Spokane Journal of Business

Rising Stars 2014: Sarah Wollnick


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The Inland Northwest is home to a sizable number of young entrepreneurs and emerging professionals. We asked a small sampling of them to tell us about their careers so far and aspirations for the future.

Sarah Wollnick

Age: 28

Job Title/Company: Co-founder & vice president, supplier relations at etailz Inc.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration (concentration in human resource management) and MBA, both from Gonzaga University.

Tell us about your career so far: When I was just graduating college at 22, my husband and I founded etailz Inc. along with Tom Simpson. I’ve been fortunate to work with some really great people along the way, and the fun that we’re having at etailz is unprecedented. Sure, there are some tough days working at a startup, but the rewards are so much greater than I could have ever imagined. Every day, we are reinventing, creating, or designing something new.

What are your aspirations? I want to change the way that relationships are valued in the context of business. We’ve become such a digital culture relying heavily on impersonal interactions to “get our work done” but how does that relate to ourselves and the fact that we spend one quarter of our lives at work? Relationships are what life is about and they make all the difference at work.

Tell us about your mentor or someone you look to for inspiration: Beyonce. This woman is changing the way that young women view themselves, and that’s a powerful thing.  

In our current economic environment, how do you feel about the opportunities for career advancement among people of your age/generation? I think the opportunities for career advancement are definitely there, but often times you have to create your own opportunities. 

Something interesting/random about yourself: Seven years ago, I went cage diving with great white sharks off the coast of South Africa while on Semester at Sea.


Ellie Aaro

Age: 36

Job Title/Company:  CEO and co-owner, Beacon Hill Catering and Events.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in business administration, University of Washington; and Le Cordon Bleu Paris culinary school. 

Tell us about your career so far. I first developed my passion for the event industry with the design and production of my sister’s wedding at Beacon Hill in 1997.  After graduating from the University of Washington in 2001, I returned to Beacon Hill as event director. In the first year, I managed more than 100 special events with my philosophy that each occasion is a unique personal statement.  

Through these events, I realized what an important role catering plays in its success. In 2003, I became business partners with my father, Pete (Rayner), and decided to add food to Beacon Hill’s repertoire of services by creating a full-service catering company. Thus began my journey to become executive chef; starting with my tutelage under a 40-year catering veteran, I learned the tricks of the trade and developed my own culinary voice.  In 2004, I traveled to Paris to train at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school. 

Through travel, research, education, and experience, I continually look for original ideas to provide inspiration for creative and distinctive events. 

Today, I don’t spend as much time in the kitchen, focusing on leading our team of 40 employees and business development. 

What are your aspirations? To keep growing, not just in terms of increasing our profitability, but also by improving our service and product and positively contributing to our community. The catering and event business is virtually boundless. We strive to set ourselves apart by constantly pushing the boundaries of every aspect of every event. We ask ourselves, “How can we make the food fresher? The taste better? The presentation more beautiful and memorable?” When we hire staff, we ensure that their passion to work, serve, and entertain is compatible with our culture. We believe that in the catering and event industry, there is always room to raise the bar. 

We continually reinvent our product and reinvest in our venue and staff. Through travel, research, education, and experience we make ourselves capable of delivering the highest level of excellence in trendsetting menus, personalized service, and stylized events.   We constantly upgrade and adapt our venue to make it more functional and beautiful for our clients and their guests. Our staff has literally traveled the world to acquire cutting edge industry practices and techniques. We believe in higher education. We sent our chef to train in Paris at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu and annually send our management staff to the largest catering seminar in the world.

Tell us about your mentor or someone you look to for inspiration. I am fortunate to have had many mentors, I could not pick just one—so many have invested in and influenced me. I often look to our clients for inspiration. We are welcomed into the offices of hundreds of the best businesses each year, and every event becomes an opportunity to learn from their operations. We are offered an inside view of many organizations, literally. They let us in their kitchens, homes, and boardrooms.

