Inside the life of a sex worker living in Russia

After spending a month traversing Russia through the Trans-Siberian railway, I finally arrive in St. Petersburg. Though fatigued and slightly restless from being confined on a train for a long period of time, I feel my energy renewed by the bustling chatter and music throughout the city. As soon as I check-in to my hotel, I am lured back out by the jazzy tunes lingering faintly in the distance. I may be weary but oh, how I crave a live performance right now.

Shortly after 10 P.M., I hop onto the 49 bus to do what I love most in a new city — wander aimlessly through its public transportation, free to step off anytime when something piques my interest.

I follow the faint jazz, and about a half mile in, the tunes grow more and more pronounced. I step off the bus and find myself in front of the Hat Bar, where a mid-aged man passionately plays his saxophone. Such talent, I think as I walk in and find a seat at the bar.

To my right is a woman, in her late twenties perhaps. She wears bright red lipstick and dark eye makeup. Her cheekbones are flushed and professionally contoured. Her black v-neck top outlines her full breasts and her dark, tight skirt that barely reaches her knee hugs her curvy figure. I give her a half smile and a slight nod of acknowledgment, almost embarrassed by how unkempt I look in my oversized denim top and stained sweatpants.

Unprompted, she turns to me: “Where are you from?” Her voice is resounding and deep.

“California. And yourself?” I ask, a bit taken back by her almost-perfect pronunciation. I had spent the past month without saying a full English sentence.

“All over,” she chuckles and throws her head back, gazing longingly at the ceiling,

“Wherever the most interesting men are.” She locks eyes with me again. “Care to join me for a cosmopolitan?”

And that’s how our conversation began. Alaina* was born in Belarus moved to the U.S. at a young age. She has been a sex worker since she was 20 years old and has evolved this career for the past decade.

“The biggest misconception about sex workers is that we sleep with everyone,” she whispers to me. “But that’s not true — I have the upper hand.” There is a betting process with men, and when a client presents himself, she lays her terms and conditions and asks for details and references. She calls the listed reference for more insight, making sure the client is reliable and respectable. Sometimes the trade of information can take many cycles.

“Why did you choose this profession?” I ask, curious as to what leads someone to pursue sex work as a career.

“How else does someone pay for college,” she scoffs. Lack of ability to fund her education forced her to earn money through phone sex and web cam favors, and later, porn and prostitution.

“It wasn’t easy at times. I was naive, I faced brutal challenges and a lot of emotional abuse.”

Alaina married someone she met online, but the marriage lasted only three years. Sex work has completely taken away her ability to feel intimately close to someone. “I will never be okay with a committed relationship,” she sighs.

“So why did you come to Russia? Isn’t prostitution illegal here?” I inquire. I had read that prostitution had been banned during the Soviet times.

She looks at me seriously, “Honey, I am not a prostitute here. I’m on vacation. I live in Montreal now. Would you care for another drink? On me.” I join her for a second cosmopolitan. “When you see girls with baileys on-the-rocks, you know they are fishing. In Saint Petersburg, half the women are prostitutes. There’s no other jobs for them”.

“How do they get around then?”

Alaina flashes a wad of cash. “That’s how. Always have them around in case the police stops you. Business is business. We have to live somehow.”

She’s been in Russia for two months and has not yet determined when she will return to Montreal. “I like it here. St. Petersburg has flavor to it. I’ve lived in three different neighborhoods already.” She turns to me and winks. “If you want to make some money, a lot of money, I can hook you up now.”

I let out a nervous laugh and quickly change the subject. “How do you even reach your clients?”

Similar to many other prostitutes, Alaina started off by offering services on Craigslist. Soon after, she created a Twitter account that gained tens of thousands of followers. Most of her clients nowadays find her through Twitter. “I gained confidence after using my real name,” she tells me. “The most important rule to success is to know yourself and your own character, and dial it up to the max.”

She describes her character as dominant and peculiar. For example, Alaina appeals to men who desire a naturally curvy body and a full bush. She learned after her phone sex experience that her comparative advantage lies in her mannerism and conversation skills. This led her to create her own sex consulting business, where she taught other sex workers how to speak in a manner that is domineering yet enticing and irresistible. “I charged $100 an hour. You can look on Rolling Stones and Vice. They wrote about me.”

“So what are types of sex workers, and how do you classify yourself now?”

