Alysha Smith on running a design agency, forming a women's collective, and competing as a bodybuilder

As one of the few female CEOs in design, as she puts it, Alysha Smith is all about highlighting female perspectives to help build brands and shape organisations.

Founder of agency, modern8, she is the former Salt Lake City Design Week Director, has led projects for a range of startups, universities and DTC brands. She has also formed NaNa, a collective for motivated, like-minded local women to generate inspiration, collaboration and friendships through events, panels, workshops and meetups.

While running a design agency and a women's collective, Alysha is also a competing bodybuilder/fitness expert and spends countless hours in the gym preparing for upcoming competitions. She likes to incorporate wellness into modern8's culture by providing gym memberships to her employees.

We chatted with Alysha to find out how she balances running a business and a woman's organisation while maintaining her rigorous fitness lifestyle.

Tell us about your journey to running your design studio?

It's a personal journey with a lot of paths and diversions, which ultimately led me back to my original plan of running a creative agency. As the daughter of a graphic designer, I was heavily influenced by my father's aesthetic preferences and desires to follow in his footsteps.

But parallel to these dreams as a teenager, I also loved clothes and fashion and wanted to land my dream job at the Gap. And work hard at landing that job I did! I interviewed for several locations and followed up ad nauseam—so they had no choice but to hire me. I loved that job (and company); it ultimately supported my shopping habit and solidified my position as best dressed all through high school.

While working my way up the ladder from sales associate to assistant manager, I discovered a passion for management and leadership and didn't want to give that up. I sacrificed some of the college nightlife for long hours either at the store or in the library for a promotion to store manager while finishing up my degree in communications and business (I am still on the fence on if it was worth it).

What happened next?

After graduating from Brigham Young University I moved to New York City, transferred to Gap's older and more mature sister company, Banana Republic, and became a general manager of several different locations on the Upper East Side. I had a lot of success in NYC as a general manager and was recognised company-wide for my leadership, merchandising, and people development skills.

I worked full time in the city for five years until I had a baby and tried to do both. That wasn't as easy as I expected, so I resigned from my position and spent my final year in New York pushing a stroller through the streets exploring art galleries, playing in parks, visiting the botanical gardens, and taking in the beauty and culture of my favourite place on earth. 

Even though New York felt like home, Salt Lake City was the next step for growing my family, so we made our way back west.

Eventually, I got the itch to go back to work and got hired as the store manager of our local Anthropologie. I loved working for Anthro and felt like I had finally found a company that placed so much emphasis on my passions – art and leadership. I mean, who doesn't love their large-scale art pieces that take your breath away the minute you walk into their stores? I thought I had found my place until I had a personal tragedy that forced me to reevaluate my priorities, focus, and time.

It sounds like that was a difficult time. Did you work at Anthropologie for long?

After only three years, I left to work at modern8. My sister had passed away unexpectedly and was the life and blood of modern8. I decided that this was where I wanted to be. I wanted to help fill a void left by her and wanted to spend more time with my son and family. I didn't have any direct experience in working with an agency, and I was pretty clueless when it came to running any computer programmes or bookkeeping in its traditional sense. I took an accounting class at the local community college, signed up for some Adobe classes, and dove headfirst into a new (but familiar) industry and career. 

I'm sorry to hear of your loss. It sounds like you picked it up quickly.

It didn't take long for me to implement new processes, take over account, project, and client management, and hone my creative directing skills. After only a couple of years, I knew this was where I wanted to spend the rest of my career, and I haven't looked back. Fast forward nine years, and I am now the owner and CEO of modern8, which is pretty much my dream job. 

Aside from your loss, what have been the biggest challenges along the way?

Getting to where I am now, I've had just a few challenges (okay, more than a few). In my first year of owning modern8, really my only goal was just to keep it running. I took a hard look at what we needed to be profitable and parred all expenses to the minimum—I staffed down and utilised contractors, watched the pennies we spent, and pursued every lead that came in with diligence and persistence.

After getting through that first year with a profit, I could then focus on growing modern8. Design and branding trends change quickly, so pivoting and adding to our services to stay ahead is critical. Luckily, I have an incredible team made up of very talented individuals who all bring something different to the table and keep us progressing. I absolutely stay challenged every day in keeping them motivated with the different clients and projects we bring in and foster an environment of idea sharing and throwing their egos out the door to allow for the best ideas to cultivate and come to life.

And what about now? With Covid-19?

I would never have imagined (like any of us) that we would be reimagining how to run a business during a pandemic and economic crisis. We were forced to learn how to work remote and rely on technology to communicate and share our work. We encountered some bumps along the way, but we continue to get better at it and feel like we can run virtual as long as needed – with a bi-weekly meet-up for socially distanced picnics and creative reviews.

While not in my home office on my computer, I'm constantly trying to balance being a mama of four, national bodybuilding competitor, and an endless list of hobbies and interests that vary from recipe creating to fiddle playing to hiking. Trying to stay on top of my life requires a constant evolution of the perfect daily and weekly schedule and experimenting with different bio-hacks to get the ever-elusive eight hours of sleep.

What I have learned, and it's mostly been since I started bodybuilding, is that I can't put too much pressure or expectations on the outcomes of my efforts or I am constantly let down. Just like building muscle, and developing a stage-ready physique takes time and dedication, it's the process of getting there that keeps me going.

Seeing small changes of growth in myself – whether in my business, body, relationships, and motherhood from learning and doing things better each day motivates me to keep going and push to be better. 

How do you feel about being a woman in design today?

 Now is a better time than ever to be a woman leader in design. Business leaders are now recognising the need for a more diverse, feminine point of view to offer different vantage points and mindsets.

We can even see now in larger corporations that leaders are also recognising the value of diversifying who they hire within their company to create and share a more full brand story – because diversity shows to their audience as well.

Brands and companies are changing too, aren't they?

Yes, they're becoming more reflective of who they are and want to be seen as less old-school so they are beginning to align themselves with a broader world view. I also think as women we have also had to be flexible, creative, and adaptable through not only design but also our interactions, which has made us more willing to collaborate and embrace differences and alternate perspectives – it's easier to work together than fight alone!

Additionally, I think it's important to provide opportunities to create avenues for others, like through NaNa, a collective I started for other like-minded women, is just another means of creating a crossover culture for women to grow and learn according to their motivations and variety of interests. The more we come together, the more we can rise to the top!


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