This is an interview with Alex Zaretsky, an alum of the NYU full-time MBA program, a manager at McKinsey, and a serial entrepreneur – he recently launched Travelata, an online travel agency website.
Q1. You started your career as an engineer; at what point did you realize that you wanted to pursue an MBA?
For me the decision to do an MBA was pretty spontaneous. It was 2006. I was working as an algorithm developer for Intel. I had been working as an engineer and technical project manager for over 5 years by that point.
Also, I had made several attempts to do my own thing. I had just shut down my latest start-up attempt back then, which I was doing parallel to my full time job at Intel. After a couple of failed business ventures, I realized that having a cool technology idea might not be enough to build a business.
I was really curious about stuff like marketing, sales, finance – basically anything that could potentially make my next “crazy” idea successful. Then I met a colleague at Intel who instead of working was preparing really hard for some strange exam called the GMAT.
I was curious and he explained to me that it’s to apply to top business schools in the US. I started doing a lot of Googling.I had no new start-up ideas at that time, so I decided to give the GMAT a try myself. I did, and got a nice score, over 700.
Q2. What was your experience applying to business school? Was there any part of it that you enjoyed? How did you pick Stern?
I can’t say I enjoyed the application process itself. Although the GMAT was not that tough for me, writing essays was a real pain.
I also used professional help for that, from a specialist who gave me advice on structuring my stories and explained what admissions committees are looking for in those essays.
I did enjoy meeting many cool people through that process who were also applying or were already students – ambitious, like-minded people, many of whom I can call friends now.
Q3. Tell me about your experience at the NYU Stern MBA program – what was your favorite part of the program? Favorite class?
My favorite part was definitely the people I met there, fellow students from all around the globe.
An MBA program gives you many opportunities to learn from each other and through that process learn things about yourself that you didn’t know. It is learning by doing. One of my favorite experiences was launching a Consulting Entrepreneurship program within EEX. 5 years later this program is still up and running and has proved to be very successful.
As for classes – I think it’s all about the professors. I liked my courses in entrepreneurship with Prof. Glen Okun, finance with Damodaran, and negotiation with Prof. Freeman.
Q4. After school you were successful in getting into McKinsey, one of the most competitive recruiters for business school applicants. Did you plan to go into management consulting? What advice do you have for other aspiring and current MBA students who are dreaming of working for McKinsey after their MBA?
Yes, when I came to the business school I already knew that I would recruit for consulting.
For someone who wants to get to McKinsey I would advise the following:
- Make up your mind and stay focused.There are so many distractions when you start an MBA program. There are so many career paths that one could pursue.
- MBA recruiting is tough; trying both consulting and something else distracts you and makes you less prepared.
- Be prepared.
- Do as many mock interviews as possible. Talk to as many people as possible.
- Follow up on each meeting and conversation. Ask many questions – every piece of information can be useful
- Find your competitive edge: It is extremely helpful if you can find something that you’ve got that the firm of your dreams finds valuable. For me it was the Russian language. McKinsey needed people for their Moscow office, and I was much more competitive for that office than for the New York office, for example.
Q5. Did you consider other career roles beyond consulting?
I had a backup plan in case I didn’t find an internship in consulting, It was doing internal consulting roles for technology companies. It was the only backup option that was not distracting, since recruiting for that kind of job starts much later in the year and requires similar skills and preparation.
Q6. What was your favorite part of working at McKinsey? Can you tell us about an interesting project (no client names, of course)?
The favorite part for me was the opportunity to learn about so many different industries and functions in a short period of time.
I had a chance to do projects in such industries as medical devices, energy, oil and gas, mining equipment, and metals, in functions like operations, organizational structure, due diligence, IT governance and strategy.
To me the most useful skill that I took with me from McKinsey is effective communication.
McK gives you extremely effective tools, both verbal and visual, for structuring and presenting messages.
Q7. After a successful career at McKinsey, you decided to move on and start your own company, Travelata, an online travel agency targeting the Russian (and Eastern European? I’m not sure) market. Did you always know you wanted to start your own business?
Yes, I always knew. It was just a question of the right timing. So, I left and started Travelata with another McKinsey guy when we felt that that it was time.
Q8. How did the MBA from Stern help you in your career? What skills are you using from the MBA?
An MBA gives you lots of different skills, both through the courses and through extra-curricular activities.
For me the most relevant were two things: first, the MBA was a step in my career that opened certain doors for me, like getting to McKinsey, for example. Second, it gave me the confidence that I was capable of achieving any goal I set for myself.
Q9. Your new business, Travelata, is based out of Moscow. Tell us more about how you started the venture and some of the challenges and opportunities you see in the market for online travel.
Travelata is an online travel agency focusing on package tours. We started this business since we saw a huge market opportunity in online travel in Russia, especially in the package tours segment. The travel market in Russia is estimated at about 50B USD, while the online part is growing 30-40% every year . On top of that, the market is segmented with no clear market leader. The Expedias and Pricelines of the world have a very limited presence here. (One exception is Booking.com, which is a leader in the hotel booking segment).
Since the market is so attractive, it is extremely competitive, with tens of companies fighting over it.
Also a travel business is low margin and requires solid and efficient opertaions. Having a nice-looking website is not enough.
Q10.According to the International Monetary Fund, Russia, with $2,512 billion of GDP, is ranked as the 6th-largest global economy. While many MBA students talk about working in emerging markets such as China and Brazil, it seems that Russia feels more complex and challenging for foreigners. What is your opinion about the topic, and what advice would you give to an MBA student seeking to work in the region after his/her program?
I don’t think Russia is more complex than China or Brazil. Each country has its own unique characteristics that one needs to understand to be successful. At the same time, if you work for a big international corporation those differences are not crucial.
The culture in McKinsey Moscow is almost identical to that of the German or New York offices. However, to pursue a career in Russia post-MBA, one needs to be fluent in Russian. There are many Western-educated people here already, so just having an MBA degree is not enough.
For someone who is interested in being recruited for a job in Russia (and speaks Russian) but has no prior work experience there, I would recommend the following:
– Recruit at non-Russian companies. Limit your switch only to geography; switching both a country and a corporate culture might be too much for you. If you’re still interested, you will have a chance to switch to a Russian company after you’ve spent 2-3 years in Moscow. The transition will be much smoother.
– Reach out to Stern alumni living in Russia and ask their advice.
– Ask the Career Orientation Office at your MBA program to put you in touch with the recruiting teams of Moscow offices.
Considering a career in management consulting? thinking about the best MBA to help you get into McKinsey and other leading firms? I can help. Email yael@ admit1mba.com or submit this form to schedule an initial consultation.
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