of people willing to tell me it wasn’t my place, as a woman, to be so outspoken. And while my drive to succeed served me well at school, I didn’t feel that I had the soft touch needed to be a truly excellent diplomat.
Furthermore, I wasn’t enticed by the realities of the diplomat lifestyle: constant travel, potentially separated from loved ones on different assignments, living in a fishbowl bubble that some embassies and consulates are. I also wanted to make sure I wasn’t tasked to areas of the world I had worked so hard to leave. I had come to the United States for a reason, and I intended to stay.
But I needed to find a job within 12 months, and that job had to be international in nature for me to qualify for a work visa. Although I knew no one in Washington, D.C., I knew that it was the best place to look for work that would use my language skills and my international affairs degree.
I was hired as an international travel assistance operator, helping with medical evacuations, elite concierge services for platinum cardholders, and urgent financial deliveries worldwide in places where the logistics were difficult. But the immigration services decided the job didn’t fit the profile, and they denied me a visa. What followed was nine months of filing and refiling for work visas for prospective employers. I was without work, without income, and without certainty. I borrowed money from friends to survive. I sewed holes in my business suits, walking to interviews when I didn’t have bus fare. I developed a circuit of restaurants and food shops I frequented where people fed me: a bagel shop where the owner handed me a bag of bagels when I paid for only one; a family-owned Italian restaurant that would give me a bowl of pasta; and Bethesda’s La Madeleine, which offered free bread and preserves when I bought a cup of tea, where staff chatted with me and would sometimes give me a quiche or a pastry.
As hungry and scared as I was, I never considered giving up and going back to Uzbekistan. I cried myself to sleep sometimes, and I woke up early in the mornings shaking. But I stayed the course. I did not quit.
Just when I was at the end of my legal stay in the country, I received a phone call from Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was from Lockheed Martin’s human resources. I was certain they had the wrong number and told them so. When they called a second time and said that I was being considered for a multilingual office manager job, I assured them that they didn’t want to talk to me. “I’m a foreigner in the middle of a massive paperwork rigmarole,” I told them. “I’m nearing an overstay on my student visa.” They agreed with me and hung up.
But then another person called. And another. With the fourth phone call, they offered something that made me snap to attention: food. A program manager and a former U.S. Air Force general at Lockheed were traveling to D.C., and he wanted to interview me over dinner. He had come across my resume and thought I was a good fit for the position. I agreed, because even if they wouldn’t entertain me as a viable candidate, at least I’d get a meal out of it.
That night, I ate and drank so much that the general paid for extra food to send home with me. Despite my blabbering about myself for two hours (I was certain I didn’t need to impress him as I wasn’t getting the job), the general decided to hire me. He told me he had a special talent for picking a team.
“You have moxie,” he said an unfamiliar word to me at the time.
He was willing to take a chance on me and even hire a law firm to fix my visa problems. But I had to take a big risk as well. I had to return to Uzbekistan to renew my visa, and that meant risking that I wouldn’t be allowed to reenter the U.S. To me, that was the end of life as I knew it. America was home.
I was terrified, but I understood the meaning of the saying I referenced at the start of this story. If you only make easy decisions, you will lead a hard life. By confronting your fears and choosing a path that doesn’t feel safe or easy, you may end up with an easier and better life.
I returned to Uzbekistan and managed to get the work visa with one day to spare, just before the embassy shut down for renovations to secure it from bomb threats. I was back at Lockheed shortly afterward, and I got started in the exciting world of government contracting, which led me to a lengthy career in business development.
Easy decisions, hard life. Hard decisions, easy life.
I would love to hear your story. Did you make difficult decisions in your life and career that led you to a better place?
What about now? What hard decisions are you avoiding? Are you tolerating something in your personal or professional life that’s robbing you of happiness? Do you dread your job but postpone looking for a new one? Do you contemplate consulting but worry about getting a stable income? Do you dread firing someone who is phoning it in? Are you afraid to make a hiring or outsourcing decision in the field of government business development because you have been burned before? Is there anything else you are avoiding or postponing that’s robbing you of a potential upside and an easier life?
Olessia Smotrova, CF.APMP Fellow
OST Global Solutions, Inc.
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