Deacon Spotlight: Sam Larsen

Sam Larsen (2016 BA in Communications)Sam Larsen head shot

Workplace Consultant at Steelcase Inc in Boston, MA

Tell us about your current job role/employer and what you’re currently working on.

I am a Workplace Consultant for Steelcase Inc in Boston, MA. Steelcase is the world’s leading office furniture manufacturer and global research company that researches how people work and identifies trends/insights on the future of work.

In my current role, I work with clients and architect firms to design a company’s workspace and help them achieve the best workplace experience possible. At a high level, we work with clients such as startups moving into their first space to international companies with over 500+ employees redoing their office. At a granular level, I sell office furniture.
I’m responsible for supporting the interior designer and providing them whatever information they need to help the client. I’m very passionate about the research that Steelcase does, so I look for ways to apply our research to discover insights about our clients while prioritizing their business needs. For example, some of the trends we’ve researched are how can spaces inspire creativity and innovation, how do spaces help attract and retain talent, how to achieve the right balance of privacy and collaboration (especially in open office plans), and more.

On any given day, I’ll have an internal strategy meeting about a new client’s space, take a design to lunch to hear about a new opportunity, host a client and architecture firm into our space to give them a tour and hear what they’re trying to achieve in their new workspace, send samples and information to a designer, and work on continuing opportunities.

What personal and/or career experiences did you have prior to landing your current job and leading to where you are now?

I have been a cheese monger (like a sommelier, but for cheese) and a copywriter (I wrote taglines for a few different companies) before coming to Steelcase. Neither of those are related, nor was my major (Communication) or my minors (Entrepreneurship / Political Science) to what I’m doing now. I’m still not sure how I got this job, but I’m very happy I did!

What was the most challenging aspect of your first “real world job” and what did you learn from it?

There were three elements I found very challenging at first, but now am incredibly grateful for. The first was your role is what you make it (especially in your first job), the second was to be my own best advocate, the third was realizing it’s important to have a life outside of work.

When I started my job, I said yes to everything, didn’t ask questions because I didn’t want to come across as inexperienced, and overextended myself because I was so concerned about hitting the ground running. A few months into my role, I realized I wasn’t adding as much value as I could be, and I felt like I was passively at my job. I came to Steelcase because I was passionate about their research and design thinking approach, but I didn’t find I was using either of those things on a day to day basis. I wanted to take more of an active approach in not only this role, but in my career and give it a research-focused spin and see what additional opportunities I could find within my role. Steelcase is a great company with a variety of career development opportunities and I wanted to start taking advantage of them.

Since then, I’ve sought out every opportunity I can, and it has led to me to working on a project that is using Artificial Intelligence to develop a personal assistant app for the workplace, what the element of “delight,” in an office can do to the workplace experience, and a few others. I’ve engaged with some of our in-house researchers to learn more about their projects and have become certified in many of our presentations aimed at educated architects and designers on the future of work.

Second, in becoming my own best advocate, I’ve negotiated a raise with a promotion (everyone should do this!) and was selected for the CONNECT leadership sprint where we go to our HQ over the next few months and engage in leadership modules designed to start learning about how to develop leadership traits.

Finally, I moved to Boston only knowing two people and I was a little nervous about starting a new job in a new city with an entirely new climate and lifestyle to adapt to, so I wanted to throw myself into my job. I imagined I’d be best friends with my coworkers and the industry I was in would be my social circle. Instead, I found friends and hobbies that are outside of my industry and I prefer that. I enjoy having a separated balance of work and my personal life, and I realized my job is only one element of my life and the other parts (friends / socializing, hobbies, etc.) are the parts that add the most value to my life I’ve created here. I’d rather love the community I’ve created and like my job, rather than vice versa.

What advice would you give to new Wake Forest graduates about developing their personal life habits after college?

These are all very important things to value when you’re creating your life after college, but you also need to learn what you value. For starters, you need to find a work/life balance that works for you. You don’t have to be the person who answers emails at all hours of the night and is constantly connected to their work; it’s healthy to have some separation. The company has already invested a lot in hiring you, they probably won’t fire you if you leave a little early to go to a doctor’s appointment or if you don’t answer emails at all hours of the night. It is your life; the company does not own you or your time outside of work.

Tying into healthy lifestyle habits, I’d find a consistent exercise routine that works for you. I workout in the mornings before work so I have my evenings free (not as dauting as it sounds, I promise!) I’ve used ClassPass and I love the flexibility of the different classes and the fact that someone else is telling me what to do so I don’t have to think about what exercises I’m doing at 7am. I’d also learn how to find a few easy, healthy recipes to cook and to prioritize sleep, especially during the week.

In terms of creating a budget, I do a combination of things. Out of college, I didn’t know anything about personal finance, so I studied up and checked out books from the library, read a lot of articles, listened to podcasts and attended as many personal finance lectures / talks as I could so I could be more informed.

We all know it’s important to save money, but that felt like a daunting task to me when I was living paycheck to paycheck, so I knew my efforts had to be on the smaller side. First thing, if your company matches any part of a 401(k), immediately take advantage of it. If you don’t, you’re throwing away free money. Then, I knew I needed a way to save incremental amounts because even if it was a tiny amount, it was still something. I use the Qapital app, which allows you to passively save money by squiring away a little each time you buy something. You can set various goals and it’s very user friendly.

