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Introducing Alessandra Smith : 2024 TDC Scholarship Winner

Updated: Jun 25

"I felt like I was going to need that support, the guidance that the Scholarship would provide in order to help me achieve these really lofty goals that I had set for myself."

Our interview with Alessandra Smith

Alessandra Smith, Photography by Shannon McGrath
Alessandra Smith, Photography by Shannon McGrath

TDC: Congratulations on winning the 2024 TDC Scholarship, Alessandra! We’re so excited to commence working with you. The field of applications this year was outstanding. How does it feel to be the recipient of the scholarship?

AS: It feels incredible. I'm so thrilled. I just feel so honoured to have been selected from what I'm sure was such a strong field of applicants. And given that I have such a young business, winning this feels very affirming. It feels like I'm on the path that I'm meant to be on, and it just gives me that confidence boost to keep going and growing Alessandra Smith Design.

TDC: What prompted you to apply for the Scholarship Program?

AS: At the start of the year, I sat down and set myself some goals for the business. Which is what I do, I'm a real avid goal setter. And as I was writing these goals, I realized that they were quite ambitious and I didn't think that I would be able to achieve them on my own.

It made me think about who I would need to reach out to, or what support network I would need to try and create, to get to where I want to be. At the same time as I was having these thoughts, I was listening to podcasts and the concept of a business coach kept popping up in their podcasts. I was thinking, "Okay, maybe this is the year that I engage a business coach." And it must've been that exact week that the email from Programa came through about the TDC Scholarship.

As I was reading the email, and it honestly felt like it was talking to me and that what was included within the scholarship was exactly what I felt like I needed. At that point in time, I felt like I was going to need that support, the guidance that the Scholarship would provide in order to help me achieve these really lofty goals that I had set for myself.

And it was so compelling that I knew that I had to throw my hat into the ring and I had to do everything I could to try and convince the panel that I was worthy of being this year's scholar!

Elwood Project by Alessandra Smith Design. Photography by Shannon McGrath

TDC: Alessandra Smith Design has only been operating for a little over 12 months, yet you’ve already created an impressive portfolio of work and have already been published. Can you tell us a bit about your story up to this point and why you chose to start your own design business?

AS: My foray into the design world has been anything but linear. I actually graduated as a pharmacist and I worked in the pharmacy industry for 10 years before I made that terrifying decision to turn my back on that career and pursue my passion for design.

I'm a mother to a three-year-old, Hugo, and it was the arrival of Hugo in late 2020 that made me question that path that I was on. I felt deeply unfulfilled as a pharmacist and I was quite directionless. I remember often turning to design at that point in time to nurture me, it was giving me comfort and it just felt like I should lean into this feeling and see where that takes me. It was at the time when I was returning to work from maternity leave, I knew I had to do something because I couldn't just go back to work and put my son in day care because I felt like I needed something to re-energize me and give me a pathway out of pharmacy.

I made the decision to study interior decoration with Design School. When I made the decision to study with them at that point in time, I didn't go into it thinking that I would have my own business. I was just looking for an opportunity to be creative and I was open to any opportunity that really came my way.

Six months into the course, the ultimate opportunity arose when our house was featured on the Design Files. At the time, it was six months into the course, so I still had another six months of study ahead of me. I certainly didn't feel like I was in any position to take on clients. But, when the girls from the Design Files came and photographed my house, they suggested that I start a website because the article might generate some traction and I might get some inquiries.

Elwood Project by Alessandra Smith Design. Photography by Shannon McGrath
Elwood Project by Alessandra Smith Design. Photography by Shannon McGrath

I was highly sceptical that that would actually happen, but I decided to heed their advice. I made a website using Squarespace and I launched it the day the article went live. And sure enough, I got three inquiries that day!

I then start working on client jobs. I'm studying, I'm doing my pharmacy job three days a week, and I'm a mother to an 18-month-old, and it was a lot. I was absolutely loving the client jobs I was working on, but I was getting very overwhelmed and stressed by my workload and I knew that something had to give. And that was at that point where I was at a crossroads and it was either continue on with pharmacy and try and juggle these jobs, but I knew that if I did that the jobs would not be to the level that I needed them to be in order to continue to get more clients.

At that point, I made that really scary decision. And three months after the article went live, I quit my job and went full-time with Alessandra Smith Design. Since that day I've been lucky enough to work on some amazing client projects. The business has just continued to grow. It's gained quite a bit of traction through Instagram, and I just feel so grateful every day to wake up now to be able to do a job that I love jumping out of bed in the morning. I feel like that enthusiasm I carry with me into my projects and when I'm working with clients, and I hope that my clients can see that when I'm working with them as well.

