In my second career after 50, lunch might be at a sidewalk table at a bustling Italian restaurant in the heart of Manhattan or a picnic among towering trees along a crystal clear river in the Nez Perce National Forest, in Idaho. It could consist of a Po Boy in a New Orleans bar or an authentic lamb biryani at an Indian restaurant in San Francisco. Lunch might be in Tampa or Charleston or Austin. I’ve had lunch across the street from Harvard and Princeton, both. No matter where, lunch is always a part of a road trip. It’s a retirement dream, but it’s not exactly retirement . . . it’s my new career.
I knew early on that I wanted to be an architect and wasted no time getting my degree at the University of Illinois in Chicago, one of only five women in a class of about one hundred. After graduating, I was hired at one of the most prestigious architectural firms in the city, working on a myriad of commercial and institutional assignments. The hours were long, the challenges large, and the salary meager. But I loved every minute. Eventually, the demands of the job didn’t mix well with being a working mother, but I had the good fortune of being at the right place/right time and landed a position as a director of the building department in the community in which I lived.
Nearly twenty years later, in 2010, the housing bubble burst. Design and construction ground to halt and suddenly I found myself unemployed when the city I worked for was forced to consolidate departments and cut back on staff. I was only 54 and not nearly ready to throw in the towel, but the entire industry, architects, contractors and municipal building departments were in the same boat and prospects were slim to none. It was a turning point, although at that moment I had no idea where I would be headed. Indeed, many municipalities cut staff to half time. It was frightening, but fortunately, my husband, John, remained employed, managing design and construction projects for Northwestern University. Luckily, his work involved large, long-term projects.
As one door closes, life has a funny way of opening another, even if only ever so slightly. Having time on my hands, I had the idea of promoting John’s photography. He had been a serious amateur photographer for decades and I was certain that there would be a market for his fine art images. We brainstormed and decided that images of Northwestern would target a niche market. We discussed something that John had noticed at work. When people retired or moved on, there was always some head scratching involved as staff tried to figure out what to give as a parting gift. Gee whiz, we concluded, a framed, fine art photograph would make a perfect gift. And a perfect gift for graduation, donor recognition, as an honorarium, for Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, holidays, birthdays and even as wall art for offices, conference rooms, or reception areas. We realized that there was a huge potential and untapped market.
It wasn’t long before we made the leap and drove to photograph the architectural icons on the other four major universities in Chicago. The next logical step was to head downstate to the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana. We determined that photographing all the significant icons in the Midwest was within our reach. Spare weekends and John’s vacations were sacrificed as we headed to Indiana, Michigan, Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin. We soon simplified, but expanded our business plan mission: To photograph every significant collegiate icon in the country. Gulp.
Our heads were spinning as we realized with needed a name … an identity. We made a list of possible names and liked “University Icons” the best. Amazingly, UniversityIcons.com was an available domain and we snatched it up. Although we hired a graphic artist, we ended up developing our own logo and began outlining a business plan. Recognizing that we had no prior small business experience, we tapped a friend who helped up us engage two Notre Dame MBA hopefuls as interns/consultants to help. Additionally, John’s daughter, offered to help out with social media and marketing on a part- time basis.
It was about this time that I recognized that my new career entailed more than being a photographer’s assistant: bookkeeping, inventory, social media, research, logistics, marketing, customer service and lot’s more. The biggest challenge is marketing. I was accustomed to others approaching me with offers and requests. Suddenly, I found that I have to sell, which is incredibly difficult. Let’s face it, starting a business in your mid-50’s is no walk in the park. I found myself working long hours, facing new challenges, and instead of even a meager salary, having to use our savings to finance the business. But I don’t mind it because I believed in our mission. Moreover, I‘m having the time of my life, driving around country from one college town to the next, with John, seeing the vast and disparate collection of remarkable architectural icons that I like to call “our national treasure.”
For an architect, visiting these monuments is an absolute joy, clouded only occasionally by surprising disrepair and neglect or icons that have been replaced with newer and decidedly less compelling architecture. Fortunately, most colleges revere their icons and treat them accordingly, understanding their power in marketing their schools, but some are hidden by overgrown trees, shrubs, and, worst of all, covered with massive banners that subvert the architecture and undermine their presence.
Nevertheless, I rarely complain about having to wear sunscreen on the job or having to determine the most scenic route to our next destination.
We have visited over 450 colleges and universities, in nearly all the states, and clocked nearly 25,000 miles road-tripping from one to the next, seeing so much of this grand country in a way that not many others ever have a chance to do. And in my case, both the journey and the destinations are a reward.
Carolyn Brzezinski For more information visit: UniversityIcons.com