Jun. 26 2018
Julia Steyn is the Vice President of Urban Mobility at Maven, a company powered by General Motors. Maven is a modern car-sharing service, where you can rent a vehicle by the hour at an extremely affordable price. They offer the newest cars with the latest tech and all you have to do is return it when you’re done. Julia has been in New York for over 15 years now (you can tell by her keen sense of style) but she is originally from Russia. That’s where she was living when she was given the opportunity to move to the United States on a full scholarship through the Gorbachev Exchange program for piano.
“They picked kids from all over Russia to go to the United States. So, we were some of those ambassadors. I have played piano since an early age and in one of the showcases, somebody recorded me. So when we got back, the President of Interlochen Arts Academy up in Michigan found me through the embassy and offered a full scholarship for me to come.”
She ended up going to Oberlin for college on a full scholarship. As both a college and conservatory, Julia wasn’t used to students being able to get two degrees, as it is much less common in Russia to study more than one concentration. The Russia-native ended up at the Economics department because it was the closest thing to math she could think of.
“It was interesting because basically, it was all kinds of boys and me, but that’s an opportunity that I wouldn’t have had anywhere else so I’m very grateful to the U.S. system of education to have that chance during my college years to try more things.”
After finishing school, she decided to take an unorthodox route for her chosen studies and went to Chicago to interview for jobs.
“That was pretty much the only thing that I did. I didn’t really have a resume. There was nothing really to put on a resume. Oh, I played the piano since I was three. I worked in a dining hall because I didn’t have any money.”
Unorthodox is just what got Julia to where she is today. As a graduate, she only wanted to work for Goldman Sachs and that is the only place she sent her resume. People thought she was crazy for doing that. But it worked. She started a career in Investment Banking and slept under her desk every night. After interning for Goldman at the downturn of Wall Street, she was one of the few interns that were offered a full-time job.
“I never had a Plan B in my career, which I guess is sort of a bizarre thing to say. It was always a high-risk proposition. I showed up in America with no real Plan B for education and no Plan B for life.”
Julia found that the lack of planning was actually a successful and motivating approach to succeed in her career. She sought out the tough bosses because she believed that those were the mentors that would get her to where she wanted to be.
“I like to work with people who are incredibly driven and get results. I really enjoy working for assholes because it’s what you get. They push you really hard. They criticize you and that brings the best out of what you can do. And to me, that was always stimulating. So I always seek out people who are very challenging.”
So why Maven?
J: Well, I’ll be very transparent. I never aspired to run a startup. The reason I wanted to come was, first of all, GM is a big organization that impacts a lot of people in very different ways. It’s very global. When I came to corporate development, it didn’t exist. So our work has transferred a lot of change over the years that I’ve been at GM and now I’m going on year six.
What do you look for when hiring someone to add to your team? How do you identify their drive from a first impression?
J: I want to hear what a person is really passionate about and if they actually acted on this passion and achieved something with it. You don’t have to be a world-class athlete, but if you’re passionate about something and you did something in your career or your life to pursue it, and created some excellence in some way–I don’t care what it is– I think that’s wonderful. Another thing is enthusiasm because you can teach people anything, you can teach a person to cook and you can teach a person to drive a car but if they’re not willing, then you can’t. So I kind of look for inherent passions and the drive to achieve.”
On what she’d tell her 25-year-old self…
J: I would say to my 25-year-old self, don’t be so nervous about standing out. It’s okay to stand out in whichever profound way you do, whether it’s your passions, your ideas, your dreams, it’s okay–because it’s much harder to do it when you’re 45. When you’re 25, that’s the time to really let it shine and follow it because then you have time to build what you dream of.
On being a woman and succeeding in male-dominated work environments…
J: The best advice I have is don’t pay attention to it, do what you are supposed to do. I would always look for more ways to contribute, not in a disruptive way, but if you have an opinion just bloody say what you are thinking and it’s amazing how folks are receptive to input and good ideas. Nobody pays attention to gender if you add value.
On her best advice for managing a team and creating a successful environment…
J: Have diversity and allow for that space because once that space doesn’t exist, then you don’t get anything useful. As a leader, the only thing you need to do is to give oxygen, be enthusiastic and fuel that sort of fire.
On the biggest change since she started her career…
J: I think more than ever, the cycle of change is really constant and much faster, so it’s almost kind of hard to be an apprentice in anything because there is no defined business model for the next hundred years. You’re going to have to keep inventing the new way.
On how to disrupt an industry…
J: The reason any corporation exists is to fill a human need. And so if the human needs are changing and you are not changing with what the human needs are, then by definition, you are going to be disrupted. But it’s about what insight from the human being you’re fulfilling and asking, what is the purpose of your existence? If you’re focusing on that, people will give you money gladly, and not even think twice about it.