I Am Living Proof Of The American Dream: With Cosmin Bardan
“I’ve met so many positive, open-minded, brilliant and caring people in those six years in the US. I feel that everyone has judged me based on my behavior, thoughts, actions and not based on where I am from or my background. Being open-minded and understanding that all of us just want to be happy are going to help the US a lot in the future.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Cosmin Bardan a 25-year old Romanian entrepreneur. Cosmin graduated from Bates College in 2016 and founded GrowModel (e-Commerce parent company) in 2017 together with a close childhood friend. Since starting this journey they’ve had over $1 million in sales — 100% online.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us the story of how you grew up?
I am not 100% sure how long this answer should be, but I will offer the semi-detailed story. I was born in a small Romanian city into a modest, but loving, family. My father worked for the National Railroad Company and my mother dedicated her whole life to the family and raising 3 sons — I’m the youngest.
At an early age, I had a passion for math and a natural understanding of trading goods — it gave me something different to do than the other kids. I remember that my mom didn’t allow me to have sweets and so I received no money for ice-cream. In a short time, I found a place that paid me for old metal and my friends and I would collect it from around the neighborhood & trade it in for a small amount of money — enough to buy as all ice-cream.
At the age of 10, I started playing tennis and I didn’t stop until after college. School and tennis was the perfect combination for me during those years because I didn’t have much time to get in trouble which was good considering that we lived in a dangerous neighborhood. Tennis lessons were expensive, but my parents worked very hard and offered me selflessly everything they could save every month — I will always be grateful for that. I started playing tournaments around the country and I received two school scholarships which really helped with expenses. Our tennis club was like a second family because we stayed there all day during summer — practice, play soccer, eat at a friend’s house, go back to the court.
I got in contact with eCommerce in high school when I was placing orders on British clothing websites for my Romanian friends and getting a commission for it. I wasn’t making much money but the kick I got out of selling something more expensive than I bought it really triggered something in me and I began to see negotiating as a hobby. This is also the time when I started learning economics and went to a few “Economics Tournaments” — they are very popular in Romania for all subjects. By the time I graduated high school, I had lived alone for 2 years in an apartment in the city because my parents retired, and I was working as a poker dealer during nights, so I could pay for tennis tournaments and practices.
Was there a particular trigger point that made you emigrate to the US? Can you tell a story?
One of my older friends played tennis for Columbia University and he advised me to apply to American colleges. The USA is the only country where you can still play tennis at a high level while getting a prestigious education, therefore, it seemed like the perfect solution for me. I wasn’t good enough to go D1 but after emailing over 300 coaches and posting a couple of recruiting videos on YouTube, I decided to go Bates College hoping that I will receive a very generous financial aid package because my parents couldn’t afford even a fraction of the tuition. This was the first moment when my parents were questioning my choice and they were worried that I wouldn’t get accepted and would become disappointed. I still remember perfectly the conversations with them, but something was telling me “Do it, you will get accepted, trust me”. I applied early decision and after a few months, we received a letter from Bates College. That morning is still one of the best days of my life — it felt like I wanted to scream “I TOLD YOU!” to everyone. I truly felt like all the work paid off and it felt amazing.
Can you tell us the story of how you came to the USA? What was that experience like?
Thinking about this makes me laugh because it was just SO different. I arrived in NYC on August 22nd, 2012 with $1000 cash for the whole school year. My friend from Columbia let me crash at his place. He used to work in finance and lived on 42nd and 9th, so I got out from the subway in Times Square. That was the biggest “Wow” moment of my life and everything that I visualized for the past 2 years became a reality. After a week in NYC and walking probably over 50 miles, I took a flight to Portland, Maine. Our dean of students picked us up (me and a few other international students) and soon enough I realized that my English wasn’t good enough to have a smooth conversation which really bummed me. The tennis team and coaches were probably my biggest support in the first few weeks because they always helped me improve my English, corrected my mistakes and taught me the American social norms. I felt frustrated at the beginning because I had all these thoughts that I wanted to share with people, but I couldn’t — this truly motivated me to get better as soon as possible. I used to sit at dinner for 1–2 hours and just listen to their conversation and try to interact a little — it was funny but very helpful at the same time.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped make the move more manageable? Can you share a story?
Oh, yes. My coach, Paul, was one of the most important people in my transition and he always helped me with anything needed. Soon I realized he wasn’t just my tennis coach, but my mentor in college and the person who answered all my questions about what classes I should take, where I should live, or what campus job I should apply for. He was the main reason why I chose Bates considering that I had never heard about it before coming to the US and he always believed in me which helped me keep going. I don’t want to forget about Dean Reese who is our international dean of students — this man treats each international student as his child and all of us felt so much love and positive energy from him.
So how are things going today?
Today things are going amazing, much like what I’ve been visualizing for a couple of years. My friend from Columbia University and I started an eCommerce company one year and a half ago and we already hit the $1 million annual sales benchmark. I work 100% of the time from my computer while traveling in random countries without much planning and I enjoy learning new things every place I go. I am currently in the Hamptons for the summer and after I am going to South America on a quest for the “endless summer”. Going to college in the US and working in NYC for a while really changed my perspective on life and taught me most of the skills that I use daily for growing our business. Sometimes I try to think about what I would have been doing now if I didn’t come to the US and the thought really upsets me, so I gave up this exercise.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am currently building a platform where young people who want to travel and work remotely can find valuable opportunities, information, and mentorship for their life journey. I want to show the young world that having an office job that you hate isn’t your only option in today’s day and anyone can travel while working remotely. You don’t need to be super smart, have money or be crazy, you just need ambition and a desire to design the life you want. I would love to see more people finding meaning in their work using technology while they can do the activities they love in their free time without being stuck in one place for 40 years.
