Last Thursday, I spent two days in Raleigh, NC, at the Internet Summit 2012 where I spoke on two panels: “Designing and Optimizing for Multiple Screens” and “Internet Entrepreneurship.”
The most exciting part of my trip was that it was the first time in 20 years that I returned to the “scene of the crime.” This is a story that very few people know about me – one that took place long before my time as COO and Co-founder of TheLadders.
In 1993, I was a freshman at the University of Colmar, in Alsace, France, studying economics and business. I quickly realized that as a Frenchman preparing for a career in business, I had to speak English fluently if I wanted to be successful. Since I am not the type of person who can master a foreign language via classroom study alone, I engineered a bold move. I decided that I was going to spend the summer working in the United States and, therefore, learn English there. Like I usually do, I approached it with a sink-or-swim mentality.
Through a student organization’s intermediary, I was able to secure a working permit for the summer. I bought a round-trip ticket between Paris and New York, but first needed to decide on a final destination. As a teenager, I had already traveled with my family to the West Coast, so I targeted the East Coast. Strategically, I decided to avoid cosmopolitan areas for fear of working with too many foreigners, hence limiting my language practice. Therefore, I ruled out New York City, Boston, Washington D.C., Miami and Atlanta. In fact, I narrowed my options to Upstate New York, Vermont or the Carolinas. Because it was the summer, I also was seeking proximity to the beach to enjoy the warm weekends. Raleigh, North Carolina seemed to match everything I was looking for. Even though it’s not right on the water, it’s only a two-hour drive to the beach. I was sold!
In June of that year, I boarded a plane from Paris to New York. When I got to the Big Apple, I spent my first night at Columbia University before jumping on a 12-hour Greyhound Bus to Raleigh. At the time, I had very little: $300 in cash, two bags and a piece of paper saying that the McDonald’s at 3710 Western Boulevard was willing to hire international students for the summer.
When the bus finally arrived in Raleigh, the first thing I did was find a place that I could afford for one night; I knew no one and had no place to go. After I checked in to the hotel, I walked to McDonald’s, letter in hand, and asked the store manager for a job. Because I needed the money to survive on my own, I was anxious to get started and requested a start date of the very next day.
I needed to improve my English before being allowed a customer-facing job at the counter, so I spent a memorable summer in the kitchen flipping burgers and pancakes. When the manager kindly offered to introduce me to other employees, one of them offered me a room to sublet for the summer. I had a job, a summer home and an opportunity to practice English every day with Americans. Life was good.
I ended up spending the whole summer there before returning to school in France. Those two months in Raleigh became a life-changing experience for me, a truly pivotal movement that later gave me the confidence at age 22 to permanently move to New York City. The rest, as they say, is history!
For the past 16 years, I have traveled extensively across the United States visiting many cities and states, but last Thursday was especially meaningful…to come back for the first time to where it all began!