Elwood Project by Alessandra Smith Design. Photography by Shannon McGrath
Elwood Project by Alessandra Smith Design. Photography by Shannon McGrath

TDC: This month, you’re participating in the Business Bootcamp Program. What do you think has been missing from your business to date, and what are you most hoping to achieve from your participation in the courses, classes and coaching programs at TDC this year?

AS: My business has gained quite a bit of traction in quite a short period of time. With that, there's that increased workload and you need your systems to be operating at a higher level in order to manage that workload and to deliver a quality that I really want to be known for. As a sole business owner, I need to be across so many things from marketing, accounting, managing logistics, client management, and obviously I still need to try and find some time in all of that to actually be creative. I frequently found myself in the last year feeling quite stressed out and overwhelmed.

What I'm hoping to gain most of all from the program are solid systems and processes that can support me to do my job to the best of my abilities. I would also love to continue to grow my business. And ultimately in the long term, I would love a supportive team around me. The idea of hiring my first employee is quite daunting to me.

Having guidance around how I can scale my business would be invaluable, and I'm just eager to get all the guidance, advice, and learn from these really experienced and honed business minds. And I'll try and get all of that info and put it into my own business.

TDC: Your specialty is telling your clients stories through unique collections of furniture, lighting, art and objects. We understand that your mother was influential in your love of art and you now have an impressive collection. Tell us more about your love of art (and what’s your favourite piece in your collection)?

AS: I love this question. My mum is honestly one of the most creative people I know. She studied fine art at RMIT in the early '80s. Her circle of friends, they're mostly in the art scene. And so I was lucky to grow up in a home that was surrounded by art and all the walls were adorned with art.

She's been an art collector for decades and she doesn't have enough room in her own house to hang all of her works. I'm the custodian of quite a few of her works, which is great. And if I had to choose a favourite piece, it would have to be a painting that hangs above our sofa. It was painted by Cathy Drummond in 2007. Cathy Drummond actually went to art school with my mum. And this piece was actually a gift from my parents to commemorate my engagement with my husband in back in 2017.

"Dog on Swan Street" Artwork by Cathy Drummond
"Dog on Swan Street" Artwork by Cathy Drummond

The story of how and why my mum bought that piece would probably have be article in itself! Actually, here is an article about it. Last year the Guardian wrote this article about this painting and how we came to acquire it.

In 2017 I got engaged to my now husband, and we decided to get married in an art gallery, which was fortyfivedownstairs in Flinders Lane. At that time that we got engaged was also my husband's birthday, and my mum found a card from the venue from an exhibition they had in 2007, so more than 10 years earlier. When I saw this card, I looked at the photo of the artwork that was on the other side of it, and it was this beautiful painting by Cathy Drummond.

Mum reached out to Cathy. She hadn't really spoken to her recently as they had lost touch since studying at art school. She reached out to her and she went to her house to have a look at all the artworks that were available. And sure enough, there was the exact artwork that was on the back of the card, still in her house and it had never sold 10 years earlier.

My mum and my dad ended up buying it as a gift to commemorate our engagement. It's called Dog on Swan Street, and it's this quintessentially Melbourne setting in Richmond.

I'm a Melbourne girl, born and bred. I derive so much inspiration from this beautiful, vibrant city. I also love looking at Melbourne through Cathy's eyes; she manages to capture just these mundane, unassuming Melbourne scenes and make them look so beautiful through the way that she uses colour. She's just so technically brilliant as well. We are so lucky. It feels like we live in an art gallery with this one piece. It's actually that outstanding and it's really big and quite impressive. Yes, it's my favourite artwork.

Elwood Project by Alessandra Smith Design. Photography by Shannon McGrath
Elwood Project by Alessandra Smith Design. Photography by Shannon McGrath

TDC: What are you the proudest of so far in your career?

AS: I'm proud of a lot of things, but I think what I'm most proud of is that I actually found the courage to just start my career. Because I dedicated 15 years of my life to pharmacy. There were the five years of study and the 10 years of working. Once you've spent that much time investing in a career, I never thought I would get to a point where I would find the courage to actually turn my back on it. I always knew that I felt deeply unfulfilled in that career, but at the same time, it was very safe, it was secure, and it was comfortable.

"I guess if there's one thing I've learned since pursuing design and going down this path, it's that the best things in life are often on the other side of comfort, and rather than running away or shying away from those things, we should actually be running towards them because ultimately that's how we grow."

Alessandra Smith

I'm just really proud of myself for showing my son that it's never too late to change your mind and that life's too short to settle for a job that you don't enjoy. Just do the things that you want to do regardless of what you feel you should be doing or that you feel that society expects you to do.

I actually read a book in 2019 called Creative Calling, and there was a quote from there that deeply resonated with me at that point in my life. That was at the point where I was really feeling like I needed to make a change.