“There are many different types of sex workers,” she answers. There are the street sweepers, who wander the streets waiting for clients to sweep them up. Usually, they’re forced into prostitution because of financial reasons. Then there are the brothels, where a profit-sharing model is in place. Men choose from a line of women and are quoted a price. Women get to keep 50% of the payment but must get tested every two weeks. At her best, Alaina is considered a mid-elite. They earn slightly more than the other two types and usually have recurring clients. At the top of the totem pole are the elites. These women are beautiful model-figures who have invested hundreds of thousands on plastic surgery. They’re classy and understand how to talk to men, which also explains why many of them are escorts for politicians, moguls, and tech billionaires.

Alaina is now working on how to make her clients come back. “It’s a business. I need to develop empathy so they keep coming.” When asked how she achieves this, she mentions to play it nice at first, and then gradually dial up the aggressiveness and domineering qualities. “The men like it, and they will come back for more.”

Couples seek her out as well. “Sometimes, the husband knows his wife is cheating on him, and so he finds someone else to add to their relationship.” Her eyes widen, “Other men pursue trophy wives and enjoy watching them have sex with other men since they know they are still in control.” She laughs. “Can you imagine? Such power hungry men.” The third type of couples is less interesting. “Sometimes a couple wants to extend their relationship and find a prostitute. They will house and purchase anything the prostitute wants, as long as emotional and sexual engagement continues.”

She calls over the bartender: “two more cosmopolitans please!” Her attention goes back to me, and I wonder if she’s had too much to drink.

“My last client spent $45k and took me on this one month paradise resort in Jamaica. It’s hedonism. He wants to be in a relationship with me but that’s not what I want.” She leans a little closer. “There’s something truly powerful about getting paid to have sex. It is sexy.” In her words, she satisfies the men who are rotting, who are fulfilling their sexuality bucket list, who lack attraction physically and sexually… “and I get paid more than enough.”

I wonder how much of what she’s telling me is true. Maybe it’s the cosmopolitans that have bolstered her storytelling skills, but maybe this is simply her life.

She puts her face in mine, “the women to your left, she’s an escort. You can tell by the nails, because men pay attention to the details.” She’s looks down at hers — perfectly curved and painted with a layer of fake, glossy, neon-yellow polish. “And I can also tell she’s eavesdropping on our conversation.”

With delight, she calls over the bartender, “Two more cosmos, pazhalsta!”

*name has been changed

What I learned from working within data science, product, strategy, and growth

This post is not meant for those looking to enter engineering or people management roles.

Credit: Jared from Silicon Valley — HBO When you click into the “open roles” tab on a tech company job page, you may at first be overwhelmed by the sheer number of niche positions. Which one should you apply to? Or should you simply apply to all of them and see which ones extend an interview? Maybe you somehow know you want to go into, let’s say, product. But is this the right role for you?

Over the past few years, I worked across both the business and product sides of tech, which gave me a holistic view of how these teams interact with each other and what the benefits are for each. I’ve had countless phone calls with classmates, colleagues, friends and acquaintances who have reached out asking about which role they should choose or whether they would enjoy working on a certain team.

It’s stressful thinking about what job to pursue — who wants to get stuck in role they don’t like?

These conversations, as well as my personal feedback from past managers and mentors, sparked me to share my insights such that others can benefit as well. When I started my senior year in college, I was constantly irritated thinking about which roles to apply to. Most of my classmates flocked to finance and consulting jobs, which never really appealed to me. The e-commerce venture I had started in college renewed my entrepreneurial spirit, and I was determined to get a job in tech. Since many of my peers didn’t share the same sentiment, there was few people I could go to for advice.

I went into the industry blind. At that time, I optimized for acquiring as many diverse skillsets as possible to start my own venture again (which I would realize later is not my goal).

Over four years, I would work as a data scientist, a product manager, a business strategy associate, and a growth manager (on both the product and marketing sides). I joined two companies pre-IPO (Dropbox and Lyft) and witnessed both companies change after the public offering. I’ve taken on a new role almost every year, which is not very common within tech, and it taught me a lot about the functions of each role, as well as its merits and limitations.

Cost / Benefit of Roles

Keep in mind that roles are unique to that company, and each company is different. For example, a growth position at Lyft may not operate the same as a growth position at Facebook, and a growth position at a startup is like a foreign planet compared to the other two.

Before you decide to take on a role, it’s important to ask the hiring manager which projects and/or products you would be held responsible for. What you own inside a company will vastly influence your experience. Here I’ve summarized the high-level merits, limitations, and skills gained for four roles across business and product. It’s a reflection of my personal take on the roles, and hence, you should also form your own judgement based on your preferences.

