WORKING IN THE US: MY FIRST AMERICAN JOB, A GREAT SLAP IN THE FACE!
After a year in “sports studies” and travelling, I was more than impatient and happy to return to an active professional life. I am part of this “group of women” for whom work has always played an important role in their lives and personal development. Therefore, upon receipt of my “legal” documents, I “bombarded” the area with resumes and cover letters. I tried everything, I didn’t want to wait, I just wanted one thing, to work as quickly as possible. Active on job search sites, I quickly received by email a lot of requests from companies specialized in the sale of health insurance or financial products. The emails were attractive, they promised to reach very attractive salaries from your first year. Due to a lack of knowledge of the local employment market and this type of organization, I naively went to an interview in North Los Angeles for a group specializing in the sale of life insurance. The office located in a huge and modern business park, gave a very flashy effect. I immediately said to myself, “Oh, it’s much more important than I imagined”. My interview took place in a glass office with a magnificent view, a person close to my age in an impeccable suit and sitting in a minister’s chair. I first introduced myself, then he did and I answered his “basic” job interview questions. I would like to point out that I was still very far from the level considered bilingual in business English. During the interview, the recruiter really emphasized that he started at the first level in the company, his parents did not speak English well, his dedication had allowed him to climb the ladder, he had very quickly reached the “six figures”, his life was comfortable and he had achieved his American Dream. This speech was at the same time inspiring, destabilizing, but above all new in its form (I had never experienced this in France or New Zealand). Honestly, I had not been convinced, especially after the job description. It was a sales position paid only on a commission basis (no fixed salary) after a period of training in products and sales techniques on their services (1h45 from home by driving). I wasn’t seduced at all! A sales position where you have to make “cold calls” with a strong French accent, I honestly think it would have taken a very long time before I got my first dollar. During my first week of interviews, I was confronted to the same situations and job offers in a lot of companies. The speeches were similar, we were still many candidates in the waiting room and I always left with the same disappointment. Given my limited ability to express myself by using a business English in face-to-face, it seemed impossible for me to sell a “financial” product by phone. There was no sense and sincerely calling a list of 100 numbers per day and getting hung up on me wasn’t motivating me at all.
In the lot, only one interview had “intrigued” me, it was a position of “Events campaign manager” for a Marketing group. The offer was once again attractive, describing more an entrepreneurial mindset, an opportunity for training and development rather than a mission statement. The company’s website was “professional” but remained “unclear” about the group’s activity. The office was “surprising” because of its small size, there was only one reception hall, and two doors. Strange! The first interview conducted by the CEO who was to my great surprise a young woman of my age was very short (about 15 minutes). It was more a “presentation” interview of the company, the evolution opportunities, the “training” aspect or even the possible salaries, than a job description and specific missions. To learn more, I had to go to a second interview located in a huge American hypermarket in a nearby city. I had never been in these types of stores, I didn’t know what to expect and I had nothing to lose, so I went there out of curiosity. On the spot, a campaign manager of the group received me. A young woman who after asking me about the differences between direct and indirect marketing, explained to me once again the evolution system offered by the group. You started at the lowest level as a “Marketing Assistant”, then you could access to the second level in less than a month, then go through 2 more steps (on a total of 12 months) to reach an “Executive Manager” position. The specificity is that this last level offered you the possibility to open your own agency, to be “independent” and to duplicate this same system, in order to access to new levels within the organization. I don’t hide from you that it was a lot of confusing information in a short period of time. Everything became clear very quickly when the “recruiter” took me to the field which was inside the hypermarket and showed me what the job was all about. The campaign manager set up behind a small booth, put a food cap under a cap and caught the attention of each customer very directly to propose them to taste a “natural juice” whose objective was of course to sell it. So how do I tell you this? Cold shower when I discovered what was the American direct marketing. In two seconds, I told myself, no, it’s not possible, I’m leaving, no thanks, not for me, out of the question, and the food cap never! Out of courtesy, I stayed until the end of the demonstration. Then we debriefed and concluded the interview by discussing my motivation to take the position. I obviously played along. When I got out of the interview, I think I was stunned for fifteen minutes in my car, thinking. On one hand, it was undeniable that I was absolutely not attracted by it and that it was not the kind of job I had thought of when I came to live in the US. On the other hand, after a first week of disappointing interviews, zero American experience on my resume, approximate business English and a strong desire to work quickly; I told myself that I had nothing to lose, that this type of experience would allow me to be in an American professional environment, that I would have to speak English from morning to night, that it was better to be active than inactive during the research period, that I had to start somewhere and that it would be easier for me to sell myself on the job market later. I accepted the offer after a last interview with the CEO from whom I left with the “Marketing Assistant” guide containing sheets on sales techniques, general marketing principles to be learned by heart. After approved medical tests (yes, this was also new to me), I started this position very quickly, fifteen days after receiving my work permit.
