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Go West, Young Man

A recent engineering grad veers from the safe route and heads to Silicon Valley

Computer screen projected onto a wall

Umbo makes smart devices that emulate augmented reality through automated displays on the walls of a user’s home. Through the power of persistence, Mizzou alumna Jeff Nowak snagged a job there after graduation.

But his study abroad had shown him big cities. Amsterdam. Brussels. The tech scene in London made a big impression on him. “That gave me a feeling of, ‘Wow, I know so little compared to what I thought.’ ”

Nowak knew the life he could pursue in St. Louis, that he could be happy there. But as a tech person, he also knew California was where the excitement was. “It was something that — I just felt like I would never know and kind of regret it if I didn’t go.”

So he rejected every offer and went to Los Angeles, where he had no job offers but where he had friends with empty couches and could travel to the Bay Area.

For two months he emailed résumés, called employers and dropped in on businesses, trying to drum up a job opportunity. “The biggest thing wasn’t going out there,” Nowak says. “The harder choice was staying out there. You think how long a week is at a normal job. It’s much longer when you don’t have a job and you want one.”

The next few months were a tap dance. Nowak found work in L.A., then quit and moved to San Francisco, where he’d found a corporate tech job, which he quickly left to join a software startup. That’s where he met the future founder of Umbo, Francisco Saez.

Saez had been toying with the idea for Umbo — a smart device that uses interactive displays, à la Minority Report — for five years. Nowak was convinced of its potential. In a few months, Saez officially founded Umbo, and Nowak had a new job as the head of sales and operations of a cutting-edge San Francisco startup, playing a leading role in the democratization of technology.

Looking back, the months of empty pockets and couch surfing were a small price to pay, Nowak says. “Anything that’s worthwhile is hard work and has risk involved.”

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