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Meet Victoria Zelefsky

Today we’d like to introduce you to Victoria Zelefsky.

Hi Victoria, we’re thrilled to have a chance to learn your story today. So, before we get into specifics, maybe you can briefly walk us through how you got to where you are today?
Many people are surprised to learn that I actually got my start as an opera singer. I was in love with the world of classical music and there was nothing more rewarding to me than studying a role in a different language and performing on stage. I went to the University of Northern Colorado and majored in music. It wasn’t long until I took the first opportunity I could and studied abroad in Germany. By the time I graduated, I had studied abroad three different times and knew my time in Europe was only beginning.

I decided, to the surprise of my friends, family, and professors, that I wanted to pursue my master’s degree only a month before graduate school applications were due. Everyone was skeptical since I hadn’t spent the last few years preparing and I was applying to pretty competitive schools, but I took the plunge anyway. I ended up being accepted into the music programs at NYU and The Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins and made the decision to move to Baltimore.

I was fortunate enough to have a great scholarship and graduated from undergraduate with only a small loan but still took on the hefty student loans affiliated with Johns Hopkins University prices. Because of this new debt I was now in, I hustled right away and took 24 credit hours each semester while working full-time as a bartender. I would go to school all day, sit in rehearsal at night, and head to the bar to work and then do it all over again. Even though that sounds exhausting to most, to me, it was heaven. I loved having a busy and fulfilling life, I loved having freedom and steady income, and I loved singing with some of the most talented people in the world more than anything.

Unfortunately, this lifestyle wasn’t sustainable as a classical singer and I was inevitably diagnosed with vocal nodules at the end of my second year at Peabody. This diagnosis was devastating and my dream of living on the stage became almost impossible. Like many 23-year-old’s I still had this feeling that I was invincible and decided to book a one-way ticket to Europe to pursue a singing career. What I quickly realized once I ended up in Berlin was that my nodules were not going to make it easy for me and what was once a passion of mine became a nightmare.

Rather than pack my bags and head back to the United States defeated, I accepted a job as an international travel guide in my favorite city, Florence, and made the move just a few months later. As my dream of becoming a singer faded into the background, my love for traveling, learning about different cultures, and finding ways to communicate and connect with people from across the globe blossomed. I took on more responsibility with the company and began planning events, managing some social media accounts, and blogging. This was truly my introduction into marketing, and I had no idea how much I would love this career.

With my student loan payments looming in the background, I took to Craigslist and found a job writing social media content for a marketing firm for their client, Marriott Hotels. I wrote social media posts and organized them into content calendars for a single hotel at first and within a few months, I was crafting content for six hotels in the United States and two in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, while I was completing work ahead of schedule with very few errors, I didn’t actually have any formal marketing training and it showed after about six months. After a few rounds of receiving more edits than approvals, we parted ways and I was back to square one of finding my new career path.

Once a year in Europe had come and gone, I realized I had seen and done everything I really wanted to, and my heart was back in Baltimore with a man who eventually became my husband. I flew back to the states and took an administrative job at a music school in Bethesda. Quickly, I realized this wasn’t for me and I felt stuck. I went from picturesque piazzas and heaping bowls of pasta to scheduling piano lessons for five years old and barely being able to pay my bills, it was clear I needed to find something else.

I moved up quickly there from coordinator to manager and took advantage of every training opportunity I could. I studied Google AdWords, responded to Yelp reviews, created a social media guide, and realized that maybe I was good at marketing after all, I just needed a little training. I took a leap of faith and asked a woman I admired out to lunch to pick her brain on how to be successful. She owns and operates a fleet of successful restaurants and I was beyond impressed by her rise to the top. Little did I know that lunch turned into a job interview and I was back in the marketing world, this time as the Advertising and Marketing Manager for a corporate restaurant group.

Fast forward a few years and I was really honing my skills as a marketing professional. I took every online course I could, jumped on busses to NYC to take marketing seminars and earned certificates on how to manage social media and it paid off. Ironically enough, I was recruited into a position as the Marketing Manager for dining at my alma mater, Johns Hopkins University, with Bon Appetit Management Company.

Instead of working at a business with a dozen restaurants, I was thrust into a corporate world at a multi-billion-dollar company with resources I didn’t even know existed. It was here that I learned about the importance of creating systems, building brand guides, and crafting cohesive messaging. I savored every minute of it and was proud of what I was able to create and learn at JHU. Unfortunately, like so many others, my job was affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and I found myself furloughed after just two years in a role I loved.

