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Young Change Makers: Why and How Citi VP Zoia Kozakov Is Helping To Change Our World

…On a policy level, we need to reconsider how we are accounting for the differences in experiencing the working field as men and women. Whether that means more flexible paid leave, additional flexibility for working from home or other ways that we can support women and make sure they do not drop out of the work force is going to be key in creating equality.

As part of my series about young people who are making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Zoia Kozakov.

Zoia Kozakov is a Vice President, Product Manager at Citi, working on Google Pay x Citi Plex, a banking experience grounded in consumer-first digital principles. By night, she is part-time faculty at Columbia University and BrainStation, and a non-profit organization leader (Global Marketing Lead at WIN: Women in Innovation and an advisor to BuiltByGirls, Aspire to Her, and GenerationShe). Zoia is a founder and host of the “WIN/WIN: Women in Innovation” podcast, which has had over 10,000 downloads in the first six months since its launch, listeners from over 20 countries, and features senior women innovators from companies like PepsiCo, Oracle, EY, Pantone, Poshmark, IDEO, and others.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?

Absolutely! If you’ve ever heard of “third-culture kids,” that is my upbringing in many ways. I was born in Tel Aviv, Israel, after my parents immigrated there from Moscow, Russia. When I was about a year old, they decided to move back to Moscow, so I spent seven years of my life there, speaking Russian and going to first grade in Moscow. Then, we moved back to Israel, and from eight years old and onwards, I attended the American International School in Israel, where I studied in English and met kids from 50+ nationalities. It was a unique and meaningful experience that gave me the ability to adapt to change very quickly. Moving halfway across the world to New York after completing two years in the Israeli Defense Forces Intelligence (it’s a mandatory two-term for girls in Israel) was a logical next step. Many people ask me about the challenges of being a 12-hour flight away from my family. The truth is that it feels manageable for me, and that’s because of this independent, international upbringing I had. I remember I was in the ninth grade, and I asked my mom if I could do a semester abroad in Montreal, Canada. She was a bit surprised but incredibly supportive of my expanding horizons.

Is there a particular book or organization that made a significant impact on you growing up? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

During YouTube’s early prime, around 2007, I got into watching a ton of channels, ranging from beauty and make-up videos to tech tutorials and reviews. Once, during another endless YouTube dark hole, I came across a video of Scott Harrison, the founder of “charity:water,” telling his story about a decade of partying in New York City and deciding to leave it all behind to create global access to water instead. I opened his site and found every aspect of it mesmerizing: the straightforward storytelling, how they broke down an incredibly complex issue into a set of tangible solutions, and how it was clear that every dollar made a difference. That year, I used a cupcake bake sale at my middle school to fund my first donation, and I’ve never looked back. The combination of experiences led me to into the non-profit space, and every venture or project I have taken on has followed similar principles created by Scott and his team.

How do you define “Making A Difference”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

“Making a difference” means taking action to change the present state of things for the better. For example, a story that stuck with me was when my older brother, Michael Kozakov, told me about his experience as a teacher’s assistant at the University of Toronto. In his introductory computer science class, he came across very few students that were girls. When he would speak to the girls in the class, their sentiments were always about how stupid they felt or that “computer science was too complex for them to understand.” Michael was so frustrated and saddened by this stigma that the girls themselves had around the subject matter and continuously tried to help them, even “converting” some of them to Computer Science majors. I remember thinking, “that’s the kind of difference I want to make.” While what Michael did was not a “scalable solution,” he changed the trajectory of enough people for them to be able to do the same for others, thereby creating a ripple effect and changing the state of things for the better.

He has inspired me to do the same for others. Since then, I’ve taken on a variety of mentorship opportunities and have become more and more active in the educational space through teaching and launching my podcast, “WIN/WIN: Women in Innovation.”

Ok super. Let’s now jump to the main part of our interview. You are currently leading an organization that aims to make a social impact. Can you tell us a bit about what you and your organization are trying to change in our world today?