Business Strategy & Ops

  • You would enjoy the role if you like…frameworks, writing docs, alignment meetings, presentations, consulting, constant people interaction, senior-level and cross-org exposure

  • You would not enjoy the role if you prefer to…execute on any part of the strategy, specialize in function-related skills, have ownership within the company

Product Management

  • You would enjoy the role if you like…writing docs, alignment meetings, high responsibility and pressure, constant people interaction, context switching, senior-level exposure

  • You would not enjoy the role if you prefer to…specialize in function-related skills, actually build out the product features, gain cross-org experience at the start (you will once you become a senior PM)

Data Science

  • You would enjoy the role if you like…stats, modeling, numbers, large blocks of problem-solving

  • You would not enjoy the role if you prefer to…lead cross-functional teams, be exposed to senior leadership, gain cross-org experience

Growth Product

  • You would enjoy the role if you like…writing docs, alignment meetings, high responsibility, constant people interaction, context switching, senior-level exposure, fast-paced environments

  • You would not enjoy the role if you prefer to…specialize in function-related skills, work on core products that are not growth-related, diversify product intuition, gain cross-org experience at the start

Growth Marketing

  • You would enjoy the role if you like…writing docs, sending emails, alignment meetings, rapid experimentation, constant people interaction, context switching, senior-level exposure, behavioral economics, marketing

  • You would not enjoy the role if you want to…work on building products, specialize in function-related skills, have a dedicated team of designers and engineers

Key takeaways from my experience

  1. Data is the foundation for practically every decision and subsequent experiment. Whether I was working product, growth, or strategy, I had to frequently leverage my SQL knowledge and data visualization skills to align with cross-functional teams, influence leadership, and evaluate the experiment efficacy.

  2. Working in product can be rewarding, but beware. As a product manager, you are like a mini entrepreneur with your own team of designers, engineers, scientists to help fulfill a vision. If you’re working on an early stage product, it can be exciting to start from scratch and determine product-market fit, talk to users, and continuously iterate on the MVP; but if you’re working on a fairly established product, you may find yourself limited to optimization features and tactics.

  3. Business strategy & ops provides a holistic view of many different organizations within the company and also exposes you to senior leadership. For example, at Dropbox, I worked closely with the Head of Product, COO, and Chief Customer Officer on numerous high-level projects. However, you do not have ownership of products and/or metricsnor can you execute on the strategies.

Evaluating the company

  1. If you have a company you want to work for, first evaluate the core focuses of the company. If product robustness and experience is the centerpiece, maybe the product team would be good to join; if the company is in the middle of hyper-growth, then the growth team would be a good option. Understanding which stage the company is in and what they value will help you get a sense of the amount of influence, impact, and growth opportunities your role will have.

  2. If you want to work on a startup in the future, there is no better way to learn how to start a company than to start it yourself. If you’re still unsure and want industry experience, then two areas I would look at are strategy roles (get exposed to high-level thinking and see how everything inside a company works) and product roles (build our your own product with a team). However, don’t succumb to herd mentality and start a company just because. Think carefully about what you’re passionate about and what the long-term vision will be.

  3. The role you choose does matter for your next job. So if you have something in mind as to where you want to end up, prioritize interviewing for roles that inch you closer to that team. Especially if you’re looking to switch companies and roles, recruiters are especially keen on your current role and experience level.

So how do you approach role-changing?

Finding the best fit may take time, and it’s okay to engage in some trial and error. Even after four roles (or five, if you count my time working on economics research within tech), I am still on a quest to find the role that I want to dedicate the next few decades towards. But so far, I’m enjoying the learning journey across different teams and am very grateful for the opportunity to do so.

There is no wrong role — every role will teach you something new, and as cliche as this sounds, it’s the learning process (about the job and yourself) that really matters. Depending on who you are, here’s some recommendations on how to approach roles:

If you are…

a) A college grad looking to enter tech

  • Jobs in tech can be limiting for new grads, but there are ways to get around it. First, look at new grad programs you can apply to, such as Google APMGoogle APMMFacebook RPMDropbox New Grad PM ProgramLyft APMUber APMLinkedIn Business Leadership ProgramLinkedIn APM. Most large companies offer some sort of new grad rotation. I would check their websites directly for opportunities.

  • Optimize for skills and network rather than role. Your career is very very long, so no need to worry if you don’t get your first choice company or the role you want. Focus on acquiring a strong analytical foundation early on in your career; this is will allow you to succeed in many other roles that you pursue in the future.

