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How many people do you know can say that they started their career in the Israeli Army as a Chief of Staff, worked at some of the most revered fashion houses in the world including CHANEL and GIVENCHY, and broke into product at the world’s top banks, now leading as a VP Product at a world-renowned bank like JP Morgan Chase? I also couldn’t think of anyone. That is, until I met Zoia Kozakov, one of our Outpace community members.
At 18, Zoia, as all Israelis, was required to join the army and after rounds of interviews, she was placed into the role of Chief of Staff in the Israeli Intelligence.
“In the moment I thought I was incredibly behind, thinking all my friends are in college and moving on, but what I actually did was take on a leadership role early on in my career. Before setting foot in my undergrad I had two years of full-time experience.”
Zoia embraced this chance to work across communications, technology, and strategy, so after she finished her 2 years, she honed down that she wanted to do the same big picture strategy thinking for industries she was passionate about. At the time, that was luxury fashion.
Zoia was intrigued by luxury fashion’s ability to “dictate incredibly high prices with their customers acknowledging that they are paying a huge margin for a piece of the brand.” She wanted to understand the industry from the ground up and figure out how to digitize it and push the strategy forward.
That’s where the first pivot comes in.
Accepted to Parson’s School of Design in Strategic Design & Business Management, Zoia set off to make her mark on the fashion world, interning at LANVIN, CHANEL, and GIVENCHY. In a Devil Wears Prada-esque moment, she quickly came to the conclusion that these brands weren’t prioritizing digital innovation in the way that she had envisioned.
Searching for a more strategic role, she worked briefly at the District Attorney’s Office of New York. “A quick 180,” she chuckles, but again, not the role she was looking for.
She was searching for an in between when a friend introduced her to a digital advertising agency - her next pivot. Here, Zoia worked with the same massive name brands like Cartier on their digital strategy and innovation. It was closer to the roles she had hoped for initially, but not quite there.
After gaining some more experience, she decided to get her Masters at Columbia in Strategic Marketing and Communications. The hope was to walk out and do brand management, and finally attain her dream role: building up massive luxury companies.
Life, again, had other plans.
While in her Masters program, Zoia accepted a product strategy role at a blockchain startup called Yup to learn about technology and help raise their $3.5M seed round. While there, she started getting offers from innovation consultancies and brand management agencies. “Seems like everything was going to plan,” she recalls.
Then Covid-19 hit in March. All her offers were rescinded. All agencies were on a hiring freeze.
“Back to the drawing board I go.”
In the midst of all these hiring freezes, a friend called her up, telling her that Citibank was recruiting.
Zoia remembers thinking, “A bank?! This has nothing to do with my plan.”
Nevertheless, her friend encouraged her to take the meeting. Huge shout out and thank you to all our friends along our journeys! Turns out, Citi was building a bank for Google at the time and this strategic project definitely sparked Zoia’s interest. From her previous experience and pivots, Zoia had everything they were looking for: the consumer-facing marketing, technology, product, and strategy experience needed to lead this team.
Zoia reflects on her career moves, saying, “There are a lot of pivots in my career that can seem accidental, but the truth is as I evaluated each opportunity, I was looking for something very specific. From brand management to product, what I’ve wanted to do all along is figure out how to push innovation in the digital world for companies to connect with consumers.”
Whether it is fashion vs fintech or product vs marketing, Zoia has made a point to not hold herself back from opportunities she’s excited about, no matter how out of reach they may seem. While imposter syndrome is very real, Zoia’s reframing puts the focus on a growth mindset: “I am very aware that I don’t have all line items on a job description. In fact, that’s often why I go for the role in the first place. Instead of asking myself ‘Why me?’ I ask myself, ‘Why not me?’”
After her success at Citi, JP Morgan reached out, knowing she was the right person to build a startup within JP. She knew it was the right move. Zoia was itching to build something with full ownership from 0 to 1, not just for other brands anymore, but something she could fully own herself.
Looking back at her whole career so far, Zoia shares, “My biggest takeaway was that in being confident to pivot, I’ve been able to transform my entire career while still building on relevant skills each step of the way. I would encourage others to be incredibly intentional, yet be open-minded, not setting yourself into one end state, but viewing each step of your career as a new learning goal. Embrace fearlessly pivoting."
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