Like so many other women in the space, I never considered what it’s like to be “the only woman in the room” or a “minority.” The reason for that? Because I didn’t know anything else, and being an “only” was the norm. When I was 18, like most Israelis, I enlisted in the Israeli army, serving in the Intelligence for two years. I remember working in an office of 14 men and one other girl, who is one of my closest friends to date. As we were building out processes and technologies for national-level security, I consistently questioned the frameworks and rules set in place. My attitude was often met with high disregard and a system that wanted obedience and not flexibility. Of course, I met many mentors along the way that helped me make the most out of the experience, and I walked away with an incredible skill set, both as a leader and an innovation professional, but the thought of “if I had just been like the others” continuously stayed with me as I continued in my trajectory.

By the time I got to grad school at Columbia University, the fact that I was an “ambitious girl” was continuously highlighted, and not entirely in a positive context. Being singled out for being career-focused made me feel like what I was doing was wrong and driven by selfish motivations. At a time where I felt misunderstood and judged, I came across WIN: Women in Innovation, which Alfia Ilicheva and Maria Potoroczyn started. I applied for a fellowship and instantly felt accepted and as if I had landed in the right place, where I was one of many. This inspired me to keep on going and continuously increase the number of women to receive the same growth opportunities in a community setting. Shortly after my fellowship, I applied and was offered the Global Marketing Lead role, which I have done for about a year and a half.

Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?

About three months into my fellowship, I remember seeing how many different aspects of the organization Maria, the WIN co-founder, ran. That was in addition to her full-time job and having children and a husband. I asked her, “How can I help?” and slowly but surely, she allowed me to take on more and more responsibility. It started with project managing the newsletter, to then overhauling the newsletter and supporting the brand refresh that the organization was running. The Global Marketing Lead role had been open for months and was geared at someone with double my experience, yet I had been doing it regardless.

Maria asked me if I’d want to do the role, and I had been shocked and surprised by how she was able to see my talent and value and ignore what was written in the job description. It was her faith and the opportunity she let me take on that proved to me that the most significant barriers in my life and career had been ones I set for myself. It suddenly clicked that to be the best at something; you just have to get started.

Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?

About three months into my fellowship, I remember seeing how many different aspects of the organization Maria, the WIN co-founder, ran. That was in addition to her full-time job and having children and a husband. I asked her, “How can I help?” and slowly but surely, she allowed me to take on more and more responsibility. It started with project managing the newsletter, to then overhauling the newsletter and supporting the brand refresh that the organization was running. The Global Marketing Lead role had been open for months and was geared at someone with double my experience, yet I had been doing it regardless.

Maria asked me if I’d want to do the role, and I had been shocked and surprised by how she was able to see my talent and value and ignore what was written in the job description. It was her faith and the opportunity she let me take on that proved to me that the most significant barriers in my life and career had been ones I set for myself. It suddenly clicked that to be the best at something; you just have to get started.

Many young people don’t know the steps to take to start a new organization. But you did. What are some of the things or steps you took to get your project started?

I always like to start with the big picture. WIN is an entirely decentralized organization that is all volunteers. That’s right, every single person, besides our Executive Director, has quite a senior day job in the innovation industry. For example, by day, I am a V.P. Product Manager at Citi, working on Google’s digital-first banking experience. I also teach at Columbia University by night as part-time faculty and am a Lead Instructor at BrainStation (an adult learning school).

Understanding the action steps required me to understand the larger problems and opportunity spaces better. I spoke to members of the organization and saw that the thing we needed most was centralization and order. I overhauled the entire marketing structure across three chapters (New York, San Francisco, and London) and instilled monthly all-hands meetings, multiple Slack channels, and collaborative ways of working. After that, we collaborated on a strategy deck to address what the team felt were gaps in the organization and our mission.

Once we had a strategy, plan, and roadmap, I led launching new initiatives, including supporting WIN’s first annual report, “WIN Pioneers,” as well as launching our very own podcast. The “WIN/WIN: Women in Innovation” podcast is listened to across 20+ countries and has over 10,000 downloads in less than a year since its inception (and no marketing dollars behind it). Start with recognizing where you are and where you want to be and build bridges to create a path to get there, where there isn’t one.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

Just a few months after stepping into the Global Marketing Lead role, I overhauled the entire marketing structure across three chapters (New York, San Francisco, and London). I launched new initiatives, including the “WIN/WIN: Women in Innovation” podcast, which is listened to across 20+ countries and has over 10,000 downloads in less than a year of its inception (and no marketing dollars behind it).

