Leslie Zacharkow has been angling for a move to the West Coast ever since she spent a semester in Vancouver during college.
“It was weird and zen, and totally amazing,” she wrote. “Since then I’ve visited SF twice and each time I’ve had the overwhelming feeling that it’s where I needed to be.”
That’s why, when the young designer landed a job at San Francisco energy company Opower, she jumped at the opportunity. But Zacharkow, 25, says she’s going to miss Philly — its dive bars, its rooftops and, most of all, the community.
“Philly is an amazing place with the tightest group of honest, hard-working, civic-minded people,” the South Philadelphian wrote in her Exit Interview.
Zacharkow has worked at local firms like Urban Outfitters, Squareknot and Fabric Horse.
We asked her about why she feels drawn to the West Coast, her secret getaway off the Schuylkill River Trail and her favorite local projects. (We’ll add two: the innovation map she designed for Philly Tech Week 2015 presented by Comcast and the “Welcome to Philly Tech” infographic she designed for us.)
How long has this decision been in the making?
Basically ever since 2011 when I spent a semester in Vancouver!
During undergrad at UArts, I had a chance to participate in a little-known “mobility” program that most design schools in North America are part of. It allows students to spend a semester anywhere else with barely any strings attached. I went to Emily Carr University for industrial design, where I learned that I really felt like 100 percent of myself on the West Coast. It was weird and zen, and totally amazing. Since then I’ve visited SF twice and each time I’ve had the overwhelming feeling that it’s where I needed to be.
“100 percent of myself.” Can you tell us a little more about what that means?
Imagine you’re living in a house on a bay, the weather is perfect and you can see a city in the foreground, a preserved natural landscape next to it, and snow-topped mountains in the background. That kind of connectedness of everything inspires a community of people that care about the place they live. They pick up on things and act on them.
Take the design of the trash cans in Vancouver as an example (weird, I know … but menial enough to make a point). Canada is without a national housing strategy and Vancouver is an incredibly expensive place to live, so it’s created a serious homeless problem. Many of the homeless in BC make money by collecting bottles out of the trash, so the city redesigned the trashcans to support that routine and make it easier for the homeless to collect bottles. People put bottles into a cup-holder structure around the can instead of into the basket, and the homeless collect them constantly.
"Philly is an amazing place with the tightest group of honest, hard-working, civic-minded people."
Living with that sort of connectedness really sparked something for me. I had never lived in a place that cared so deeply about its community and landscape. It’s a place where you can see the mountains while you’re riding public transportation, and where 95 percent of people take the courtesy to thank the bus driver on their way out. I guess the main thing I took with me was that people are inherently good, and there’s so much you can learn from strangers and by observation especially when you’re alone. So that’s what I’m trying to get back to with this move.
So do you feel like you’ve been plotting how to get over to the West Coast since you spent some time there during college?
Yes, definitely. But timing is everything and I try to make moves that are deliberate, so I wanted this to be a good career-choice.
I think that life mostly consists of timing and coincidences, and somewhere in there you’ve got opportunities. About two years ago I met someone that works at Opower while at the 2013 Brooklyn Beta conference. I visited their offices in D.C., met the team and began interviewing. However, they were in the process of relocating to San Francisco and the timing just wasn’t right. I recently read something that stuck with me — “Every opportunity ignored becomes a curse.” Ever since I backed out of that opportunity, it’s been sitting in the back of my mind.
When I got back in touch with that contact less than a month ago, it just so happened that they were looking for someone with my skillset and the timing was absolutely perfect. An incredible coincidence. Two weeks later I flew out, interviewed, and found out I got the job while I was sitting in Dolores Park. That was a super surreal, crazy moment when I realized it was finally happening!
When it came to moving, what kinds of factors were you considering? Was there something that swayed you in one direction or the other?
Well, I guess I need to take a look at the things I value: quality of life, community, and the creative energy that I get from my day-job. Of all of those things, community is what I knew I’d be missing if I left.
Philly is an amazing place with the tightest group of honest, hard-working, civic-minded people. I’m not into the startup thing people perceive as the SF bubble — the who-has-whose-money game and getting a C-level title before you’ve actually done the work. If I were to leave, I wanted to take my career in a direction that was purpose-driven so that I would find a similar community of people that I’ve found here, and I wanted a job where I could learn and grow a lot.
When I discovered this opportunity at Opower and realized that I’d be filling my days with the type of work that I want to be doing, with like-minded people, and for a cause that I whole-heartedly support, I knew it was right.
What job are you leaving right now?
I’m leaving my job as Product Manager / Interaction Designer at Urban Outfitters, and let me tell you it’s not easy! My team is the best one I’ve ever worked on. They’re smart, talented, hard-working people that know how to get a job done and laugh when things get weird. They’ve taught me so much and it’s really bittersweet to leave. That team is doing really good work and they’re definitely worth watching and/or joining if you get the chance!
What were some of your favorite projects that you worked on during your time here?
Oh man! So much to mention.
- I’m super proud of the time I spent with Carrie Collins at [South Philly’s] Fabric Horse — she’s making such great products with an underlying focus on sustainability and local economy.
- The work that I’ve done at Urban Outfitters has been immensely rewarding — working between teams and helping everyone understand each other to work toward a common goal.
- The Trestleator was a lot of fun, and Ian [Cross, owner of the The Trestle and I-SITE] and his partner are such cool people.
- I’m proud of the work that I’ve done with Steve Streisguth, from rebranding GoodSemester into Squareknot and securing our first round of funding, to little projects like creating a wholesale catalogue for Fabric Horse. He’s another one that got away to SF, so maybe we’ll work together again!
- And I can’t forget the Switched-On Garden installation I did with Kyle Stetz and Data Garden!
What place/places in Philly are you going to miss the most?
I’m going to miss the micro-communities that are in each neighborhood of the city. The shops and their owners on Passyunk Ave … the little Newbold oasis between Ultimo, Brew, and the South Philly Taproom … all the good dive bars like Oscar’s, New Wave and playing pool on liquid confidence. I’m going to miss sitting on top of the tunnel on Kelly Drive and watching the sunset then staying out late and biking down the Schuylkill River Path. All of the rooftop spots. Now I’m getting sentimental!
Wait, what tunnel?
Do you know the spot on the Schuylkill River Path where Kelly Drive goes through a big rock tunnel and the path bends around it? On the south side of that, if you cross the street and look something like 50 yards in, you’ll see some old rock steps that go up onto the rock that the tunnel cuts through. It’s part of some super old architecture that used to be there. Take the stairs all the way up and then follow the trail to the left towards the river. You’ll come to an open look-out spot that looks over the river between the Girard Bridge to the south and the Amtrak bridge to the north. It’s definitely my favorite spot in Philly, despite all the empty forties lying around. 😉
Any advice you have or lessons you learned here that you wanna share?
Keep an open mind and get yourself out there. I think that women can often feel “imposter’s syndrome” especially in the tech industry, where you doubt yourself and wonder if you really deserve what you have. But know that you DO deserve it, and you’re WORTH IT. If you know and own that, you’ll do great work and your positivity will be contagious.-30-
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