  • If you have a startup idea, work on it. No better way to learn than to just do it yourself. If you know you want to go into product but lack the background necessary for it, then look at joining other roles inside the company first, and then switch into product after 1–2 years.

  • You can also cold e-mail startups and smaller companies. It’s a great way to increase your optionality, and many teams are thirsting for talent and an extra helping hand.

b) Looking to switch from another industry into tech

  • Leverage the skills you acquired from your current industry and first find the roles that best encapsulates those skills. Think about getting your foot in the door and then switching roles once you’re inside.

  • Search within your network to get a referral to a role. Your chances of getting an interview is much higher that way.

Here are some examples of what my colleagues in other industries have switched from:

  • Consulting → product management, business strategy and ops, growth product / marketing

  • Finance → corporate development, financial planning & analysis (FP&A)

  • Analyst somewhere → data science, product / data analytics, FP&A

  • Startups → product management, growth product / marketing

  • Marketing → growth marketing, brand marketing, product marketing

  • Architecture → product design

c) Looking to switch roles within tech

  • Switching within companies: this is relatively easier to do. If you have a role in mind that you want to switch into, start talking to people on the team to see if there are opportunities to work on a small project with them alongside your work. Speak to your manager and see if he/she can make an introduction or help you will the transition. Your manager’s responsibility is to ensure your career success, whether that on your current team or elsewhere, but if you’re uncomfortable talking to your manager, that’s also understandable. Start by getting the other team to vouch for you.

  • Switching between companies: this may be a bit harder to do, but not out of reach. You won’t have the opportunity to work on a project with the team you’re looking to switch into, and hence you’ll need to rely on the interview process. I’d recommend getting a referral and switching into a role that is more analogous to the other (e.g., data science to business strategy, analytics to growth)

  • Keep in mind if you are switchings roles, you may need to down-level. If you hare a Level 5 business strategist, you may down-level to a Level 4 product manager.

I’m only speaking to the roles I’ve personally worked in. There are plenty of other roles within tech that not covered in this post (e.g., FP&A, product design, product marketing, user research, partnerships, and so forth).

Good luck, and hopefully this adds a bit of color to your role search!

A city once lit up by restaurants, music, and endless dancing

View from my balcony — Palermo, Buenos Aires

Today marks my one month in Buenos Aires, a city famous for its lively culture and ubiquitous music. But lately, it’s become a ghost town. Argentina was the first country in Latin America to shut down its economy in response to the coronavirus disease. In a letter to the Argentinian people, President Alberto Fernández mentioned it to be “an exceptional decision for exceptional times.” Forty-five million residents were ordered to stay home, with slight flexibility for those shopping for essential supplies or seeking medical attention.

I arrived in Buenos Aires the day before the government imposed a quarantine for foreigners and a few days before they issued a country-wide lockdown. Before the quarantine, lines for restaurants wrapped around the corner, servers bustled in and out, carrying bottles of Malbec wine and plates of flank steak with chimichurri sauce. The smell of fresh garlic and lightly fried pastries permeated the summer air, luring in anyone who came within its vicinity. Friends greeted each other with pecks on the cheek before entering the local bar. Bright lights hung like Christmas decorations through the neighborhood, lighting up the cobblestone streets where children ran in circles whilst playing their own version of tag.

This world has seemingly vanished.

My quaint, urban balcony overlooks a windy strip of residential buildings at the heart of Palermo, a trendy neighborhood in Buenos Aires. On the balcony a few floors down to my left, I catch a young girl no older than seven pushing her stroller back and forth in the tiny, confined space as if she’s rocking a baby to sleep. On the rooftop a couple blocks down, I glimpse a man lightly jogging before he turns the corner and disappears. Across from his roof is a woman gripping the edge of the glass rail, gazing longingly into the distance. It’s an eerily quiet Saturday afternoon. Police cars patrol the vacant streets, ready to pounce at any behavior that appears abnormal.

For the first 14 days, I was under the close watch of the building security guard; hence, my only glimpse of the outside world was via my balcony. Once, the city police banged on my door at 2 a.m. requesting my passport and signature on a stack of Spanish papers which I could not understand. I assumed it must be something related to not leaving during the quarantine. Apparently, they were going door to door to track down all foreigners in the city.

After two weeks of utter solitude and limited food varieties, I was finally permitted to personally shop for groceries rather than ordering from Rappi or PedidosYa, the local food delivery apps. I donned my mask and gloves, excited to see my neighborhood and take back a large loaf of freshly baked bread.

