For many college students, deciding what to do after graduation is one of the biggest decisions to make. Do you take a more traditional path or try something unconventional? Do you enter the field of your major or pursue something completely different? Others may offer opinions and guidance, but it all comes down to you and what you want to do.
Alexa Bednarz, a 2012 graduate of the University of Washington, decided to take a less conventional approach. Alexa had a passion for working in the social impact field. From a young age, she had an entrepreneurial nature—she loved to fundraise, start mini businesses, and sell things. She knew that it was something she wanted to continue with throughout her life.
The University of Washington was Alexa’s top school, and for her it was a no-brainer to become a Husky. With her curious nature, she took a diverse range of classes because she wanted to truly learn as much as she could. Alexa didn’t exactly know what she wanted to do in college and dedicated her time to diving into each of her classes.
During an introductory class at the Foster School of Business, Alexa was introduced to the UW Sales Program. She was drawn to the business courses and knew that they would be beneficial to her even if she wasn’t going into a business-related field. Even though a traditional selling job wasn’t necessarily something she wanted to do after graduation, she knew that these skills would be valuable to a role within the social impact field.
While still a student at UW, Alexa began her first dive into the social impact scene when she began working at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. She first started out doing contract work and then took on a full-time role working in design and delivery of global health products. This work was particularly appealing to her because she had a strong appreciation for the Gates Foundation’s goal to “build partnerships that bring together resources, expertise, and vision—working with the best organizations around the globe to identify issues, find answers, and drive change”. Alexa spent seven years working at the Gates Foundation where she had the opportunity to travel to India before deciding to venture out into her own work.
While on her travels to New Delhi, India, Alexa noticed the lack of access to affordable and sustainable building materials. Resources that can handle the intense heat and conditions are difficult to obtain but greatly improve living conditions. While on her trip, Alexa was really transformed and began researching ways to make these types of materials available in emerging markets like India. Looking back, she said the trip was a pivotal moment in her life and gave rise to her company, Eco-Shelter.
Before embarking to India in 2015, Alexa had been reading many studies that suggested housing improvements were financial priorities for many low-income families globally. Alexa sought to learn more about the housing and roofing issues these families faced living in urban settings.
Eco-Shelter’s mission is to increase access to affordable and sustainable building materials with a focus on the needs of low-income consumers in emerging markets. At the core of this social enterprise is its flagship product, a bamboo composite roofing sheet. Alexa hopes that Eco-Shelter can expand beyond just this single product and create more materials in the future.
Eco-Shelter was awarded the National Science Foundation’s Phase I award in 2019, and then just recently, it won the Phase II award, which granted Eco-Shelter almost $1 million for research and development of the bamboo roofing material. For Alexa, it still is surreal and hasn’t fully sunk in. She is grateful and excited to have received this award and to have the chance to put that money toward developing products that are impactful and affordable in emerging markets.
Her vision for the future is to get a quality roofing product out to as many people as possible who need it. Alexa has big plans for Eco-Shelter and hopes that by 2024 she can take the bamboo sheet roof to manufacturers and continue to build the market with sales channels and partnerships. She is excited for what the future holds for Eco-Shelter, the expansion of her team, as well as the impact Eco-Shelter will make in communities around the world.
Alexa is very grateful for her time at UW, the fundraising knowledge and skills that she has learned in the Sales Program, and how she has translated those skills into the work she is doing now with Eco-Shelter.
Because UW and the Sales Program gave her so much, Alexa knew she wanted to pay it back. As a student, she met amazing mentors at the UW and through the Sales Program. After graduating, she wanted to stay involved. Alexa has been a Sales Program mentor program for nearly a decade and continues to help students pave their paths.
To students embarking on their college journey and trying to decide what they want to do, Alexa had some pieces of advice. “Remember that your first job isn’t going to be your last job. There’s so much pressure when you graduate—there’s so much stress to have your life figured out that you lose track of what you are actually interested in. For those who are interested in the social impact space, it is a very rewarding field to be in. There are definitely trade offs and sacrifices that have to be made, but it is totally worth it.”