Job: Associate Product Manager, Optoro
Location: Washington, D.C.
Lukas and I were connected through Nick, a YoPro and friend that I interviewed earlier in the year. The two met when Nick was interning in the city for the summer and needed a place to stay. Not afraid of being open about his first few years out of school, Lukas dives into his thoughts on being a first-generation college student, learning how to manage his money, and why it's important and okay to seek out help for mental illness while adjusting to life after college. Read on for his full story.
Give us a brief background on yourself.
I grew up in a pretty rural area of Maryland (*note here that Lukas and I found out we grew up about ten minutes from each other*). I am a first generation college student, so I think that presented a whole unique set of challenges, especially when entering the professional world. I moved from Maryland to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, when I was in high school and when it came time to apply for college, I put a lot of pressure on myself to get out of South Carolina because I just really needed a change and wanted something different. I never really felt like I fit in there, so I was really set on escaping, for lack of a better word.
Where did you end up going to school?
I was pretty set on going really far away from home, but once I visited Duke, I fell in love with the school instantly. I studied environmental science because I have always had an interest in the environment, and I thought it would be something cool to study. I had a great experience there, but when it came down to the job searching process, it was really difficult for me because I think a lot of people saw their parents in more professional jobs and knew what they wanted as a result. My mom works at a hospital and my dad is a contractor, so neither of them went to a formal college or ever worked in a professional setting. Because of this, I felt like I came late to the job search process, and when a lot of my peers already had job offers lined up junior and senior year, I knew I needed to do something. Through several internship experiences, I realized the nonprofit world was not for me. Frankly, it's pretty hard to have an entry-level non-profit position where you can afford to pay your rent and pay back loans, let alone eat. It took one of my internships doing marketing at the most generic consulting firm ever to realize that it didn't really have a central mission that was kind of giving back to the world, so that was kind of a wakeup call for me. All of those internships led me to find Optoro and got me to where I am today.
Who do you work for today?
I work for Optoro, a D.C.-based tech company that essentially helps retailers figure out what to do with unsold, overstocked, returned goods, and help root them to a better home. In other words, we are a returns optimization platform. We have a couple of different channels that help with this, so it could be putting items back on the shelf or maybe it was donated, or maybe it can be recycled. Another option is selling it on a third party website, which we offer as a company. One of these e-commerce sites is BULQ.com, and it’s a way to help entrepreneurs enter into the reselling space. There are people out there who have entire careers around reselling, so they will buy unsold or overstocked goods and they'll resell. Our brand is essentially around helping people into that space. What differentiates us from other companies is that we make it easier for anyone to get into this space. We want everybody to be able to do this, whether it's a mom who wants to make extra money on the side, or even a young professional who wants to leave their career and start full-time reselling.
What does your job look like day-to-day?
I'm an associate product manager and I manage our mobile applications team, including the BULQ mobile app, which I mentioned earlier. I manage the product and then serve as the team leader, who I bring together. The way I look at it is that I help bridge the business side of the company into the tech side of the company.
What has been a hardship that you've experienced and how have you grown from it?
I think one of the first hardest things about starting as a young professional was dealing with money. I want to connect this question to being a first generation college student since it overlaps with that a ton. After leaving college and moving into the real world, I didn't have a ton of savings and what I did have in savings originally, put me through college. I was really lucky to get academic scholarships coming to college, but there were so many expenses when I got out that I wasn’t prepared for. Moving to a new city comes with that first general shock, so the expenses were surprising to me right away, which meant I had to take out more loans. Learning how to make a budget and knowing how much money to spend, especially without having a disposable income right away, was a big learning moment for me. Since it was the first time being on my own and I didn’t have anybody making my financial decisions for me, that was a big lesson for me. Finding different ways to save money in one area so you can spend more in another area has helped me find a good balance.