In our current economic environment, how do you feel about the opportunities for career advancement among people of your age/generation? That’s a tough question. I just don’t think in terms of personal career advancement—I think more about advancing our business and creating opportunities for our employees. I have experienced as a young entrepreneur tremendous opportunities for growth.

Spokane is an interconnected community where word-of-mouth marketing has been beneficial to the growth of our business. For example, we have catered lunches for the Greater Spokane Incorporated board and received a phone call the same day from a member to schedule an upcoming event. We have found that every effort to network in the Spokane business community is generously rewarded.

Something interesting/random about yourself. Most people know me as “Brownie Girl.” Beacon Hill produces more than 15,000 brownies annually and donates brownie platters to dozens of nonprofit auctions, fundraising close to $10,000 last year alone. 


Ben Klündt

Age: 25

Job Title/Company: Financial adviser, Waddell & Reed Inc. 

Education: Bachelor’s degree in accounting, Gonzaga University.

Tell us about your career so far: My career has been both challenging and very rewarding. I am responsible for building my book of business, so there is a great deal of marketing, development of strategic plans and policies and education to stay up on our macro-environment and the stock market. One of the greatest parts of my job is that I get to work with people to help them improve their overall financial well-being. 

Most people think that I do financial planning and investing, and they’re 100 percent accurate, but they don’t consider the fact that if you are lacking in savings and proper planning, it can lead to health and marital issues. I get great joy out of seeing others succeed. 

If you were to put it down in a sentence, “I foster relationships with individuals while helping them develop a savings and investment plan to pursue any financial goal.” I invest based upon people values and situations, not upon the market alone. 

What are your aspirations? I aspire to create a lasting impact. Like most people, we want to be admired and leave a legacy. We want to know that what we are doing has meaning and is more than just a paycheck. I want to see that my family and friends are happy, healthy, and wise. 

Tell us about your mentor or someone you look to for inspiration. I have been very blessed to grow up surrounded by many people in Spokane that have worked very hard and created something that will outlast their lifetime. My mentors are risk-takers, hard workers, and those that seize an opportunity even when they know it won’t be easy. My parents have always been mentors of mine and great inspiration for my entrepreneurial spirit, as I have grown up in their design firm, Klündt Hosmer. 

In our current economic environment, how do you feel about the opportunities for career advancement among people of your age/generation? Due to our current economic environment, including stagnant wages, higher-than-normal unemployment, great student loan debt, and the threat of failing federal systems that some have relied upon in the past, we have become an entrepreneurial generation. At the same time, I believe there is good opportunity for those looking for a “job” with the exodus of the baby boomers and their being such a large generation. 

Something interesting/random about yourself. I started investing when I was 15 years old with money I saved up from mowing the neighbor’s lawn. I sold tomatoes out of my parent’s fridge to the neighbors. Sorry, Mom. I am also an Eagle Scout. 


Alicia R. Levy

Age: 33

Job Title/Company: Associate attorney, Lukins & Annis PS.

Education: Bachelor of Arts in English, Washington State University, 2003.  Juris Doctor, Gonzaga School of Law, 2010. 

Tell us about your career so far. My career has taken me from running my own small practice to working as an associate attorney at Lukins & Annis. I am lucky to be able to work within the Spokane com-munity focusing on the needs of our growing businesses. I have also been active in the Washington Young Lawyers Committee, the Spokane Young Lawyers, the Spokane chapter of the Washington Women Lawyers, and I serve on the board of directors for Community-Minded Enterprises. Recently, I was awarded the Outstanding Young Lawyer of the Year award for the state of Washington by the Washington State Bar Association. 

What are your aspirations? My aspirations are to become a partner at Lukins & Annis where I can continue to work with local businesses and people within the community. I also hope to remain active on the legal boards and community boards that I serve on. 

Tell us about your mentor or someone you look to for inspiration.  The Spokane legal community is a great group of welcoming people, and there are many of whom I can look to for inspiration and advice. However, the women on the Washington Women Lawyers board are in particular an inspiring group of hard-working, driven women who are also incredibly supportive. I am lucky to be a part of that group.

