From my own experience one important thing I learned is that you can’t let an initial visa rejection get you down. I got rejected the first time I applied, and it was crushing. But eventually, I worked up the courage and the energy to apply again. And I got it. So, my biggest piece of advice to others who are navigating the immigration system is: You have to be tenacious.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Ulia Kordiukova, 31, a UX designer at Saggezza. Ulia also runs her own fashion brand, UliUlia, which up-cycles clothes destined for landfills. Ulia immigrated to the U.S. from Ukraine four years ago and worked a retail job in Chicago while learning design skills at a local boot camp. She was hired by Saggezza in late 2018, within two months of finishing her program.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I’m from a small Ukrainian city of about 50,000 people. It’s a simple place and I had a simple upbringing, going to school and spending the summers at my grandparents’ house in a rural village. My dad was a plumber and my mom worked at a textile factory, doing stitches on socks and stockings.
She worked in textiles, like me, but her job was so repetitive. I wanted to do something more creative. I started sewing and creating clothes for my dolls at a young age. I always wanted lots of clothes for myself, but my family couldn’t afford it. So I’d dig through my grandparents’ attic and repurpose their old clothes into something newer and fresher. That’s where my entrepreneurial spirit, and my desire to be a designer, were firstborn.
A few years ago, I started my own brand, UliUlia, which “up-cycles” clothes that would otherwise be thrown in the trash. The way it works is, I accept donations of old clothes from my friends and family, and I tailor them into fashionable items that are more chic and more modern.
It’s been so inspiring to build my own business: UliUlia products have been sold in dozens of stores and at art fairs, in Ukraine and here in Chicago. The brand now has thousands of followers on social media. And most importantly, we’ve saved hundreds of garments from going into landfills.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
I have a free spirit — I was always looking somewhere far away. I wasn’t sure about the future in Ukraine. The economy isn’t great. I always thought I could get a higher quality of life somewhere else. When I was 23, I lived in Holland for a year as an au pair. A couple of years later I went to China for three months, just to explore. Eventually, I fell in love with a guy who lived in the U.S., and I moved here to be with him. It didn’t end up working out, but I don’t regret it because it led me to where I am today.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
I came to the U.S. four years ago. It was stressful. In Ukraine, I had a perfect life. I was building my brand, which was doing well, I had lots of friends. But I was in a relationship with a guy who lived in the U.S., and I wanted to be with him. So I moved.
When I first came to Chicago, in 2015, I started interning at a friend’s marketing company, while working at a retail store, Eileen Fisher, on the weekends.
After about a year, I enrolled in a prestigious boot camp in downtown Chicago called Designation. It was a full-time, six-day-a-week program that lasted for six months. It was intense, but it taught me user-interface (UI) skills very quickly.
Perhaps most importantly, I learned how to design a website, how to make it work logically and smoothly. I learned how to take an idea and translate it into a finished product. It was incredibly satisfying. It’s allowed me to take my love of design and translate it into a marketable skill, something that employers want.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful to who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
I’m grateful for my friends, who supported me a lot, mentally. They really helped me. We talked on the phone or just texted when things got stressful, and it calmed me down and made me feel less alone.
So how are things going today?
Things are going well. I’m a professional now, working on my career, at a global tech and consulting company called Saggezza. I’m very grateful for this opportunity.
My team is super diverse and really a fun group of people. There are 11 of us, working on new software that a large, brand-name financial services company is trying to create. It’s a brand new B2B product, which is exciting. But it’s challenging, too. We had to learn lots of financial terms, had to learn how their whole system worked, and how their internal hierarchy functioned. It was a big learning curve!
In my work, I use enterprise design tools like Sketch, Proto.IO, Invision, and Mural. Overall, it’s really enjoyable. You get to work with so many people from different countries. Our team is so international, we have people from Venezuela, Ireland, Turkey, and other countries. We learn from each other a lot. It’s a great opportunity for me to grow professionally, to learn how to create meaningful things for society.
And Saggezza has been really accommodating to my side hustle, UliUlia. The company really fosters a culture of entrepreneurship. There are a number of people at Saggezza who run their own businesses on the side, like me, or who have built out their own practice within the company. It’s really unique, and I’m grateful to be somewhere that values entrepreneurially-inclined people.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I’ve certainly tried. At first, it was hard to realize I was getting paid for something I liked to do. It sounds unbelievable. All my life my parents taught me work was obligatory, that it couldn’t be something you were going to enjoy. That was their old-world, USSR mentality.
So it’s been challenging to realize that it’s all possible, to realize you can have fun at work, and be learning and working hard, and still make a living. I don’t do it for the money. The money is the result of my having fun and loving what I do. That actually is a challenge. I feel like I’m not good enough; like I’m some kind of impostor. But I try to teach that to other people, who feel like they’re not good enough, either, and in some way, I think that brings a little bit of goodness to the world, yes.
You have the first-hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
I don’t know much about immigration, to be honest. From my own experience, though, one important thing I learned is that you can’t let an initial visa rejection get you down.
I got rejected the first time I applied, and it was crushing. But eventually, I worked up the courage and the energy to apply again. And I got it. So, my biggest piece of advice to others who are navigating the immigration system is: You have to be tenacious.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you?
Wow, five — that’s a lot! I think what I said before applies here: you can’t let the system beat you down. You have to keep trying, you have to weather the storm and the bad news and not let it beat you down.
Ultimately, though, I don’t think it matters where you are, whether you’re in America with a green card or in Ukraine, in the little village where you grow up, or anywhere else. You don’t have to be in the best country in the world to find what you love to do and to be successful at it.
To find your passion, to be happy, everything you need is already in you. That’s my message.
We know that the U.S. needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
I love the nature here. The natural parks are incredible. They’re so much bigger and grander than they are in Ukraine.
I know things need to be improved, politically speaking. But overall, the people here in the U.S. seem to be good people. The people I meet and interact with on a day-to-day basis are almost always cool, kind, decent people. And that makes me optimistic about the future.
For example, I see a lot of people becoming spiritual, learning how to enjoy the slower moments of life. There are so many cool spiritual retreats happening all the time. People are embracing natural healing. I think it’s amazing.
I recently came back from a 10-day retreat where I practiced a form of silent meditation that’s based on a 2,500-year-old Indian technique. It had a great effect on me and a lot of the others who participated. It made us learn who we are and what we love. It helped us reconnect with ourselves. So that, too, gives me hope that better things lie ahead.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why?
Generally, I don’t have people I admire that way. I’m not a big fan of any celebrities or anything like that. But I’d like to meet someone from the sustainable fashion industry, maybe Eileen Fisher, who started the company where I worked when I first came to the U.S. She inspires me; I think I could learn something from her.