Alumni Spotlight: Brit Szymoniak
by Jess |
B.A. Sociology '10, The Boardroom co-owner Hometown: Sitka, Alaska Fun Fact: Met husband Nick, another UAA alumnus, while they were both working as research associates for UAA's Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER).
First impressions are never far from Brit Szymoniak's mind. As co-founder of The Boardroom, a bright, stylish new co-working hub in the heart of downtown Anchorage, she's tasked with touring potential members through the space to highlight its perks-free Kaladi Brothers coffee, high-tech conference and meeting rooms, a slate of programming to strengthen business skills and connect members and treadmill or biking work stations to get the blood flowing. And for those entrepreneurial types who are frequently struck with million-dollar ideas, it's cool if you jot it down on one of the glass-topped desks, there should be a dry-erase marker within reach.
The Boardroom is a co-working hub in the heart of downtown Anchorage founded by UAA alumna Brit Szymoniak and graduate student Katherine Jernstrom.
"Seventy-five percent of the people who've come through for a tour have either become members or utilized the space in some way," Brit said. "And we have 100 percent retention."
Brit and her business partner, Katherine Jernstrom, a UAA graduate student finishing up her Master of Public Administration degree, have done an exhaustive (and exhausting) amount of work behind the scenes-networking, researching business models, driving the Alcan in three days with a truckload of furniture-to make sure that those first impressions hit the right note.
The tour that kept her in Alaska
As it happens, it was Brit's first impression of UAA that turned her head toward a home state university. After high school she was convinced she wanted to go to school Outside to study anthropology. A top performer in her high school, she was eligible for a UA Scholars award-essentially a full-ride scholarship to any UA campus. So she opted for a tour of UAA.
"When I came up to UAA, it was the one school where I didn't feel like a number. It felt really personalized," she said. "I met [Dean of the Honors College] Ron Spatz on one of the tours and that's one of the reasons I chose to go to UAA. I felt like they really cared and really wanted me there."
Her first year she took an introductory sociology course.
"I thought, 'This is where I belong.' I loved that it helped kind of explain the world and how everything functioned," she said.
Guidance from a sociology professor, Chad Farrell, also helped shape Brit's path. He encouraged her to apply for an internship with ISER. She landed a position with Diane Hirshberg researching education policy, specifically education outcomes for rural secondary school students in Alaska like those from Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Brit's hometown of Sitka.
"I'm really grateful for the experience I had at UAA. I feel like I had so much opportunity there," she said. "I got to do some cool stuff as a student that I don't think I would have gotten to do as an undergraduate had I gone to any of those other schools."
At the conclusion of Brit's internship, ISER hired her as a research associate. Her work with ISER helped her craft an undergraduate honors thesis. It also introduced her to her husband, Nick, a UAA economics grad and fellow Alaskan. They were married in 2010 and welcomed daughter Ruby three years ago.
On civic engagement
While Brit was at UAA, she also got involved with Institute of the North.
"I learned a lot about ownership and civic responsibility, a lot about giving back to your community and your state," she said. "It helped me decide to stay in Alaska. My husband and I both decided to set roots down here."
She applied for the Alaska Humanities Forum's leadership development program, Leadership Anchorage, and was accepted.
"I met my business partner there and got a best friend out of it," Brit said.
She and Katherine clicked from the get-go. They were both passionate about making Alaska the kind of place where people like them-engaged with the community, full of fresh, new ideas-would want to live.
Once they solidified their idea to bring co-working to Anchorage, they both quit their day jobs to focus their energy on it.
"We wanted to give folks in Anchorage, the community really, a place to gather and act kind of as a hub for business, entrepreneurial activity and also public activity," she said. "People told us we were brave, which we never really felt brave because we knew it was going to work. We had done so much research and had so much support from the community and people ready to back us up."
Now, just a few months after opening their doors, they're nearly at capacity with members that include everyone from attorneys to an iPhone app developer and an office wellness consultant. They're ready to roll out a planned expansion of their space in May, taking over the remaining space on the second floor of the Key Bank Center.
"We knew we wanted to have an impact in the community," she said. "I think we expected that impact to come later in our lives, so it's been fun to get to do that in our 20s."
Brit also stays busy outside of The Boardroom serving as chair of the Federation of Community Councils. She's not intimidated to be the youngest person at the table, either. Being a parent has made her bold.
"[Ruby] made me less selfish. I was moving in that direction toward civic responsibility and giving back and she made it really easy," she said. "Part of it is I want to make sure she lives in a community where she feels supported and there are neat, cool things going on. So I feel like it's a responsibility to create that for her."
Growing up in Sitka, Brit had that feeling of hometown pride. She wants her daughter to feel the same way. Anchorage, she said, is a good place for big ideas and grassroots community democracy.
It's also becoming a good place to be an entrepreneur or a freelancer with new networking opportunities opening up thanks to support from places like the Anchorage Economic Development Corporation and Anchorage Downtown Partnership, as well as Brit and Katherine.
"I was talking to Chad Farrell the other day and saying, 'I'm using my degree here, trying to create those social interactions,'" Brit said.
On the official tour of The Boardroom, a stop by the kitchen is proof. The white board beside the sink lines out the week's networking opportunities. Everything from mid-day yoga to evening mixers with fellow members.
For member profiles and event updates, you can also check out The Boardroom on Facebook.