The craziest part about launching the “WIN/WIN” podcast was that it happened as a response to the pandemic and how the whole organization had to shift its model for virtual times. Before COVID, we used to have in-person programming, which was the bread and butter of what we stood for. Then, the pandemic happened, and all communications, workshops, and programming went virtual. People kept saying that they missed actual non-Zoom “coffee chats,” which was the birth of the podcast concept. In just a 30 minute minute episode, I get to ask senior women, such as the Chief Innovation Officer of Citi (Vanessa Colella) or Chief Brand Officer and co-founder of Red Antler (Emily Heyward) all about their trajectories, challenges, and innovation stories. Our listeners resonated with the format because it was just a response to what we began to hear due to the pandemic.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson or take away you learned from that?

Oh my goodness, I think when I started, all I did was make mistakes! I believe this mistake isn’t that funny, but I had a “do it all yourself” disillusionment for a little while. When you try to both strategize and execute in such a decentralized organization, inherently, you end up losing a lot “in translation.” That resulted in dropping the ball on things like programming dates, wrong links with typos, late posts (or missing posts), which was a hodgepodge situation, for sure.

For me, that came from continuously thinking that doing it yourself made whatever you were doing more meaningful, which couldn’t be further from the truth. Since coming on as Global Marketing Lead, I expanded my team from a team of two to a group of six, and that’s because I realized that the sum of the whole was more significant than any individual.

None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?

I like to joke that I come from a small immediate family but have the largest extended family out of anyone I know. One of my most meaningful mentorship experiences resulted from randomly meeting Krupa Tailor at a restaurant and bonding over both doing our masters at Columbia University. While she was already several years into working her job, I was just in my first semester and looking to try my hands at some entrepreneurial ventures. For almost three months, Krupa and I became co-founders of an e-commerce platform. Although we decided not to go on with our ideas, being able to speak through strategies and work on articulating pain points we saw in the marketplace taught me a lot about myself.

Ultimately, it showed me that while (at this moment in time) I don’t want to start for-profit ventures, it demonstrated that I have an entrepreneurial spirit that pushes me to create new concepts, ideas, and projects in the areas I am passionate about. WIN: Women in Innovation is an excellent example of this, as well as my other non-profit that I recently launched, Kozakov Foundation, to honor my late dad’s legacy and bring in more diversity into creative industries.

Without saying specific names, can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

I’ve been so lucky to be able to see many, many women rise as a result of WIN. A specific example is someone I work very closely with who I brought into the organization and trained/mentored to rise into a managerial role. Not only did she have the opportunity to take ownership of the work we were doing inside the organization and see her trajectory continuously rise, but she also could land a very impressive role in a Fortune 500 conglomerate.

I will never forget the day she called me to tell me about her interviewing/offer process and how the majority of the work she was able to showcase came from what she was doing with WIN and other opportunities associated with it.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  • On a policy level, we need to reconsider how we are accounting for the differences in experiencing the working field as men and women. Whether that means more flexible paid leave, additional flexibility for working from home or other ways that we can support women and make sure they do not drop out of the work force is going to be key in creating equality.
  • Creating more access for innovation education. Women from all over the world, whether that’s in New York City or in Turkmenistan, need to be able to learn the tools of success behind innovation. Building better futures is everyone’s job.
  • Allyship is key. What makes WIN so special is that we have men across the different touchpoints of our organization. That includes our board and advisory council, as well as integrating men into our programming and even having them join in on the podcast.

Fantastic. Here is the main question of the interview. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each).