"What matters is that you start. All you're deciding to do is to try. Do whatever you can with what you have. It will never feel like the right time. You will never be "ready". Avoid preparing too much. Start before you are ready. Start with fear. Start with uncertainty. This is one of the biggest secrets of the most creative, happy, successful people: Just start." Chase Jarvis

Elwood Projec
Elwood Project by Alessandra Smith Design. Photography by Shannon McGrath

TDC: You’ve shared with us that you’re an avid goal setter, and have some reasonably lofty targets for the year ahead. A big part of our Premium Group Coaching Program is a framework for setting regular, achievable goals, with the added benefit of a supportive Accountability Program with the other members to help maximise your potential to achieve them. As a solo operator, how will this team approach help you and your business?

AS: When you're a solo operator, it is very isolating and you can get in your own head very quickly. When you have that network, it helps you to get out of your head to be able to problem solve together. And often things aren't as bad as they seem when you are working by yourself. It's very easy to catastrophize. I've already seen how important it is to have a network around you, and I'm just so excited to be able to continue to grow my network through The Design Coach community.

I love being able to learn from others. I'm always looking for opportunities to grow my network and I've been lucky enough to form connections with so many amazing people within the industry in this very short amount of time that I've been in it. I think we can learn so much from the experience of others. It broadens our perspective. It will encourage more innovative thinking, and together we can harness our collective wisdom. I think we can all achieve more together than we can working in isolation. I love that it has that accountability component to the program.

Elwood Projec
Elwood Project by Alessandra Smith Design. Photography by Shannon McGrath

TDC: What’s the toughest business lesson you’ve had to learn?

There've been plenty. I think the toughest thing is around the importance of setting boundaries and managing client expectations. I think when you love what you do and when you're a sole business owner and you're in the really early days of your business, you really have this eagerness to want to please and deliver this exceptional service. It's really easy to over commit and last year I found myself that I was working frequently at night and over the weekends.

What I've done recently is communicating with clients at the outset of projects now around what my boundaries are when it comes to communicating and making sure that I am able to have that distinction between my work life and my personal life. Because last year, it was very blurred. That was a tough lesson to learn because I felt like I got close to burnout as a result of that.

TDC: Our sponsors, Halliday + Baillie are thrilled with our final decision to award you as the 2024 Scholar. Is there anything you wanted to say to the sponsors?

Thank you! A big thank you for your support and for making this scholarship possible. I'm just so grateful to them for investing in my potential and for playing such an important role in nurturing the growth of someone like me who is an emerging designer, and I'm just really looking forward to be able to connect with them and work with them this year.

As a decorator, I am intimidated when it comes to specifying hard finishes. I'm really looking forward to working with them because I feel like they can help demystify that process for me because when I do get inquiries from clients around hard finish selection, sometimes I don't know where to turn. That support from Halliday + Baillie will be invaluable.

Alessandra Smith with her family
Alessandra Smith with her family

TDC: This will be an action-packed year, full of new experiences, and focused on personal and professional growth. What big plans do you have this year and into the future, both personally and professionally?

AS: I have really big plans for my business this year. I finished my first major project at the end of last year, and that was a real full circle moment because that project, the client of that, contacted me the day I started my business when The Design Files article went live. It just feels so fitting to see that one through to completion, having it professionally photographed last year by an amazing photographer, Shannon McGrath. My big goal this year is to see that one published online and in print, which would be a first for me. I've had my own home published online, but this would be my first client project. I'm working on those applications at the moment and submissions to publications, so fingers crossed I can make that a reality.

Other than that, I have some really exciting projects that I'm working on this year, including my first international project, which is a house in the US that I've just started working on. And I have an amazing dream project in Sydney as well that will be starting in a few months. These are really big projects and dream projects for me. To have the support of The Design Coach community as I'm undertaking these big projects, I know will be a huge help to me as I'm sure I'm going to encounter a lot of challenges because they are such big projects. I'm really looking forward to receiving their support.

Personally, even though I feel like I'm busier than ever, I feel like I want to focus on gaining greater balance in my life this year. My son is only three and childhood, as we all know, it's so fleeting and I don't want to look back on this time and feel like I missed it. As important as my business is, my number one priority will always be my family. I will use them as my compass to help guide me in making decisions when it comes to how I operate with my business.

Another personal goal would be to holiday as a family because we have yet to take a holiday as a family, so I would love to have a relaxing beach holiday this year. Maybe somewhere up the coast. I'm going to throw out Byron Bay as an idea because I think there's some great design showrooms there as well.

We're so excited to work with Alessandra, and look forward to watching her progress throughout the year. Once again, we thank our amazing 2024 sponsor Halliday + Baillie for helping to make the scholarship program possible.

Stay well, and believe in you!

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