Finally, the b-word: budget. Instead of it feeling like your budget is trapping you and you can’t spend money, I look at it as another way of prioritizing. For me, when I moved to Boston, I prioritized my living situation and I found an apartment I absolutely love and never want to move out of, but it was a stretch on my budget. That being said, I love to cook, so I always bring my lunch to the office instead of buying it (we have a communal table in my office so people either bring or buy and we all sit together), I drink the coffee in my office instead of buying coffee, and I never order takeout or order in. Instead, I prefer to spend money on experiences or spending time with people (I’ll meet my friends for drinks after work or we’ll try that new restaurant we’ve been hearing about). I use Mint, but I also created a budget spreadsheet in Excel I update every Monday (It has my fixed costs, savings, and then everything else is flexible) which shows me how much money I have left to spend that month on “fun things,” (dinners, activities, etc.) and it makes it feel more fun.

How have you made personal and professional relationships in your city, company, or community?

In terms of professional relationships, I was part of a 4 ½ month training program at my company’s headquarters. The best advice I received was to internally network as much as I could while I was there and to continue those relationships once I had moved out to Boston. Everyone I reached out to at Steelcase was very welcoming and interested to talk to me. Since being in Boston, I’ve kept reaching out and always add an extra day to work travel back to our HQ to continue those relationships face to face.

I’ve also reached out to people outside of my industry, specifically people I think have had an interesting career or who have a role I’d be interested in having one day. It’s been great to hear how they got into their roles and what advice they must start taking steps towards that career.

For personal relationships, it took a ton of effort (literally went to a yoga class over an hour away on public transit to meet a new friend – it worked!), but I’m so happy with the group I’ve found. I expected it to take significantly longer, but it only took a few months for me to find a few great friends. Technically, all my friends are transplants, besides those I knew at Wake, which I’d also suggest to anyone who is moving to a new city – find the transplants! They’ve all gone through the transition and know what it feels like to be new in town and trying to find new friends. They’re empathetic and usually welcoming to people trying to join their circle.

I also joined the Junior League of Boston. For any ladies out there, I’d 100000% recommend joining your local Junior League chapter. While I can only speak to the one in Boston, it has been a huge highlight of my move here. I found a great group of girlfriends (we all just signed up for a cornhole league) and it’s added so much to my experience in Boston, both from a social and a philanthropic aspect. They all joined looking to make friends and give back to the community, so it worked out perfectly.

Also, keep up the relationships with your family and your friends who aren’t in the same place as you. A phone call to catch up is an easy way to stay updated on your friend’s lives in their new city and to catch up with your family and tell them about your new city. Commutes are great for this!

Have you been mentored by anyone at Wake Forest or in your professional life? If so, what impact has that relationship had on you?

At Wake, I took Evelyn William’s class, High Performing Teams and Design Thinking, and it completely changed my perspective. Since that class, she has been a great mentor to me and she suggested I apply to Steelcase. She’s now teaching at Georgetown’s MBA program and it’s been great keeping in touch with her.

In my role now, my manager, Tom, has been a fantastic mentor. He has been incredibly supportive of me looking for internal career development opportunities and my promotion and is always looking for ways to help me continue to get closer to a more research-focused role. He always makes himself available if I need help with something or have a question and it has been so valuable to see what makes a great manager.

What advice would you give to current Wake Forest students and/or young alumni who are about to start their first professional job?

Be kind to everyone but stand up for yourself. Be as respectful to the cleaning people in your office as you would be to the CEO. Be your own best advocate and go after what you think you deserve (that promotion or salary raise, working from home flexibility, attending a conference). The first time you do it is always the scariest but keep trying! Do the best you can at your current role, but always keep an eye on your career and identify what steps you can do to get you there. If your first job isn’t your dream job, that’s totally good! If you had your dream job right out of college what else would there be to work for? If there’s someone you admire or someone’s career you find interesting, LinkedIn them and ask to talk for 20 minutes. They’ll probably say yes.

Find a company who shares the same values you do. If you’re really into creativity, then find a company who values that. If you’re all about sustainability, find a company who is equally as passionate about sustainability as you are, etc. Also, dress like you could meet an executive at any point.

Finally, at the end of the day, it’s just a job. Your family, friends, and the life you build will always be more important than a job.

What are your future career goals or plans? How are you being intentional about working towards them?

I am looking to get more into research, specially user experience research, or understanding user behaviors, needs, and motivations through observation techniques, interviews, and other methodologies. Essentially, it’s understanding why people interact and experience things (could be a product, like a phone or a process, like taking public transportation) and how to make it a better experience for them.

Steelcase has a great team called Workspace Futures that I’ve been interested in since I started, and we have a relationship with MIT in Boston. To be more involved and gain some experience in UX research, I’m working with the workspace futures team now on a project and I’ll be attending a conference at MIT in a few months. Right now, I’m working with our UX leader on what creates an element of “delight” at work and what are the benefits it can have in a workplace. In addition, I will be taking a crash course on UX research with IDEO (the global design company who basically invented design thinking) starting in September so I can start creating a portfolio to gain more real-world experience.

Eventually, I’d like to attend grad school, possibly for my MBA with a focus in entrepreneurship.

Story published in September 2018. For current updates about Sam, visit her LinkedIn page.