Let Strangers in When They Knock on Your Door

Hey! Martha here. I’m jumping in this week with a story of my own — my story at Switchboard — which began with opportunity literally knocking on my door.

It all started on a chilly night in the fall of my freshman year at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. I was hanging out in my dorm room with some friends on a Friday night, talking about a paper we had to write about Aeschylus that was due the next day, when I got a knock at my door.

I opened the door to find a couple in their late twenties looking back at me. 

         “Hi!” said the woman, “we wanted to see who lived in our old dorm.”

They looked friendly, so I let them in. The couple turned out to be Mara, Switchboard’s future co-founder, and her husband Andrew. They were back on campus for an Alumni Board meeting, and they wanted to meet the students who lived in their old rooms. We told them our stories about Reed and they told us theirs, until we somehow end up on the topic of life after graduation. I told them that I had started to look for a summer internship in economics. I was happy to do anything anywhere without pay, but I had no idea where to start looking. Mara happened to be an economic journalist working for one of the largest public radio networks in the country, and she offered to put me in touch with some people she knew.

See? Opportunity literally knocked on my door.

Here’s a picture Mara snapped of my friends and I that night. 

I didn’t know much as a freshman, but I did know that I had just been handed a whole bunch of luck, so I took Mara up on her offer and emailed her two weeks later. She introduced me to five leads, spanning the range of her closest friends to professional colleagues. I landed an internship with one of her friends at an investment bank and tried my hand at finance.

In my conversations with Mara, I learned that she was connecting with other students like me as well. She would hear from students, email her friends, and then connect members of the community to each other. She was a human switchboard. Mara followed up with me six months after my internship to see how things worked out. (When I offered to send her a thank-you gift, she humbly refused). I let her know that I was looking for another summer internship, and she linked me to the Reed Switchboard, a website she had created with twenty other friends from her graduating class as a way for alumni to connect with current Reed students.

                                                                        The earliest of Switchboards

                                                                        The earliest of Switchboards


Mara founded the Reed Switchboard on a simple premise. Reed alumni had many useful experiences and perspectives but were disconnected from the Reed community after graduation. The Reed Switchboard united Reedies across the globe. On Reed Switchboard, each of Mara’s fellow alumni wrote a quick bio about themselves and listed five other alumni that they knew. The alumni collectively offered to donate $40 to Reed for every student who contacted them, and they also pooled money to offer a summer grant for one student with an unpaid internship.

During Reed Switchboard’s first summer, Mara found Switchboard’s other future co-founder, Sean. With nine time zones and more than 5,000 miles separating them, they started working on version two of Switchboard.

That spring, I used Switchboard again for my next internship search. My Ask for an internship in public health was fatefully answered by an alumna working at the World Health Organization. She also filled many other intern positions with an Offer of her own.

              My success, coupled with Kat's mega-success

              My success, coupled with Kat's mega-success

Good press for Reed Switchboard started to roll in, and the alumni of other schools requested Switchboards for their own communities. To be able to share Switchboard with other institutions, Mara and Sean applied to a couple startup incubators and were accepted to the Portland Incubator Experiment.

When I returned from my summer internship, I jumped back into working with Switchboard, this time in a shiny new office in the Wieden + Kennedy building in downtown Portland. I split my time between my senior thesis and helping the company get started, then began full-time work the day after I graduated.

Switchboard dotted my college experience from its very beginning (you can trace my story by looking at all of my comments and posts on Reed Switchboard), and it colored those four years with trust, generosity, and kindness. Mara’s Offer to me my freshman year later allowed me to make Offers of my own, and the students I helped made themselves available to help others. Now, as a Reed alumna, I get a warm-fuzzy feeling in my heart when I look back on college experience knowing that there is an army of people who want to help me succeed. Thanks to Switchboard, hundreds of other Reed alumni can say the same.