I’m sure you’ve heard the notion hard work pays off. A new acquaintance of mine recently said that any vision is within reach as long as someone works hard to achieve it. I’m here to share my story and try to explain that it takes much more than hard work to achieve success. My name is Max Glikman. I’m a first-generation American and an immigrant from the Soviet Union. I’m a white, cisgendered, straight male. I’m 33 years old. I earn more than 92% of my fellow Americans. I’m not a celebrity or an influencer, just a regular guy. I consider myself to have attained “the dream.” My privilege is real.
Immigrating to the United States
I was born in 1987 in Ukraine, then a part of the Soviet Union. My parents were young (23 and 25). And while life was hard in the Soviet Union (food shortages, poor health outcomes, and poverty), people made do with what they had. But even before the wall fell, my parents knew they had to leave their home in order to give me a better life. Years later, when I asked why we left, my father retells the story of how he applied to the prestigious Moscow State University only to be rejected because he was Jewish. And while he knew there were anti-Semitic policies like quotas in place to prevent Jews from advancing in Soviet society, he thought it might be different for him, a straight-A student. And after trekking two days by rail to Moscow for his interview, he went back home without even waiting for a decision. He knew right then that his fate was already sealed.
Immigrating to the United States from the Soviet Union was not easy. Many families’ requests for immigration were denied, and those that were accepted had to travel through processing stations in Austria or Italy. It often took months and was expensive. But in 1990, thanks to the organizing and lobbying by HIAS and Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ), the Lautenberg Amendment offered presumptive refugee status for Soviet Jewry. It opened the door for Soviet Jews to apply for refugee status in Moscow, and be granted permission to travel directly to the United States. Over 420,000 Soviet Jews immigrated to the United States as a result of the Lautenberg Amendment, including my family and me. And we came with nothing.
I had a pretty good childhood. Though my parents worked all the time, often at two jobs or taking classes at NYANA, I felt loved. We were lucky because I had both sets of grandparents to watch me after school, which helped my parents focus on providing for the family.
I attended New York City public schools, which are primarily zoned to serve the students who live in a particular neighborhood. My family ended up living among other Jews from the Former Soviet Union (FSU), mainly in the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Bensonhurst and Brighton Beach. Throughout primary school, many of my classmates were just like me: FSU immigrants or children of immigrants. But that was not by accident. Schools in New York were found to be the most segregated in the country, with 19 out of 32 school districts in New York City had 10% or fewer white students in 2010. A separate study found that Black and Hispanic students are much more likely to attend a school where more than 75% of students experience poverty. Educational outcomes are also varied by race and ethnicity. Data shows that for the cohort that graduated high school in June of 2019, white students had a dropout rate of just 4.0% while the dropout rate for Black and Hispanic students were 8.3% and 10.6% respectively (more than double). Additionally, 42.7% of white students graduated with an Advanced Regents diploma, while only 11.7% of Black students and 18.1% of Hispanic students did the same. I happened to graduate with an Advanced Regents diploma in 2005.
I took school seriously only because my parents were strict about it. They instilled in me a fear of getting bad grades. But there was more to it than just fear. Both of my parents graduated from secondary schools in the Soviet Union, which were often propagandist but also focused heavily on math and science. What this meant for me was that my parents valued education and understood the importance of it. Results from a longitudinal study spanning decades published in 2009 found that:
Parents’ educational level when the child was 8 years old significantly predicted educational and occupational success for the child 40 years later.
Additional data shows that the percentage of white adults with less than a high school education is 5.9%, and is twice as high at 11.9% for Black adults, and five times greater at 29.5% for Hispanic adults. Long story short, white parents have a significant impact on a child’s success.
I went to one of New York’s Specialized High Schools, Brooklyn Tech, which is one of the top STEM schools in the country. I had to take an admission test to get in. The topic of the discriminatory nature of this test has been heavily debated over the last several years as there have been plans to scrap the test. Here is a good thought piece to read in case you’re curious. Basically the understanding is that Black and Hispanic students either don’t take the test or score poorly on the test for a variety of complicated and systemic reasons, thus being shut out of the specialized schools. And the specialized schools are actually really good schools!