At the beginning of the pandemic, I did what everyone else did, I baked banana bread, cleaned shelves and drawers I hadn’t touched in years, watched every Harry Potter movie from start to finish, and set up zoom happy hours with my friends and family. It didn’t take long for me to feel restless, and I began searching the internet for things to do. I took a strategic marketing certificate online with eCornell and studied photoshop. I applied for small jobs building websites and managing social media and eventually, I began to get noticed.

It turns out that submitting five applications every day does actually work and after a while, I had to turn down small jobs to focus on the ones that I loved doing. In addition to social media marketing, writing fell into my lap. Over the course of a few months, I was hired as a Contributing Writer for Hotels.com, the Creative Director at a marketing firm, and had secured eight of my own clients. Things were looking up and I made the most of the long days stuck in the house.

As the fall semester of 2020 began approaching, I knew I would be going back to Johns Hopkins. This return to work left me anxious about the stability of a career in a University setting while the pandemic was still surging, and I felt like the new me had outgrown this role. I applied every week to jobs I wanted to grow into but didn’t think I was qualified for, and luckily one of the applications stuck. I interviewed at The Menkiti Group, a real estate services company in Washington, DC that specialized in residential real estate and development and knew it would be a learning curve. It was during an interview that they mentioned, “We hire for skill and passion, not for knowledge of the industry” that I really began to see myself making the jump and a few weeks later, I did!

Today I am the Director of Brand & Communications at The Menkiti Group and still keep a few of my side hustles going. I write regularly for Hotels.com and was invited to become a member of the Forbes Communications Council, a role where I am often featured on articles as a Communications expert, which still blows my mind. I am beginning to now teach social media and will be guest lecturing at CCBC in the fall and am beyond excited to see where this journey continues to take me in the world of marketing. To help keep my creative brain active, I started a calligraphy business with a good friend of mine who is a graphic designer and I sing at a local church in Highlandtown, Our Lady of Pompei, at their Italian masses.

Can you talk to us a bit about the challenges and lessons you’ve learned along the way. Looking back would you say it’s been easy or smooth in retrospect?
No, it has not and many of the struggles are detailed in my journey in question one. I’d say the main ones are being diagnosed with vocal nodules after six years of higher education as a singer, starting to work as a social media marketer without any formal training, and being furloughed unexpectedly due to the pandemic.

Thanks – so what else should our readers know about your work and what you’re currently focused on?
I never would have guessed it, but I have fallen in love with writing and am grateful for the opportunities that have come from it. I started as a travel blogger and really dove into this when travel shut down and I was stuck inside at the height of the pandemic. I revisited cities and places in my mind which allowed me to escape through writing and before I knew it, I had an extensive library of memories. Today, I am proud to be a writer for Forbes as part of their Communications Council and a Contributing Writer for Hotels.com. I have also had the opportunity to write for notable brands including Kraft Foods, Bon Appetit Management Company, and Johns Hopkins University, and regularly write blogs for companies across the US.

In my role at The Menkiti Group, I oversee the marketing and communications efforts enterprise-wide and have a real passion for working with communities and crafting stories. I specialize in building systems and challenge myself to view projects from multiple lenses in order to find the best strategies for crafting content and telling the story.

Additionally, I am finding a new knack for teaching and public speaking. Public speaking is the ideal outlet for me to marry my passion for the stage and extensive experience with marketing. I have spoken at conferences including a Food Allergy Symposium at Unilever United States Headquarters, will be guest lecturing at a community college this fall and hope to continue sharing my knowledge and meeting new people as I hone my skills.

One fun fact about me that I am incredibly proud of is that I have sung the National Anthem at Camden Yards for the Baltimore Orioles every summer since 2014 (with the exception of 2020). I most recently sang for the Orioles versus the Red Sox on May 10, 2021 which was an amazing return to singing and to the ballpark!

Let’s talk about our city – what do you love? What do you not love?
Baltimore is one of the most distinctive and beautiful cities I have ever been to. It feels like a big city with skyscrapers, great food, dozens of unique neighborhoods, and still has the ability to make its residents feel like they’re in a small town. If I had to pick one thing that I love the most about Baltimore, I’d say it would be the heart and soul of the city. People are proud to live here and I’m excited to see how the renaissance after this incredibly challenging pandemic transforms Baltimore.

If I had to pick something that I like least about Baltimore, I would say its reputation. There is so much to be proud of for people who live here and work hard to make the city a beautiful urban hub and I hope the stories of its residents and small businesses continue to reach larger stages.

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