In our current economic environment, how do you feel about the opportunities for career advancement among people of your age/generation? I believe that the practice of law took a pretty hard hit during the economic recession, and it is harder to find a legal job; however, with hard work and determination, it is still possible, but do be prepared to take a path you may not have initially thought you wanted. 

Something interesting/random about yourself.  In my spare time, I enjoying running and am focusing on a couple of half-marathons this year. I am also incredibly laid back and not overly emotional; which sometimes causes people to think I don’t care, which is simply not the case.


Chris Reilly

Age: 31 

Job Title/Company: CEO of Aezy

Education: Bachelor’s degree in Music, Western Washington University.

Tell us about your career so far: I’ve been paid for doing technology work since I was 12, so it is fair to say my geekiness runs deep. I started my career selling Epson and Xerox equipment while I was still in college, then worked in Los Angeles for Canon in the same field. 

When I later started work at Experian Interactive, my world opened up. I got to see one of the largest-scale Internet advertising operations on the planet and used that to launch a career on the Web that I’ve been growing for a decade. 

In Seattle, I worked for AT&T Interactive, then moved back to Spokane and started my business. For the past five years, we’ve been fortunate to be able to work with some of the largest firms in our region and around the country offering Internet online marketing, advertising, and consulting services. We have filled an important role for traditional advertising agencies in helping them navigate the ever-changing online media landscape, and we’re proud to employ 10 people in the Spokane market toward that end. We are working to expand our footprint nationally, while growing a strong team based in Spokane. 

What are your aspirations? I want to change the world of marketing. It is a wild ambition, but frankly, change is overdue. As I talk with marketers, the explosion of media options and tools across both online and traditional media is bewildering to every one of them I interact with. At the same time, consumers are much more in the driver’s seat around purchasing decisions, so the role of marketing is becoming more critical to the health of an organization. 

I want to create systems that help marketers navigate the chaos and maximize the value of their time and resources. I want to make this happen using Spokane talent, and I want to see our region grow because of it. We live in a phenomenal place, and I would love to be part of building a dynamic technology sector here. Perhaps the “Silicone River”?

Tell us about your mentor or someone you look to for inspiration. Steve Jobs weighs in heavily on my conscience along with the rest of the technology community, but I am truly inspired these days by Elon Musk. Instead of resting on his laurels after a big hit with PayPal, he has continued to innovate with a gigantic imagination. His work has helped me to stop limiting my thinking about what is possible.

In our current economic environment, how do you feel about the opportunities for career advancement among people of your age/generation? This is an amazing time to be alive. As people, we face larger, more global problems than we ever have before, but we also live in a time of revolutionary innovation. The pace of change is only beginning to accelerate, and I’m convinced that there is practically unlimited opportunity for people that have technology skills. As our homes, cars, and daily lives become more digital, people that can integrate, communicate, and translate between the digital and physical world will be gainfully employed, or more likely self-employed in an increasingly specialized freelance economy. 

Something interesting/random about yourself. During my musical training, I learned how to play more than 100 instruments (mostly percussion, so basically hitting things). I rarely have time for music, but you’ll probably catch me drumming on something at random times.


Alexis Roizen

Age: 27

Job Title/Company: Creative director, Rainmaker Creative; design executive officer (DEO) and co-founder, The Story Elves.

Education: Bachelor’s degree in public relations and minor in art, University of Idaho, 2008. One year completed in MFA Graphic Design, Academy of Art University, San Francisco. 

Tell us about your career so far. My career is in an incredible place. I’ve already gotten the jobs that have made my college dreams a working reality. I’m living in that from day to day while simultaneously building new career aspirations. In addition to being the co-founder of a kids’ production company called The Story Elves, I’m currently the creative director at Rainmaker, and I get to do incredible things for small businesses, both regionally and nationally. Working with small businesses was my dream in college, to be the person who builds the heart of the brand and keeps on beating through every design decision made about business. 

