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December 2 2019

Maria Semykoz

by Charlotte Hays

“Have you read Friedrich von Hayek?”

These were the first words Maria Semykoz’s ever addressed to her future husband, Fred Roeder.   

Maria’s friends joke that it was her pick-up line. She laughingly calls it “my alleged pick-up line.”

But it worked. Not everybody’s idea of a come-on, but Maria and Fred were attending a wonky conference on youth involvement in politics. They were both active in the liberty movement. He was lecturing on the free-market, a topic near and dear to Maria’s heart.

Maria’s admiration for the free market wasn’t entirely the product of reading and going to conferences, though. She acquired her ideals the hard way, by growing up in the Ukraine, still a part of the old Soviet Union when she was born. Even though her parents were professionals, the family was just getting by. 

She had never experienced the prosperity of capitalism until she left the Ukraine, first as a Fulbright Scholar, studying political science at Miami University in Ohio, and then as a management consultant in Germany. She now lives in London and works as a data adviser for Gallup, the global analytics firm, and is also pursuing an entrepreneurial venture. 

“One of the big emotional moments for me was when I first went to an Ikea store,” she says. “I was in my early twenties, and I was somewhere in Western Europe. And when I saw the inside of the Ikea store, I almost cried. I was in the children’s department, and I realized how affordable these things were. I saw that people with average incomes could buy these things.

“When I was growing up, we never had things like that. It would have been a dream.  And I just knew for a fact my parents worked hard and that in the free system they would have been absolutely able to afford this.  And instead they were pushed into living in drab surroundings with ugly furniture.”

“Instead of legislating and putting constraints on companies,” Maria says, “why not empower the consumer and give them better information to make choices? That is the mission of What’s In My Jar.”

Now, Maria and three friends are taking a chance on the free market, launching an online business called What’s In My Jar? They seek to blend femininity, science, and the free market. Describing themselves as “avid” users of skincare products (and they do appear on their website to have fabulous skin), they seek to breakdown the claims of skincare products and tell the consumer the likelihood of a product’s delivering on its promises. They have developed an algorithm to arrive at what they call “evidence based” reviews of products. They look at the ingredients and other data. 

Maria’s fellow entrepreneurs are Sandy Skotnicki, Toronto-based director of a dermatology practice, assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s medical school, and author of “Beyond Soap;” Stephan Hesse, a computer scientist from Germany; and New York ad tech executive and “skincare junkie” Iryna Liashchuk. Their website is live now and the team is working on adding new features and products.  

“I’m interested in skin care,” Maria says. “I’ve seen my mom creating homemade face masks. You know, you mix something in a bowl because you don’t have access to products. She is in her 60s, but she looks way younger than she is.  So, she was an inspiration.” Maria often traveled for work, which she explained made taking care of her skin difficult. It became “a bit of a hobby” for her. She started doing research, even reading medical studies. Then she realized that there might be an entrepreneurial opportunity in her hobby.

But doesn’t she worry about being sued by a company whose product has received a bad review? 

“This is funny because this is the number one question we get from people when we tell them about What’s In My Jar,” she replies. “I’m actually not worried, because we don't seek to portray skin care companies as evil. They react to the market and in the past there wasn’t anything like What’s In My Jar to help consumers get the right education about the ingredients. The moment consumers are more educated, they might want more transparency from skin care brands. I personally talked to formulators working in skin care companies, and they want to produce better products. So, if we change the market, and consumer demand tools like What’s In My Jar, skin care companies will react to this. ”

Maria’s admiration for the free market wasn’t entirely the product of reading and going to conferences, though. She acquired her ideals the hard way, by growing up in the Ukraine, still a part of the old Soviet Union when she was born. Even though her parents were professionals, the family was just getting by. 

Currently, Maria says, there is a move to impose stricter government regulation on the cosmetic industry. She believes transparency is better and argues for nongovernmental solutions such as the one What’s In My Jar offers. “Instead of legislating and putting constraints on companies,” she says, “why not empower the consumer and give them better information to make choices? That is the mission of What’s In My Jar.

“From the consumer standpoint, transparency puts consumer in the driver’s seat,” she says. “So, consumer has information, and then can pursue the goal in the way they want.   So that’s consumer side.  On the industry side, more freedom or less rigid regulation means that companies can innovate better because they don't have to do the exact same thing.  They just know they have to create great value for their consumers, so they find new and better ways to communicate, to empower them, to provide transparency.  And, as gaps become apparent in the market, businesses like ours emerge and within this new market system can help solve this problem without needing to resort to additional regulations.”