  1. There is no “prize” or “added bonus” for doing it alone. I remember landing in New York City, taking a deep breath and envisioning myself climbing a steep mountain. I could just see the grit and hard work it would take for me to “make it.” I spent the first few years of my career not asking for help, not seeking out mentors, and not understanding the value of teamwork in someone’s achievements. The truth is that I saw the most growth in my career when I learned to say, “I am not sure how to do this, can you help?” or joining communities and groups like WIN: Women in Innovation. It is so important to remove the stigmas and ego that we are often taught about achievement and success.
  2. Pivoting a career/project is the ultimate innovation superpower, but make sure you’re either staying or going for the sake of something meaningful. My career began in luxury fashion and I had a very specific list of brands I wanted to intern with when I started. After landing the first few, it was no longer about learning from the companies and people I worked with, but, instead, about going to the “next best thing.” I accomplished a lot during those first few years, but I was never able to soak it all in because I was continuously looking ahead. It’s important to check in with yourself to ensure that whether you are staying or going, you are doing it for reasons that are about progression and growth, versus checking off a checklist or running away.
  3. You don’t have to be the smartest person in the room, just be the hardest worker. For the longest time, I got frustrated because I was not one of those people who never had to study for a test and would still get A’s. Unfortunately, this translated into my adult/working life. Any opportunities that I received were a result of hard work or simply asking to be considered. With WIN, I had to prove myself in a fellowship position to be considered for the Global Marketing Lead role and it took months of consistent performance. The best thing about hard work is that it’s in your control and you can be in control of your fate. I have learned to embrace this because, at the end of the day, I am able to look at all my accomplishments and know that I put in the work and effort to get there, and the success if a result of what I put in.
  4. It is incredibly exciting to continuously evolve — don’t tie your identity to a single job, industry, or person. Leave the labels alone and be in touch with your overarching values instead of tangible things. Often, we put ourselves into boxes and/or create labels around our personal and professional lives. Whether it is your industry or a personality trait (“the career girl”), having a label can initially feel gratifying and can create the false sense of direction. What ends up happening is that it can also stifle progress and prevent feeling like we can (and are allowed to) evolve. I remember the moment when I wanted to explore careers outside of fashion because I wasn’t feeling fulfilled. So much of the feedback I got from friends and colleagues was, “But you’re such a fashion girl!” which was neither helpful or gave me the affirmation that I needed. Since then, I’ve created my own criteria of what growth meant to me and have always been unafraid to try new things, if I felt that they were serving me. Today, I am working on building a digital-first experience Google-Citi banking experience, a path that many had questions about. It is one of the best decisions I have ever made, because I did it on my own terms.
  5. Build in opportunities for rest and reflection along the way. Living in New York has amplified my glorification of “the hustle” and “the grind.” In fact, I’d go as far as saying that how busy you are is maybe the most prominent form of currency in this city. I would be lying if I said that I didn’t fall into the trap of filling up my calendar to a place where I had to remind myself to shower or eat or even wash my hair. I now look back at those times and think that there was a better way to do it. Today, my calendar is still a wreck, and I am the notorious friend who says, “Dinner on the third Thursday in June?” but I have learned to also block off time to watch a trashy T.V. show or just hang around in my sweatpants in silence. Not only is recharging the best way to create endurance in your career, but it is also important to stop and ask yourself whether you are happy with what you’re doing, what more you could be doing, and just self-reflect to ensure that your path is filled with meaning.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

It is up to us to create the best versions of our lives. That is both on an individual level as well as making the world a better place. My non-profit and impact journey started with my desire to solve a personal problem, not seeing more women pursuing goals like mine, and has now evolved into a series of impacts that I am making because it is incredibly exciting. It would help if you didn’t have to rely on a single job or company to fulfill you in all the ways and seeking out to solve larger problems in the world can give you another outlet to make your own and others’ lives better.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. :-)

Since I was a little girl, I have always admired Hillary Rodham Clinton. I remember writing letters to her as a middle school girl running for Student Council President and quoting her in every public speech I ever gave throughout my K-12 education. It was never about politics for me, but about seeing someone who continuously fought for their beliefs, who epitomized hard work and grit, and changed the world perspective on women’s rights as human rights.

I have learned a lot through the various parts of her story — both her failures and successes alike. I hope to have the opportunity to share my gratitude with her one day and even have her on my podcast.

How can our readers follow you online?

www.linkedin.com/in/zoia-kozakov

www.womenininnovation.co/podcast

www.zoia.online

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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