My job isn’t just about building beautiful and resonating visual design, it’s about building confidence in the minds of the business’s customers. I’m not an artist for art’s sake. I’m a commercial artist for business’s sake. I’ve been really lucky, though luck is the residue of design, to speak many different career “languages,” design, business, marketing, public relations, economics, psychology, and Web, among others, and I’ve found my sweet spot at the intersection of the things that I love most. I’m looking forward to staying in this intersection and also to where I’ll be in the next five years. 

What are your aspirations? I have a few. 

1. I want to make the world a better place for kids to live and thrive in. I believe we as a society spend time trying to squash the “kid” out of our youth. They go to college. They study what they think they should study instead of what interests them, they get married, have kids, but their happiness never comes the way the American Dream sells them. Then they hit 40, hate their life, don’t feel happy, want to feel more creative, and the advice is to go back and think like a kid again. Well, then why did we pound it out of them in the first place? I want to help in that space. I was fortunate enough to have a mom who kept pushing me to stay in the arts even when I said, “I’ll never make any money being creative.” I hope to give more kids the power for their own creative passions, however they define creativity, and show them the money will follow. 

2. I want to do work from my laptop in every major city in the world. Travel is the main way I recharge my creative juices, and I can’t imagine the projects and ideas that will sketch from my fingertips in each new destination.

3. I want to keep creating work that carries me away in the “flow.” You know: you lose track of time, no eating, barely registering to use the bathroom and you look back from your chair when you’re done and think, “The day is gone, and it was totally worth it. Look what I made.” That’s an amazing feeling, being flush with pride before you ever reveal to another set of eyes. I crave that feeling. 

Tell us about your mentor or someone you look to for inspiration. I have a core group of people whose voices rotate in my head on a daily basis. Creatively speaking, my biggest inspiration is John Mayer. I think he’s a lyrical genius. He can describe a decade of emotion in five words, and his lyrics are intimate and vulnerable. He’s incredibly technically skilled, funny, and if you watch him perform, you can see passion oozing from every weird facial expression and every chord change.  I have “where the light is” from his song, Gravity, tattooed on my wrist. I know, I’m an extremist, but not one of the weird ones. I’m not sure I’d ever meet him if I really got the opportunity, but he inspires me daily. 

I look up to kids, too. They’re so insightful and they aren’t scared to be wrong, say I don’t know, ask questions or offer what seems like, to adults, an absolutely ludicrous idea that actually makes complete sense. Those guys know how to have fun with life and it doesn’t matter who’s watching. 

In our current economic environment, how do you feel about the opportunities for career advancement among people of your age/generation? I think my generation has to switch its frame of thinking in two ways. 

1. Instead of waiting for opportunities, we need to make opportunities for ourselves. That could mean starting your own business, making yourself more valuable inside of the company you’re currently in, or finding niche places that you’re passionate about where your skills can be valuable. This takes confidence in your own abilities and bravery in your own voice to speak up, but if you understand that a business’s bottom line is important for keeping the company open, ideas for growth will most likely never fall on deaf ears. We need to be the commanders of our own opportunities for growth and the commanders of our own interests. 

2. I think we need to have more respect for our current place: our current job and our current place in our career. It’s so easy to fall into “I hate my job,” “My job isn’t what I signed up for,” or “today sucked” thinking. There are opportunities for education in every minute of my 8-to-5 day. This isn’t an overstatement. It might be in communication, design, leadership, marketing, presentation, user interface, friendship, whatever. 

If you prime your mind to think about positive attributes, about how you’re helping a bigger cause, specific new skills you’re getting, the clients you love, the catered lunches the office provides, or even the awesome toilet paper in the company bathroom, you’ll be a lot happier even if you don’t think it’s the “perfect job.” 

The perfect job is a unicorn; it doesn’t exist. My job is what I make it. And if I’m not happy at work now, odds are that has a lot more to do with me than it does with the job. Changing jobs doesn’t fix the problem, changing my attitude does. Figure out how to wring the most out of your current position and never give an employer a reason to give you a less than stellar recommendation. Make them sad to lose you when you’ve created your next opportunity for advancement that isn’t inside their company (see point 1).

