My Success Story

How this Ukrainian refugee made it to the C-suite

Key Points
  • Alexandra Shapiro, then 18, came to the U.S. in 1991, escaping political turmoil in Ukraine
  • Language and cultural difficulties were among the hurdles she and her family encountered in the U.S.
  • She attributes her career success to pursuing her education and jumping into entrepreneurship.
She came to the US as a refugee with only $650, now she is a CMO at a start-up

Now sitting in the C-suite, Alexandra Shapiro is a long way from her humble start as an 18-year-old fleeing political unrest with her parents and then-5-year-old brother.

These days, she's the chief marketing officer of BigCommerce, an e-commerce platform for merchants selling on the web.

Back in 1991, the family of four only had their one-way tickets to San Francisco out of Ukraine, two bags of clothing per person, and $650 in cash, Shapiro said.

"We were coming as refugees, looking for freedom," she said. "We were full of hope for starting something new, going after our dreams and going into a country of opportunity."

But the road to finding that success was a tough one.

Alexandra Shapiro

Back home, Shapiro's father taught university-level calculus and computer science, while her mother worked as a chemical engineer.

Both initially struggled to find work in the U.S. as emigres. They were overqualified for minimum-wage jobs and didn't have sufficient proficiency in English to compete for higher-level opportunities.

Entrepreneurship was the key for the family's success in the U.S., and it also gave their young daughter a leg up when she began building her career.

"Having a small business is a great way to get your foot in in this country," Shapiro said. "The ultimate goal isn't just to make money, but to gain experience, and that can transition to another job."

Living frugally

Education was a top priority for Shapiro, but she had to help her family cobble together a living from minimum-wage jobs. She worked during the day and went to school at night, starting first at the City College of San Francisco — where classes at the time were $10 per unit.

The family kept costs low.

"If we couldn't afford a TV, we wouldn't buy a TV," said Shapiro. "When we couldn't afford china, we bought paper plates."

Alexandra Shapiro (right) with her parents in 1992.

The same logic applied to higher education: Shapiro completed her undergraduate degree at San Francisco State University and graduated without debt. As a refugee, she was eligible for federal financial aid, but the low cost of tuition helped, too.

Shapiro went on to business school at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jumping into entrepreneurship

Shapiro credits some of her career success to lessons she learned while helping her father open and run a computer shop in 1993.

"The small business helped us get on our feet, learn the language and culture and get the experience we needed," Shapiro said.

It's also where the future marketing executive honed her customer service skills.

While the shop started out with selling computer equipment and software, Shapiro and her father distinguished their business and added revenue by offering network support and courses on programs, including Microsoft Office.

Alexandra Shapiro (right), her parents and younger brother.

"You have to think carefully about your customers and put yourself in their shoes so you can proactively offer solutions for their needs," she said. "This philosophy of working hard is still very important to me; generations of immigrants tend to do that."

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After her family sold the computer shop, Shapiro made her first big career move, becoming an associate at the management consultant McKinsey & Company in 1996.

Old world values

Knowing the struggle of being an immigrant has also helped Shapiro excel in the face of adversity.

"The immigration experience gave me the drive," said Shapiro. "That's an experience where you really have to fight to win and you have to fight to put bread on the table."

Here are Shapiro's secrets for success:

Learn to rely on yourself: "Part of my philosophy is to rely on yourself and to live within your means," she said. "Find what is available to you and try to rely as much as you can on that." If you have to work through school and attend a public college in order to afford it, go for it.

Start that small business: Entrepreneurship is a great way to launch a career, especially if you're new to the country. "It's challenging and difficult," Shapiro said, "But it gives you the opportunity to learn about customs and traditions and to make money."

Get that degree: "There's a lot of debate about the value of going to college," Shapiro said. "Getting your degree is the key to long-term competitiveness in the market and success." See if you can attend school at night and work during the day.

— Video by Sophie Bearman, Qin Chen and Kyle Walsh