Maria was three when the Soviet Union collapsed. She grew up in a town close to the Russian border. Ukraine, Maria says, is still suffering from the consequences of communism. Maria believes that nobody would want to return to the old ways. “People often remember the past as better, but I think that, seriously, in Ukraine, no one, definitely not the generation of my parents, and especially younger people, would want the Soviet Union to come back, never ever.  There might be something they find nostalgic, part of their youth, but I don’t think anyone would seriously wish for their kids to live in that horrible situation.  People standing in line for basic things like butter and bread, or basic food items. The most influential person was always someone working in the food store because they had access to food items that were not available for purchase for money.  People had nominal money, but they were never able to buy anything with it.” 

Both Maria’s parents were engineers. Her mother was a programmer who worked on computer systems that were copied from IBM and the West. “Her job, as a programmer, in part, was deciphering the very poorly translated manuals that the Soviets stole from IBM. And my dad was a hardware engineer.  Then the Soviet Union collapsed, and my dad became a small-scale entrepreneur and my mom got a job at the local utility company.  I would say my parents are very smart, but we were a very simple family.  We were average, but at the same time I saw a lot of suffering. My family had a hard time but people around me often were way worse off. I saw how much destruction the Soviet Union brought.”

“One of the big emotional moments for me was when I first went to an Ikea store,” she says. “When I saw the inside of the Ikea store, I almost cried. We never had things like that. It would have been a dream.  And I just knew for a fact my parents worked hard and that in the free system they would have been absolutely able to afford this.”

Maria, now thirty-two, was also influenced by her father. He saw through the socialist system. Once Maria and her father were standing outside, looking at the general state decline of buildings and neighborhoods in their town. “My dad said, ‘See, this is happening because this is public, and no one takes care of anything. And if you privatize things, and people rather than the state own them, then they will take care of them.  When you see things in good shape, they are private, and when you see things in bad shape, they are public. I think a lot of my ideas about liberty came from my dad’s living through Socialism, or the Communist reality.”

Maria obtained a bachelor’s degree and then a master’s degree in political science from the National University in Kiev. She worked for a member of Parliament in the Ukraine while studying at the university. In 2010, she won a Fulbright to study comparative international political science at the University of Miami in Ohio. She has an M.A. from Miami University. To better communicate the meaning of liberty as gleaned from her own experiences, Maria joined Young Voices, a libertarian nonprofit that helps talented under thirties learn how to do advocacy, including journalistic skills. Her husband Fred Roeder is a founder of Young Voices.

Semykoz has been quoted on political developments in Europe, especially the Ukraine and contributed articles to such publications as Townhall and the Daily Caller. Her advocacy comes from her own life in the Ukraine and focuses on the people there. In 2014 she advised Western leaders that “the trick is to send a clear negative message towards the regime of Putin, while showing a good will to Russian people.” 

“The most influential person was always someone working in the food store because they had access to food items that were not available for purchase for money.  People had nominal money, but they were never able to buy anything with it.” 

For Gallup, she writes extensively on the challenges and opportunities offered by artificial intelligence and other issues. 

The conference at which Maria and Fred met was held in the Ukraine. Fred, who is German, lived in Germany at the time. Brought together by mutual admiration for the great Austrian School of economics founder, Fred and Maria began an international romance. They married in 2011. Fred Roeder is the managing director of the Consumer Choice Center, chief strategy officer at Students For Liberty (he was formerly CFO but moved on), a research fellow at the Montreal Economic Institute, and—of course!—vice chair of the F. A. Hayek Society. The couple lived in Berlin before moving to London. They have not ruled out eventually settling in Ukraine, where Maria’s parents and siblings live.

A long way since her vision of affordable luxury at Ikea, Maria now has—shall we say it?—skin in the game in the free-market system. Friedrich, the world’s most unlikely matchmaker, would be proud.





Independent Women's Forum is an educational 501(c)(3) dedicated to developing and advancing policies that aren’t just well intended, but actually enhance people’s freedom, choices, and opportunities. IWF is the sister organization of the Independent Women’s Voice.​
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