20 Questions: Katie Geffken
BY CHRISTOPHER ANKNEY
PHOTO BY MATTHEW RAKOLA
Katie Geffken (née Fouts), AB ’03/MBA ’08, got her start in the business world working at the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
Perhaps it’s no surprise then that her former “agency” career, and myriad entrepreneurial projects -- owning an award-winning fitness boutique, running a start-up real estate business, co-leading the Michigan Ross Alumni Club of D.C., and launching a “lean-in” style peer group for women in business -- can at times feel like a series of convenient cover stories for what is probably a sophisticated and covert counterintelligence plot.
OK, probably not -- but that list is impressive! Geffken opened Biker Barre, a boutique fitness studio on Capitol Hill, in 2011, after a career spent working her way up in various roles within marketing agencies.
“I realized that I already had exposure to the entire marketing industry at that point,” she says. “And I knew that while I was good at my job, that alone wasn’t going to be fulfilling in the long term.”
Since opening, Biker Barre has been voted among the best fitness studios of its kind in D.C., and a cultural shift affecting the fitness industry seems poised to help the cycling gym stay on track.
“Fitness is becoming part of our social currency,” she said. “People talk about their favorite instructors over business lunches, or take clients to class instead of the bar. Fitness is becoming socially cool, not just something you do to be healthy. And that’s good for everyone.”
We like to think our 20 Questions are a kind of workout all their own, so could they make this entrepreneur break a sweat?
What’s a book that you’ve read recently? How was it?
Wool (the Omnibus Edition) by Hugh Howley. This book was actually recommended to me by fellow Ross grad Shannon Ross, MBA ’09. It’s an incredibly compelling and thought-provoking, post-apocalyptic, Lord of the Flies-type story. I really enjoyed it!
First album/CD you bought?
Paula Abdul's Forever Your Girl album.
What’s most played in your music library?
A couple songs that I’ve been using for classes at Biker Barre recently: local DC act Black Alley, particularly their track “Used”; MKTO’s “Bad Girls”; Montell Jordan’s “This is How We Do It”; Ella Eyre’s “Together.” I latch on to music with modern production value but throwback sound.
What’s the most thrilling/adventurous thing you’ve ever done?
I love to travel without concrete plans. My husband and I honeymooned in Slovenia and Croatia last fall and would hike around, picnic, hike some more, and find a place to stay when we got tired. It's fun not to always know what's coming next.
Who is your personal hero?
My husband, Andrew Geffken. (Is that gross? I'm not sorry.) Andrew and I are both entrepreneurs -- I have Biker Barre and my real estate business, and he has Charm City Meadworks, a company making mead. Andrew is the smartest and most thoughtful person I've ever met. He has a plan for everything. He has a vision for his company that I think is brilliant. I learn from his example all the time.
Describe your first job.
I was the lowest person on the totem pole at the International Spy Museum, so I did everything that needed doing. Including answering the brand new phone, which looked exactly like the lunar module's display panel as far as I was concerned. One day, the same gentleman called three times trying to reach the president of the museum. Each time I managed to hang up on him rather than connect him. Finally, the fourth time he called, I forwarded the call! About 10 minutes later the president came out with a huge smile on his face and said "Just so you know, that was Harrison Ford. He said that you were the most amusing part of his day."
Best business decision?
The decision to start my business -- I have a job that I truly love and I get to work with absolutely amazing instructors and clients.
Charm City Meadworks sparkling pumpkin mead in the fall. Also Charm City sparkling Thai basil and lemongrass mead in the spring.
What advice would you give yourself 10 years ago?
I would scream at myself 10 years ago: SAVE YOUR MONEY!! It's really nice to have savings to fall back on when times are tough or -- you know -- if you'd like to start a business.
Most-cherished Ross experience?
I won a case competition and got $400. Which I then spent on a stretch limo. (See what I mean about my former self?)
Business or charity you wish more people knew about?
Charm City Meadworks!
The thing you learned in business school that you’ll never forget?
Learning how to think strategically and use frameworks was pretty important to me. When you're the owner of even a super small company, decisions can be hard. I'm not saying I whip out Porter's 5 Forces when I'm deciding how much toilet paper to buy, but I do naturally look at things through a lens of "is this on track for us and our plan." I think I got a lot of training on thinking that way through the marketing, strategy, and management & organizations classes I took while at Ross.
Most important room in your home?
The bathroom. There's two of us and one of them.
First website you access in the morning?
Gmail, then Biker Barre's Mind Body portal where I can track sales, then Instagram, then Twitter, then Facebook, then maybe the Washington Post.
Favorite comfort food?
What did you want to be when you were a kid?
Favorite thing happening in the fitness world right now?
The industry is trending toward boutique studios that specialize rather than large gyms that offer everything. Obviously I love that.
Favorite sport to watch?
Michigan football (Welcome back, Coach!)
What or where is your ideal retirement spot?
On the water near a town with lots of cool/creative stuff.
What job would you hate to have?
I would hate to be the security guard at an amusement park. You know, the one who has to tell the kids who are too short that they can't ride the rides.
Digital Dividend Online Exclusive
We asked Katie a few additional questions for our online audience.
Must-have app on your phone?
I've been using Trello to track progress on a couple projects recently and I like it, but I'm not sure it's “have to have” status.
Who is today’s most influential business leader?
Local business owners who have more than $1 million in revenue or so -- the really successful local folks (I'm not there yet). Those folks are incredibly influential and no one ever talks about them.
Favorite person to follow on Twitter?
@MichiganRoss, duh. No, seriously -- @drunkinagarten
What do you miss about Ann Arbor?
I love that there's no such thing as apathy in Ann Arbor. EVERYONE wears the gear. EVERYONE avoids walking on the block M in the diag. I totally made my then-boyfriend kiss me under West Arch. I miss going to the Law Quad reading room for quiet studying, Dominick's (totally not subtle, but...), Kerrytown.... I miss the pure gung-ho attitude that you live with and literally walk through when you're there. Go Blue!
Three people, living or dead, you’d like to have dinner with?
Ernest Shackleton, Leni Riefenstahl (I don't have to be friends with these people, right?), Steve Jobs.