Alysha Smith, the CEO of Salt Lake City design company Modern8, dreamed of working in San Francisco for Gap Inc. as a visual merchandiser. But her success on the retail floor, starting at the age of 16, kept her in store management rather than headquarters.
After years managing busy Banana Republics in New York City during the heyday of career-wear retail, Smith returned to Salt Lake City. She eventually joined her father, Randall Smith, at the design company he founded, in 2012.
Named chief executive officer this February, Smith is embracing the challenge of reshaping a family legacy to reflect her own goals and vision.
Modern8 creates strategy, design and related marketing for clients in technology, engineering and consumer products. Some include the Utah-based Nush Foods keto bars, Ritual Chocolate and Little Unicorn baby products, along with Surehand, a California employment tech company.
She founded the professional group, NaNa, to bring other "rad" females together and trains for bodybuilding competitions while raising a family.
Her schedule includes gym time at 5:00 a.m. on weekdays and meal-prepping on weekends, with the energy invested in one role seeming to fuel the other.
Campaign US talked to Smith about growing modern8, her inside track on recruiting Utah design talent and what Upper East Side Banana Republic stores taught her about running an agency. Check out the full interview below.
What led you to your initial career in retail?
I always had an obsession with clothes, fashion and design. I grew up in a household where an aesthetic was important to us. My dream was to work at the Gap, and I applied and applied and they finally brought me on at 16. I transitioned to Banana Republic, went to Brigham Young University, and studied communications and business, always working.
I was promoted while I was in college to store manager. My senior year, I was trying to finish up my degree while managing 30 people.
I moved to NYC and from the ages of 24-30, I was promoted to different stores. This was the heyday of Banana Republic, and growth was just booming at the time.
What led you to join the family design firm?
My husband at the time and I were kind of done with New York, so we moved back here and I went back to Banana Republic as an assistant manager to help make the bills. My sister was working with my dad as kind of an office manager and she passed away in 2012. That really made me reevaluate my life, my career and my time with my family and son.
I basically begged Randall, my dad, to let me work there. I wanted to fill that void for him and I wanted to spend less time working weekends and nights at stores and spend that time with my son.
For the first four or five years, I dug in and learned about websites, understanding typography, participating in reviews and art direction. It came pretty naturally; it is who I am. I am where I am supposed to be.
How did working in retail, managing Banana Republic, Gap and later Anthropologie stores prepare you for a career in agency management?
Something I learned from my career in the past is how to lead a group. Most of my designers are young and I am leading them in a different way than my father did, being flexible in different ways, empathetic, and establishing systems and ways for them to thrive.
That really comes from working at retail in New York. I was leading a lot of different personalities. One of my strongest talents is being able to pick out strengths in individuals and leveraging those strengths, so that means creating new positions for employees here and picking out extended responsibilities that they hadn’t had before.
Some of the language I see at modern8 stands out: "We are not robots, impulsive, haters." How else do you define modern8?
We like to view ourselves as different from our competition. You can look at many a design agency and they all look good. They put their best work out there.
When we say we are not robots, we are not there for you to call us, say you want a logo and we design it then and there. We go through an extensive process that is backed by research and interviews and really looking at the competition to make sure when we design something, it is sending the right message. We are thinkers. If you don’t want to go through the process, you don’t want to work with us.
Your processes include defining the "only only." Is that another way of saying "unique selling proposition?"
If you can find this one thing that no one else can claim, then we really feel you have something to hang your hat on. You can’t just go out and say, "we are the best at this." It is too canned. The process takes a lot of work, a lot of thinking a lot of iterating to hone in on that one thing. We like to marry a real, solid positioning with an emotional positioning. We feel like combining the "only only," the brain part with the heart, that can be your brand promise or your brand personality.
Give us an example of this?
Just recently, we wrapped up a brand refresh for Little Unicorn, a baby, swaddle-blanket company. We found they were the only company that would start from scratch, they’d hand-paint these watercolors, then they would turn those into a vector and apply them to swaddle blankets. Other companies were just creating art on a computer.
We created a brand language, that these moments with your child were beautiful, magical and worth holding on to and these blankets were part of that story. These blankets were moments of playing tug of war between the baby and the dog, swaddling during midnight feedings. We presented the emotional part of the brand to the president of the company and his directors and he was so emotional, he had to step out of the office.
Why did you start the NaNa support group for businesswomen?
There are so many networking groups that are technology-based or mommy bloggers, but I wanted a group of women who are like-minded about their attitude about the world.
I just selfishly wanted an opportunity to bring women together who do rad things. There are so many talented women here and I wanted to learn from them and I wanted a place for women to come together. Our hashtag is "Get it done and make it happen."
In addition to raising a family, bodybuilding is a big commitment in your life. How do you work it all in?
I always have been into health and fitness. About two years ago, my sister came to me and said I want to do one of those body competitions, one of those things where you have to get into a bikini and pose. Somehow she talked me into it. We met every morning at the gym at 5 a.m., worked out for an hour and a half, then I came home, meal-prepped and went to work. We did our first show and qualified for nationals. I decided to keep going and competed in three national shows last year.
At some point, I realized I needed to reevaluate how I was spending my time. I am a mom of a three-year-old, a teenager and two step kids. Now I batch cook casseroles on the weekend for three weeks ahead. I cut up vegetables on the weekend. I go to the gym for one-and-a-half hours three times a week. It is a lot of work, but I kind of thrive on it.
Living out West, how does that shape your design aesthetic and business style?
I think there is a lot of talent here in Utah. We are really lucky that my father still teaches branding at the University of Utah so we get to hand-select interns. The best of the best come here. A lot have transitioned to full-time employees.
We hire designers, thinkers and writers. To work at modern8, you have to be able to do all three things. You can’t just be a designer to work here.