But the outside world was no different than the view from my balcony. Outdoor dining was replaced by shuttered doors; normally vibrant streets were instead dark, muted, and lifeless. I had imagined my days hidden in hip coffee shops writing delightful screenplays and my evenings filled with folklore music, live tango shows, and glass after glass of the famed Malbecs. I dreamt of weekends on a ferry towards Uruguay, in a winery in Mendoza, and on a bus towards the Andes to Santiago. Instead, I would spend my days discovering which grocery stores offered the best selection of chocolate, a dietary staple for me during these anxious times.

Aside from grocery stores like Disco, Jumbo, and a few local Chinos, I haven’t been able to see anything of Palermo, let alone the broader country. International and domestic travel have become vastly limited. Several times a week, I would receive an email from the U.S. Embassy informing me of limited flights home: “If you need to leave Argentina, you should strongly consider booking this flight, otherwise you should be prepared to remain abroad for an indefinite period.” I refuse to admit to myself that I may leave Argentina without ever having indulged in its culture.

So I remain. The days pass by one by one, and after the third week, they start to blur together. I learned a few lines of Spanish so I can order a coffee-to-go from an elderly man at a local cafe a few streets down. He had blocked his doorway with a wooden table, which was half occupied with packs of sugar, stirring sticks, and coffee lids. “So weird,” he once said to me, with a shaky smile. I could see the agony in his eyes. His business no doubt suffered from the shut down, and he had very few revenue options aside from offering delivery services. Similar to all the other restaurant owners on the street, he wrote out the lunch menu on a large outdoor chalkboard and made delivery flyers readily available for each passerby.

Yesterday, I walked to the local Chinatown to pick up condiments. I’d been craving chili oil and fresh fish, which were nowhere to be found in the local grocery stores. To avoid attracting attention to my Asian features, I put on a beret along with my mask and gloves. I had been reading about racism towards Chinese people running rampant across the world and thought it was well worth taking precautions, especially since I have barely seen any Chinese residents in Buenos Aires.

On my route, I counted only a handful of people outside — it was hard to imagine that I was strolling through one of the largest cities in Latin America. Perhaps one-third of them, usually women or the elderly, wore masks and gloves. They all made sure to maintain a distance of two meters or more. Fruit vendors lounge outside their stand, waiting for a shopper to come by. I caught sight of a few elderly women conversing on separate balconies. It made me wonder whether they did that during normal times. No one dared greet each other with a kiss on the cheek, which was once the norm in this culture. Cars were a rare sight; instead, the streets lined with bikers and motorcyclists delivering supplies, groceries, and food. I passed a metro station, its gates completely shut. A few buses still operated, but most of the ones that drove by were entirely empty.

The city was enclosed in an apocalyptic aura, as if we were all starring in a Black Mirror episode.

I retreat to my balcony, the only place where I can people-watch without feeling the police breathing down my neck. The man has stopped jogging and started a series of squats. I shift my gaze downwards. A lady on the 8th floor of a parallel building has just finished her sunbathe; next door, another woman hangs up her freshly laundered towels to dry. Time passes idly. I hear rave music coming from the right side — a one person party? More people step out on their balconies.

It’s now 9pm. Right on the dot, the silent neighborhood explodes into cheers and applauses thanking the country’s medical staff, who have been working tirelessly day and night. I stand up and join them. This daily expression of gratitude is the only time I feel the city come alive.

As an outsider, I cannot possibly fathom how difficult this lockdown has been on the country and its people, especially since Argentina was already deep in a recession pre-pandemic, but I highly respect President Fernández for shutting down the economy long before other Latin American countries such as Brazil and Mexico, and even before some states in U.S. did. It takes a great deal of resolve, courage, and responsibility to impose such harsh measures during a time of economic distress, a deed neighboring countries initially refused to act on in fear of complete economic collapse. He understood the harrowing risks of uncontrolled infection growth in a vulnerable region where the healthcare system, ventilator supply, and sanitary conditions are in question.

Argentina has set an example for not just the rest of Latin America, but also the U.S., by trusting in science, learning from Italy’s missteps, and acting early. As of April 12, 2020, the World Health Organization reported ~2K cases of coronavirus in Argentina, which is half of Mexico’s ~4K and significantly lower than its neighbor, Brazil, at ~20K. 

The lockdown comes at the burden of the population, but in Buenos Aires at least, its citizens are trying, albeit begrudgingly, to abide by the isolation requirements, even if it means temporarily setting aside their cultural norms.

Strange and unprecedented times, indeed.