According to U.S. News, Brooklyn Tech students have a math proficiency of 99% and a reading proficiency of 100%. Comparatively, among the 548 high schools in New York City, the average math proficiency is only 51% and reading proficiency only 69%. Furthermore, Brooklyn Tech has a “college readiness index” of 91.2 while the rest of NYC high schools average 20.2. But the starkest data point is the racial makeup of Brooklyn Tech compared to that of the NYC public school system. Black and Hispanic students make up just 6% and 7% of the school, respectively. In NYC schools, Black students make up 25.5% of all students while Hispanic students make up 40.6%. Not only are Black and Hispanic students not able to attend school like Brooklyn Tech, the schools they do attend have much lower educational outcomes.
I scored 1140 on my SATs the first time I took them. That is slightly higher than the average score for males that year of 1049. My parents and I felt that my score was too low, especially since I wanted to attend NYU. Only about 14% of admitted students at NYU had my SAT scores. We decided that I should have a math tutor, and study for the reading portion on my own. We found a tutor who was a former math teacher back in the Soviet Union. He built a tutoring business for Russian-speaking kids like myself. He had what seemed like a good strategy and was a pretty good teacher. I learned how to do well on the test. Surely enough, the second time I took the SAT, I got a 1390, with an almost perfect math score (760). My math score certainly went up more than my reading score. I would attribute that difference directly to my having a tutor. So for about $1,000, my parents had bought me a really great SAT score. With a 1390, I was in the upper 70th percentile of all NYU applicants. And just like that, I was one of the 11.5% of applicants enrolled at NYU that year. Had it not been for that tutor, I probably would not have been accepted. And it was a big deal that I got into NYU. Just as a quick example, I would have gone to Baruch College if I didn’t attend NYU. Today, the starting salary for Baruch grads is $54,428 while that of NYU grads is $75,828, a difference of almost 40%. This translates to a difference of roughly $856,000 in potential career earnings. Even if you had to pay full tuition at NYU and no tuition at Baruch, it’s still a huge difference.
As an aside, while college is certainly not for everyone, data shows there are clear financial benefits to higher education. For example, a graduate with a college degree has an average income that is 67% higher than a high school graduate, and can earn an additional $750,000 over the course of their career compared to associate degree holders.
Not only is it hard to get into a college like NYU, it’s also very expensive to attend. Annual tuition alone at NYU is now over $51,000. And as a low-income student, even if you have the grades to get into your dream school, oftentimes you just can’t afford to go. Data shows that low-income students can’t afford to attend 95% of colleges. And even after taking into account federal student loans, 70% of colleges were still unaffordable. While federal programs like the Pell Grant can help, the annual maximum award of $6,345 is not enough. I was lucky to benefit from the Pell Grant and some scholarships from NYU. But an average scholarship for a Bachelor’s degree student in 2016 was just $4,202. And among those students who receive scholarships, nearly two-thirds are white, 11.8% are Black, and 13.6% are Hispanic. Student loan statistics are also jarring. More than two-thirds of graduates with a Bachelor’s degree have an average of almost $30,000 in student debt, which takes an average of 16 years to repay.
I lived at home to save money. I would take the subway every day. There were a small group of us “commuter students.” Almost all of us were low-income. It was hard to participate in on-campus activities, especially in the evenings. Building comradery with fellow students was just as hard. But I ended up friends with a group of Russian Jews. It was just easier to be friends with people who looked like me, and who had a very similar background to mine. That’s why representation matters. It’s important to see people like yourself wherever you go.
After college, I had about $80,000 in student debt. It took me 10 years to repay it.
I became interested in working in “business” after watching movies like Wall Street, Boiler Room, and American Psycho. But instead of learning from the error of the protagonists’ ways, I came away with the wrong lesson: I wanted to be rich, at any expense. When I applied to NYU, I specifically applied to the Stern School of Business. The school is known for minting recruits for top Wall Street firms, which is exactly where I wanted to be. While at Stern, it was heavily suggested that students take on internships. Summer internships at big firms were a must if you wanted to secure yourself a spot at one of the investment banks. These were extremely competitive internships. I recently looked back at my career portal and found that I applied to about 400 internship and job opportunities. I probably interviewed for only a dozen of them and was invited to just three internships (of which one converted to a full-time job after graduation). That’s a success rate of less than 1%. Each internship was so important, because it’s something you can talk about at your subsequent interviews.