I am trying to show young people that the traditional career path isn’t required with all the technology and freedom of traveling. We offer eCommerce consulting to people in the United States or Australia, but we are spending the earned money in countries like Bali or Italy where the prices are 3–4 times lower and we can work much less than before. This lifestyle allows me to focus more on myself and experience life on a fuller level.
You have first-hand experience with the US immigration system. If you had the power, which three things would you change to improve the system?
Hmm I am not the most knowledgeable person on this subject, but I have a few things in my mind:
- We have a year after graduation called OPT (Optional Practical Training) when we need to find a job and a sponsor for our H-B1 visa. The current number of annual H-B1 visas is capped at 85,000 and I believe that the number of applicants was over 200,000 in 2017. The process for this visa works as an actual lottery and you are more likely to lose and must move to another country. It doesn’t seem like a profitable system for the government because in most cases we get scholarships, we receive a great education, but we are forced to work in another country which hasn’t given us anything, although most of us want to stay in the US.
- Secondly, the OPT is considered just a working permit and in most cases, we cannot leave the country during that year because we won’t be allowed back in. *This is not valid for everyone because some countries have agreements with the US Government and their residents are allowed 3 months on American territory without a visa.
- I just believe that many brilliant international students move to another country after college because most companies don’t want to sponsor someone for an H-B1 visa and invest money in their training, so after a few months, they won’t be able to work in the US anymore and must leave. I have at least 3 friends who moved to Canada after they didn’t win their first H-B1 lottery and I believe they could have brought a lot of value to companies in the US.
Can you share “5 keys to achieving the American dream” that others can learn from you? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Accept the American social norms and understand the thought process behind them — Every single country that I’ve visited had probably a few unique social norms which if you knew them, you are more likely to bond easier with locals and become their friend — it was the same in the US. For example, the professors in Romania call your name and shout your test grade out loud in front of the class, but in the US most people want their grades to be something personal. Because I was raised with that mentality I didn’t find it “rude” at the beginning to ask people what grade they got until one of my teammates explained to me the reasons behind the American social norm. After that, I understood perfectly why people didn’t want to share their grades and the Romanian concept seemed weird. It’s all about your perspective and if you are trying to be a lone wolf, you will struggle and never adapt completely. I’m not saying to give up your true personality but ENRICH it with new experiences and ways of thinking about specific situations.
- We all have our own version of success, we just need to search for it. — All I wanted in my first few years of college was to become an investment banker just because my friends wanted that and the view from outside seemed perfect. My business partner worked as one for a few years and hearing the full story from an insider’s perspective made me change my mind. I’m not saying no one should do it, I have many friends who are extremely happy with their banking jobs, but the lesson would for each of us to undergo our own search for passion and don’t be afraid of trying new things.
- Happiness should come before success. — Many people (including me) say “I will be happy when …” but this chase never ends, most of the time. Thanks to a great TED Talk and experiencing this on my own, I am starting to understand that being happy within yourself in the first place greatly increases your chances of becoming successful and achieving your goals.
- I chase my fears and don’t avoid them anymore. — This journey has taught me that without facing my fears and being uncomfortable, we cannot progress and achieve what we truly want. Everyone has fears, everyone has insecurities, but just a few will break them down and overcome. I believe “fear chasing” is like a muscle, after you destroy a few of your fears, the next ones will seem like a challenge and you will crave the afterward adrenaline kick (plus the inner voice which says “YOU DID IT AGAIN”).
- Your passion isn’t something you are born with, you must build first brick by brick. — Many people are sitting around in college and after (including me) waiting for their passion to knock on the door and say, “I’m here for you”. I came to the conclusion that this is one of the biggest misconceptions. Until you try something multiple times and see if you like it, if it has meaning for you if it will make you a happier person, you will never know if that’s your passion or not. That’s why I started trying new things as often as I can and see how I like it — this is how I ended up in eCommerce after teaching tennis, being a concierge agent, working as a poker dealer, and doing online marketing in NYC for a startup. Get out there, try new things and see what triggers every cell in your body and after master it!
We know that the US needs improvement. But are there 3 things that make you optimistic about the US’s future?
- The increased popularity of mindfulness really makes me happy and optimistic. People finally started realizing (including me — after a long time) that we need to take care of our mind too, not just your body. At the end of the day, our brain dictates what we do every day and who we are, therefore we should always take care and learn about it. Yoga and meditation are two of the most popular things that relate to this.
- Working remotely becomes desirable for corporations and employers. People are starting to realize that they can be more productive from home or a café in Bali without daily meetings, idle conversations, and commutes. This was of working enhances efficiency as well because you realize that if you finish your work faster, you get to do what you want for the rest of the day and not be stuck in an office with nothing to do.
- Acceptance — I’m aware that this is going to be a very subjective viewpoint, but I’ve met so many positive, open-minded, brilliant and caring people in those six years in the US. I feel that everyone has judged me based on my behavior, thoughts, actions and not based on where I am from or my background. Being open-minded and understanding that all of us just want to be happy are going to help the US a lot in the future.
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? He or she might see this. :-)
Hmm, that’s the toughest question so far. I will probably choose Tony Robbins because of his personal interest in NLP (Neuro-linguistic programming), his impact on the world and his investment choices. I just feel like we have the same life principles and his knowledge and ideas influence the world in a positive way. See you soon, Tony!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, Authority Magazine, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.