Something interesting/random about yourself. I’m a behavioral science and economics nerd. One of the many books I’m reading right now is “New Ideas from Dead Economists.” I’ve flirted with the idea of getting an economics degree, just to have it hang on the shelf, but for now I’ve settled on my books and a weekly dose of the Freakonomics podcast. They’re hilarious. 


Connor Simpson

Age: 22

Job Title/Company:  Co-founder & CEO, Barters Closet.

Education:  Graduated Lewis & Clark High School and attended both Eastern Washington and Whitworth universities.  

Tell us about your career so far:  I started working for the ecommerce company my father co-founded, etailz (formerly GreenCupboards), when I was 16.  I worked in virtually every department at etailz and thoroughly enjoyed the startup environment.  In my second year of college, I decided to leave school to pursue my own career in business and founded Barters Closet with investment from members of the Spokane Angel Alliance. I have been working on Barters Closet for over two years now, and the company is currently preparing for a back-to-school marketing campaign.  Most recently, I co-founded Rebooked, an application to help service providers fill canceled appointments, after Rebooked took first place at Startup Weekend Spokane.  I am also the lead organizer of Startup Weekend Spokane and part of the organizing team behind Bowl & Pitcher, a series of entrepreneurial networking events.

What are your aspirations?  I aspire to continue starting and growing emerging business and honing my entrepreneurial skills. In addition, I am passionate about developing and nurturing a vibrant entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Spokane region.

Tell us about your mentor or someone you look to for inspiration:  My father, Tom Simpson, has always been someone I have looked up to and admired. He has been a key supporter of all of my entrepreneurial endeavors. I am fortunate to be raised by Tom, who has given and continues to give me both the life and business advice I have needed to pursue my dreams.

In our current economic environment, how do you feel about the opportunities for career advancement among people of your age/generation?  Unlike most people, I had the privilege to have real-world, entrepreneurial experiences at a very early age. This gave me the confidence to pursue new ideas regardless of the economic environment or other risks. Moreover, I believe the choices I made in pursing entrepreneurship make me a better employment candidate at many companies than if I had graduated from college with a business degree. Early exposure to entrepreneurial endeavors broadens an individual’s career opportunities.

Something interesting/random about yourself:  I am going to invent time travel. 


Pete Taylor

Age: 33

Job Title/Company: Founder/CEO, Spiceologist.

Education: AAS in culinary arts (Inland Northwest Culinary Academy).

Tell us about your career so far: Even though I’ve spent the last 15 years in the hospitality industry as a chef, I’ve always had side projects keeping me busy. I’d consider myself a startup junkie. I poked and prodded with a few ventures, but never felt comfortable with going all in. Last year, I took the ultimate leap of faith when I resigned from my executive chef position at Cavanaugh’s Resort in Priest Lake to start Spiceologist. 

What are your aspirations? I’d love to become more heavily involved with the startup community. I’ve participated in a couple of Startup Weekend events and sort of got addicted to the culture behind it. Besides supporting entrepreneurism, I’ve always wanted to get my helicopter pilot’s license.

Tell us about your mentor or someone you look to for inspiration. William Miller, formally of Purcell Systems, has always been a positive influence in my life. I worked for William at The Melting Pot a few years ago and learned a great deal from him. I also find great inspiration from Jeff Bezos and Seth Godin.

In our current economic environment, how do you feel about the opportunities for career advancement among people of your age/generation? Depending on your market, I’d be scared. With automation advancements, and virtual freelance sites like Fiverr, I find job security to be a phrase of the past. Always have a backup plan and diversify your skill set.

Something interesting/random about yourself. My entrepreneurism got me in trouble at a young age. In junior high, I would stop at the grocery store to buy 25-cent sodas and chips, only to sell them to my classmates for a buck each. I was making $20 to $30 a day in profit. My teachers finally caught on and gave me a warning. I think I got suspended twice for not listening.

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