Fashion can be an alluring industry for a young woman attracted to its many glamorous and creative aspects. But like many things in life, in landing what might seem to be a dream job, the expectation often contrasts with reality.
Sandra Reales says that, even at a young age, she was fascinated by fast fashion Spanish retailer Zara, its business model, and its leadership. Her interest led her to fashion-related extracurricular activities ranging from organizing fashion school shows to taking on a marketing position with a fashion student organization during her undergraduate studies. Eventually, she even wrote her master’s thesis on circularity in the fast fashion industry. For years, she decided that Zara would be her employment target and worked toward that end.
Her focus paid off, and she got the job as the company’s International Product Manager. But that was only the beginning of her career journey, because the experience unexpectedly spurred her to change direction.
Feeling disconnected working in the company’s isolated small village headquarters in the north of Spain, Reales was overcome by a desire to switch gears.
“It was very far from any large city. I couldn’t see myself there in the long term. I wanted to be in a more metropolitan place,” she says.
Having started her position directly after completing her M.S. in Global Commerce at McIntire—along with an M.S. in Global Strategic Management from Esade Business School and a certificate in International Business from Lingnan (University) College at Sun Yat-sen University—Reales, a Brussels, Belgium resident had been living and learning in Charlottesville, Barcelona, Spain, and Guangzhou, China.
As one of the few international employees working for a company that regularly prioritizes recruiting locals over international candidates, she missed the camaraderie of being around people from across the world and the exciting myriad of experiences and cultures that define the graduate program.
She turned to strategic consulting, which she says closely replicates all that she learned and enjoyed from her graduate studies.
Now as an Associate with global strategy consulting firm Strategy&, part of the PwC network, in Brussels, Reales is putting her skill set to good use, and relishing the challenges that come with the role.
We recently spoke to her about those on-the-job challenges, how studying global commerce benefited her, and what from that rich learning experience continues to inform her as she advances in her career.
What do you like most about what you’re doing now?
What I like most about strategy consulting is the pace of both working and learning. Unlike management consulting projects, which can last up to two years, strategic consulting projects last between three and six months. This means that for a short period of time, you have to deliver a great amount of high-quality work. Very often, the job is quite challenging. In those moments, I have to step back, structure my thoughts, and analyze the problem from other perspectives.
Consulting really pushes you to another level both mentally, thinking about solutions, and physically, due to the travel and many working hours required. In the end, it is very gratifying and allows you to build experience and connections very fast.
As a consultant, you also always have to make sure you keep yourself informed of the economy, the news, and trends from all industries and countries to better understand your client’s business. This constant development of business and global acumen is something I greatly enjoy.
What’s been the single most challenging experience you’ve had since starting with Strategy&?
Unlike other Strategy& offices, which have more than 500 employees, the Belgian office was created only three years ago, and we are a team of only 20 people. As a result, there is less hierarchy, and you have to take on more responsibility, including building relationships with clients and managing their expectations. This is something usually requested in more senior profiles in other offices and companies.
As a woman, with less than two years of experience, having to face C-level executives—most of the time men with many years of experience, I found it to be very intimidating and challenging. In the beginning, I struggled to make myself heard and valued. I had to go the extra mile to prove to the client that I was able to support them in the problem-solving process.
Let’s talk about your experience in McIntire’s M.S. in Global Commerce Program. Why did you decide to enroll in the program, and why did you think it would be a good fit for you?
Throughout my internships, I realized that, while the theoretical classes of my bachelor’s degree provided a good basis to understand how a business works, they did not prepare me for the working environment. I was looking for a master’s program that would provide me with more hands-on knowledge and make me a better employee. I have also always been surrounded by international people throughout my education. Finally, I felt like all of my friends had a similar CV to me and felt the need to stand out more during interviews to make my profile more interesting to employers.
What are some specific aspects of learning at UVA McIntire, Esade, and Lingnan that might not be readily apparent—perhaps details known only by someone who has gone through the three-school program?
I believe many of the alumni would agree that this program teaches you more outside the classroom than inside.
Despite assignments and deadlines being numerous and requiring many hours of work, I believe you learn more from spending the entire year surrounded by the same 60 people from different cultures. Throughout the year, you become increasingly aware about differences in personality, communication, working styles, and what is accepted or not in each culture. You might be a person who works better when deadlines are close and you are under pressure, but other people might not be able to work that way. Together, you have to find a middle ground, manage conflicts, and understand each other’s strength to form a better team.
Also, the fact that you have to create new routines in every new country you move to is challenging. This constant need for adaptation, discovery, and learning teaches you to be resilient and accept differences. The collaboration between students from different continents was definitely another strong point of this master. In each country, the students from that country made sure to organize trips and events so that the foreign students could fully enjoy the culture.
The program took you to three different continents: What were the most memorable experiences you had during the year you spent studying global commerce?
Looking back at the master’s program, I believe it was the most fulfilling experience of my life. I got to meet incredible professors who were very inspirational and of great support in providing advice for my career. I created long-lasting relationships with people from all three continents. I participated in solving business cases, creating presentations for well-known companies, and took part in business simulations, all of which made learning more hands-on and applicable beyond the theoretical.
The international exposure was another highlight. I believe we were living at the right moment in each country to experience local relevant cultural events. We started in the United States, just in time for Halloween and Thanksgiving, moved to China and experienced Chinese New Year, and ended in Barcelona, where summer was about to start, allowing us to take part in festivals and enjoy beach volleyball games. Thinking back on all of these memories, I struggle to realize they all took place in one single year!
What from the program stays with you in your career? What do you continue to draw from it?
During our time in Barcelona, we took part in a business simulation game in which the class was divided into groups of five, each representing a company in a specific market. After agreeing on each team member’s positions in the company, we were required to make C-level decisions on procurement, pricing, marketing, and localization, while facing economic and political challenges from the real world. This project was the biggest learning experience for me, as it demanded a wide spectrum of skills, from data analysis to negotiation skills, as well as fast decision making.
The program also allowed me to develop my soft skills to a large extent. I learned to observe and adapt to my colleagues’ way of working, understand what they liked and disliked, and become more efficient together than alone. It also made me well prepared to make presentations, to respond to tough questions, and to be resilient in times of change.
Finally, the program taught me organization and structure, because in addition to the assignments, you felt the urge to visit every corner of each country and have fun with your classmates.
What advice would you give to any students in McIntire’s M.S. in Global Commerce Program?
My advice to prospective students is to come with an open mind and try to really adapt to the local culture and way of living. Also, I recommend connecting with every person in the program. Finally, I suggest starting the recruitment process for your future job as soon as possible rather than in the last third of the program, when the academic load is quite high, the thesis has to be finalized, and you want to make the most out of the last few weeks with your friends.