My first day was shocking. Arriving at 8:30 am, I was able to discover what was hidden behind this second door. A very simple room with paperboards all over. The first half hour was devoted to the rehearsal of these famous sheets given during my last interview. Under the supervision of a “campaign manager”, you had to copy word for word the theoretical concepts you had learned in order to validate them (twice for each “sheet”) and to have the possibility to go to the “field”. The second part of the morning was oriented towards the teaching of a theoretical concept related to a subject of work ethic, sales, or managerial principle, led by one of the “campaign managers”. After that, we moved on to the part of announcing everyone’s goals for the day. All in a circle, the group would repeat an introductory sentence such as “Hey Guys, I’ve got goals! ” and then everyone would give his description with a crazy excitement. I couldn’t stop telling myself, “Where the hell am I? is the situation normal?” The third part of the morning was the application of sales techniques or rather systems like they would called them for each of the products promoted by the group. It could be food products, cosmetics, for the home… The last part, led by the CEO, was a speech about the organization of the group, the opportunities to grow, leadership, “work ethic” again… I was shocked to discover that these “training” meetings would be part of my future morning routine from Monday to Friday. The rest of the time was spent on the field to sell, but before you could have access to it, you had to learn and have the systems validated. I guarantee you that learning texts that are not in your native language word for word takes a long time. Therefore, my first few days were entirely devoted to their learning. After 4 days, I reached the field and very quickly discovered endless shifts with 30 minutes break, during the week and weekends with the bonus of installation / uninstallation of booth sometimes late in the evenings. I suspected that the pace wasn’t going to be easy, but honestly not like that. I had developed a “taste” for morning meetings, but it was “backwards” that I went out into the field. Depending on the products, some promotional campaigns were more “fun” than others. For example, it was clearly more lively to offer “natural juices” than to sell expensive microfiber sheets.
In the lot, a range of products had caught my attention and I very quickly worked in parallel on a personal report proposing strategic recommendations in order to optimize its volume of retail sales. Not wishing to move up the ranks (beware I will say the forbidden word) of a pyramidal organization, I decided to leave the company and take my business license offering me the opportunity to work on my own in consulting. As in the good old days, it was with my power point presentation that I set out to meet the founders of the brand for which I had just completed my study. If you don’t try, you will never know.
This first professional experience in the United States was “painful” but formative. The system of this type of company is very well organized and proven, which is normal because it is driven by a parent company making millions (if not billions) of dollars throughout the country. During these two months I attended the meeting of the founding father of this organization. Organized at the headquarters of the parent company, in flamboyant premises, this man explained his career path, his key stages, his moments of doubt before reaching the position of powerful business man. The speech was interesting and inspiring, it was clearly a typical example of “The American Dream”, a man from a very modest social background, who started with door-to-door selling and who over the years and many sacrifices built a real empire. Following the speech, there was also a round table discussion, where each “collaborator” included in the system had to briefly introduce themselves and explain in two words what their “Big Goal” was. Despite the difficulties encountered, some were very grateful for the opportunity to experience “a so-called entrepreneurial adventure”. This part of questions/answers had made me uncomfortable, I found the atmosphere was “too much” and close to a TV show (it must be probably my French side). From my point of view, some of the members present gave the impression of drinking the words of a “guru” and being entirely dedicated to the organization. I perceived the approach of this meeting as “I know that you work hard, that you make many sacrifices, but at the end of the day success is possible and if it is not for you it is ok, it was an experience”. Of course it is ok! But as a human being you project yourself, you compare yourself, and you have the example before your eyes that it is possible, so at the end, you can say to yourself: “I can do it too, I can do it!” In short, it was all very strange to me and the walk was unknown. There was certainly an attractive side because from the first day we talked to you about the possibilities of career development (reaching an Executive Manager position in 12 months), people who have succeeded in a few years within the organization, their salaries (90K after one year, 500K in five), that in the end it is a system based on “meritocracy”, if you work hard you will be rewarded, that it is possible! And on the other hand, there was obviously your daily life, the other side of the picture, a minimum wage + commissions (almost non-existent), no “benefits” (retirement, health insurance, mileage and fuel costs…), you used your car to go to events, endless shifts… is that really the goal of a lifetime? That is another debate and belongs to everyone. I think that this type of system does not have only bad sides and can be very formative and “successful” for some. If I had met this type of organization at the end of my studies, I would probably have gone head down, but with a little more professional experience and hindsight, at 30 years old it was clearly not the type of career I was looking for. I had already experienced “this dedication” for mass distribution 10 years ago and I really didn’t have the motivation to go through this step again.
WORKING IN THE US: A SHOWER OF SLAPS!
As I explained earlier, I quickly took my business license to have the opportunity to carry out missions on my own in “Marketing and Communication”. Through “unexpected” meetings, I started to develop different projects (website diagnostics, translations, recommendations for visual communication strategies, promotional actions in retail, or the implementation of a potential store in Orange County) for various companies: (cosmetics, food industry, fashion). It was a pleasure for me to return to the type of work I was doing in the advertising agency I worked for in France.
At the same time, I was still very active in research, because I had really made it a point of honor to work for an American company. I continued to send many applications, which sometimes required a lot of preparation time when translation work or “creative” videos were asked. When I reached a second stage, I felt hope but each time the door closed or I remained unanswered. The telephone interview stage never ended, the recruitment agencies did not want to submit my application because I was under visa and not a green card holder, few local companies were interested in a bilingual French/English profile, my experiences and diplomas were not “recognized”, and I must admit that my ability to speak English was not the most fluid. In short, I quickly understood that finding a job in my branch for a local company would be a real obstacle course or an illusion. From one slap to another I was beginning to be discouraged! I quickly realized that I was not going to have the same experience as my local “expatriate engineers” friends, who had been present on the territory for a few years (or even graduates) or the one I had naively imagined before my departure.
In my French resume, everything had always gone quickly, I had been very lucky and I had never experienced these moments of successive searches and refusals. It took me a little time and many slaps to understand that history was not going to repeat itself on the American continent. The essential point was to accept the fact of starting from scratch, starting at the first step and “erasing” these last ten years of experience. It was a new life, a new country, and although Americans love Paris, our French accent and our culture, no one is waiting for us. You have to fight to make a place for yourself.