Another challenge I faced is around the idea of balancing my own mental health and keeping mental health in check. This was something I definitely thought about a lot in college, so in my first year out of school, I had many different stressors than when I was at Duke. You have new kinds of stressors and so you have to change the way you look at life and the way you are as an individual. Of course, in your first year of working, you want to show your employer that you're doing a great job and you want to work and get all your stuff done, but that can also make you forget to take care of yourself at times. That was a pretty big struggle of mine for the first year, where moving to a new city really overwhelmed me. Though I luckily work for a company that prioritizes a good work-life balance, you still have to figure out how to get your work done and everything else that comes with it. For me, what that looks like is making sure that I allot time in my day to work out and find things that relax me, and specifically getting away from any technology to just give myself a moment in my day to think. This experience has made me not be afraid to seek out help for mental health, and I did go through a period where I was seeing a therapist and talking about these different stressors and struggles in my life, like my anxiety. Being open with the people around you that when it comes to this kind of thing is important, because the more people I talk to about it, the more people I realize are in a similar boat as I was. Anxiety, depression, and mental health struggles are not an uncommon thing, so I think the more people we can surround ourselves with who understand this can be really, really valuable in our young professional years.
What is it like being a YoPro in D.C.?
One thing I really do appreciate about being a young professional is the time I have been able to get back on the weekends. In college, that time was always filled with studying and trying to squeeze working out or time with friends in, which was often difficult. That has been easier to manage out of school and so I'm able to really give back to myself and make time for myself. That’s one of my favorite things and it has allowed me to get involved with really fun groups of people.
What do you like to do outside of the office?
I am in an LGBT kickball league and it's so much fun. I have never really had like a large group of other queer-identifying individuals that I was a part of, so it is really the first time in my life where I have been around that community. Not only do we play kickball every Sunday, but we do a lot of volunteering and giving back to the community as well. We partner with some other really awesome LGBT organizations in the city, so it has given me an opportunity to learn more about the city I live in and expand my network. Once I found that community, I was able to find people that I am able to relate with about topics surrounding mental health, like I have mentioned already, and what it's like being a first generation college student. I didn’t have many gay friends in college, so having intersecting queer identities with these new friends has made me feel like I can relate with them on a completely different level. I realized early on in my young professional career that it is the first time we can really choose the people we get to be around, and that is pretty cool. I have started to figure out the people who I think really add a lot of value to my life and the people that are my chosen family, who are in my corner and who I can really go to in times where I am struggling. That makes me feel confident to know I have people to turn to.
Can you talk more about your community?
I came out my sophomore year of college and at that point, I didn't have a super close group of friends who were also gay. A lot of my friends were straight and really supportive of my coming out, but there are certain people who you're just going to have more common interests with. Like, I’m going to talk to my gay friends about Taylor Swift or Drag Races, and probably not with my straight ones, if we are being honest. Because of my large community of LGBT friends, I'm not afraid anymore to say which shows I watch or the people I like to listen to. I’m very okay being myself, and I think that has been a cool freedom. D.C. is also really unique because it does have a very high population of people who are LGBT. You get to live in a city where it feels okay to be yourself. I mean, things do happen and there are still cases of hate and violence, but it is much better for me than if I lived in the rural south. I feel a lot more comfortable being myself in D.C. than I ever did in South Carolina.
Are you a book or a podcast guy, and what recommendations do you have?
I am definitely a podcast guy, specifically music podcasts. My favorite podcast is from Billboard magazine and it is called the Billboard Chartbeat and they do interviews about recent music. They just came out with their 2020 Grammy predictions and another one is Rolling Stone Music Now. They have a wide variety of all different genres.
The YoPro Know's Takeaways:
– Learn how to make a budget early on
– There are many new stressors when you leave school that can impact your mental health
– Remove technology at least one hour every day to just give yourself time to think
– Don't be afraid to seek help for mental health
– The more people we can surround ourselves with who understand anxiety and depression can be really valuable in our YoPro years
– It is the first time in our lives we can really choose the people we get to be around