I specifically remember the first internship that I got. It was in the finance department of a big advertising agency. Not exactly a job on Wall Street, but it was the only one I could get for my sophomore summer. I needed to take it to compete for future jobs. The guy that hired me was named Adam Goldstein. We laughed. It was jovial. He looked like me. He had a similar background as me. I wasn’t all that nervous. And I got the job. I wasn’t particularly qualified since I had no prior work experience. I was an average student. At Stern, that was a bad thing. I got the job because I had that instant connection with Adam Goldstein. Being a white, Jewish kid from Brooklyn is the reason I got that job. Representation matters.
After the internship with the ad agency, I went to intern at a hedge fund during the school year. That was the holy grail for Stern students. Hedge funds were hotter than investment banks. The woman who interviewed me, let’s call her Esther, was a Jew from Brooklyn. I had very little experience in actual finance and was still an average student. Esther hired me anyway. Did I remind her of her son, or her grandson? Probably. Again, representation matters.
A study of race and gender inequality on Wall Street shows that finance professionals in New York are more than two-thirds male (compared to 37% of minimum wage earners) and more than two-thirds white (compared to 55% of minimum wage earners). Representation matters.
I successfully got an internship with a top consulting firm for the summer of 2008, the year I started my senior year of college. Without my experience at the hedge fund, there’s no way I would’ve secured this internship. Once the summer internship was over, I was offered a job for when I graduated college the following spring. I happily accepted because, hey, I didn’t have to worry about that anymore! And while consulting wasn’t exactly what I wanted to be doing (still investment banking) I figured I’d interview during the year and have this gig as a backup.
Then, on September 15th, 2008, Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy. I remember that day like I remember 9/11. It was the first week of my senior year of business school. I was in my Debt Instruments class, sitting next to all my Russian friends. And the professor turned on the news, and we all watched in despair. It wasn’t just about Lehman Brothers though, it was about what it represented and what ensued afterwards. Six million jobs were lost, and unemployment rose to almost 10%. Home foreclosures jumped 81% in 2008. Over 2.3 million households lost their homes. Heartbreaking stories of foreclosures began to grow. But why? Why did this all happen?
It all happened because of greed and bad public policy. Mortgage lenders decided they wanted to profit from rising home prices, and started offering mortgages to families who couldn’t afford them. These subprime mortgages were then collectively sold off as mortgage-backed securities to larger financial institutions, who bought them with the intension of making a quick profit. However, when housing prices began to fall because of the excess supply of new homes across the country, borrowers found themselves underwater when their homes were valued less than their mortgages. Some folks just walked away from their homes. Others couldn’t afford their mortgages anymore because their interest rates reset. A study found that Black and Hispanic homeowners were 33% more likely to get high-priced subprime mortgages than white homeowners, with the same credit scores. With the same credit scores. Wow.
The crisis underscored for me that both Wall Street and some politicians were plain toxic.
My job as a consultant was safe because the industry needed to unwind the failed financial institutions. I ended up working on the AIG restructuring. It was on that job that I saw what disgusted me the most: financial institutions working to get back to their greedy ways. No lessons were learned. No remorse was shown. No one was jailed. I was done. And so I quit.
I wrote all of this to say: success is not just about hard work. It’s also about the color of your skin. It’s also about your gender. It’s also about who you love. It’s also about where you live. It’s also about what schools you go to. It’s also about your family. It’s also about how much money you have. It’s also about representation.
It’s easier to succeed if you’re white. It’s easier to succeed if you’re male. It’s easier to succeed if you’re straight. It’s easier to succeed if you live in a resource-rich neighborhood. It’s easier to succeed if you attend high-performing schools. It’s easier to succeed if your parents had a formal education. It’s easier to succeed if you can afford tutors. It’s easier to succeed if you see people like yourself in the jobs you want. It’s easier to succeed if you’re hired by folks who have a similar background as yours.
Yes, working hard is important. But hard work alone is not enough. Especially if you’re Black, or Hispanic, or a woman, or queer, or live in an underinvested in neighborhood, or attend poorly-performing schools, or can’t afford to go to the college you want, or can’t get a job interview because of your name, or can’t land a job because those interviewing you don’t share anything in common with you. It all adds up.
So, let’s do away with the mantra that all you need is hard work. Let’s look deeper and tackle the systemic issues that undermine kids of color, and make it harder for them to succeed. If we really want to give everyone equal opportunity, we still have a lot of work to do. Oh, and go vote.