How She Got There: Lea Aparis

When Lea Aparis began her freshman year at the University of Washington, she had every intention of pursuing a degree in mathematics and becoming a high school math teacher. Feeling the pressure to pursue math from her parents, teachers, and society at large, she entered college with her blinders on, completely focused on achieving the goal she initially set for herself. If you would have told Lea that years later her life would lead her to become the owner and director of Cornerstone Studio, a dance studio in the greater Seattle area, she likely wouldn’t have believed it. Lea’s career journey is nonlinear and replete with a variety of twists and turns that have led her to where she is today. Her academic and professional life is a testament to how easily career plans can change. While these changes can feel overwhelming at times, they can ultimately lead you to a fulfilling professional career that can enrich all areas of your life if you're open to the possibilities.

The Journey
“When something’s not supposed to be a part of your path, there seems to always be an obstacle, but that’s the universe telling you that you need to change course”

Throughout Lea’s high school career, math was a subject that came naturally to her. She was praised and inspired by her own math teachers in high school, and they often encouraged her to capitalize on her talents and become a math teacher herself. But in addition to Lea’s passion for math, she had spent her entire life as a dancer and later a dance teacher, which knew she wanted to continue into the future. Nevertheless, Lea reminisces that “back then there was a lot of pressure to ‘go to college and get your money’s worth,’” becoming a dancer, often a low-income career choice, wasn’t celebrated by wider society. Even though Lea’s parents majored in the arts themselves, they insisted that she was talented enough to not bother studying dance in college and should instead “get a degree to make money.”

So, it was settled. When Lea entered UW, she planned to get her undergraduate degree in math relations and her master’s degree in education. She also pursued a minor in dance, as she quickly realized the dance classes she was taking were a helpful way for her to balance out her heavy mathematics coursework and keep her passion for dance ignited.

As Lea got deeper into the math major, she immediately felt out of place. Struck by imposter syndrome, she felt as though all of her peers were “out of her league” and that she wasn’t capable of succeeding. In every other class that wasn’t in her major, she was getting 4.0s and enjoying the coursework. But that wasn’t the case in her math classes. After every exam, she experienced sheer frustration and defeat. “It was as if everyone else was speaking another language,” Lea recalls. She remembers going to as many office hours as she could and still feeling confused and overwhelmed.

“When something’s not supposed to be a part of your path, there seems to always be an obstacle, but that’s the universe telling you that you need to change course,” Lea says.

Overhead view of Students In Class Photo by Mikael Kristenson from Unsplash

There was one class, in particular, that was the final straw. Lea was writing and rewriting mathematical proofs and kept coming up with wrong answers every time. That was it, the blinders needed to come off. She spoke with her academic advisor to see what other degree she could accomplish with the credits she had already earned. She tried out some classes in economics and communication, and ultimately stuck with economics, as it wasn’t as rigorous as her math coursework, but still gave her a well-rounded view of applied math and statistics.

Considering how much Lea struggled in her last few years of college, she decided to give up her idea of being a math teacher. After graduating in the winter of 2006, she got an entry-level customer service job with Alaska Airlines, where she quickly moved up into specialist roles. Lea was even pulled into a special project at the airline company, in which she worked with a small team to design the first virtual assistant avatar for Alaska. Outside of her full-time job, she was also fulfilling her dance passion by teaching dance classes about once a week. Motivated to earn more money in her career, Lea later got a job for the travel company Expedia as a database marketing specialist, in which she worked on e-mail campaigns, collaborated with copywriters and global team members, and wrote for a blog.

Lea also upped her teaching schedule by adding a few more dance classes to her weekly schedule. Throughout college and her early career, Lea had kept teaching dance on the side, but had considered wanting to have her own dance studio one day, likely 20-30 years down the road when she was much later into her professional career. Little did Lea know that she would be a studio owner a lot sooner than anticipated.

two women sitting at table signing papers Photo by Gabrielle Henderson from Unsplash The owner of Cornerstone Studio (the dance studio Lea was teaching at) called Lea to inform her that she was planning on closing the studio in a few months and asked if she was interested in buying it. Lea mulled over the decision. Her dad told her that she shouldn’t pass up an opportunity like this. So, just like that, Lea decided to purchase the studio, and ownership completely transferred over within a couple of months.

Lea’s first year of running Cornerstone was a hectic one, as she endured 80-hour work weeks trying to manage the studio while still working at her full-time role at Expedia. Lea didn’t have experience owning a business or managing staff. She wasn’t sure if it would be too big of a risk to leave her role at Expedia. But amidst this whirlwind of a transition, Lea found herself relying on what she learned in her past academic and professional endeavors. Her education in mathematics and economics gave her an understanding of finances and allowed her to understand budgeting, administering payroll, and conducting cost analyses. Her experience with e-commerce and marketing allowed her to impart invaluable sales and customer service knowledge. Lea’s experiences in the larger corporate world helped her bring an important perspective to the studio, as her knowledge allowed her to grow a business that effectively carries out its mission and serves community members.

Workout partner Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

The Takeaways
"You might have a clear idea of what you want to do, but don’t allow that to keep you closed-off.”

Today, it’s been over a decade since Lea became the owner of Cornerstone and the studio is still standing amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Cornerstone continues to pivot and adapt its offerings with virtual classes, allowing the studio to diversify its services and interact with its dancers in creative ways.

From her schooling at UW to her customer service and marketing roles in the corporate world, all of Lea’s experiences have given her the tools she needs to succeed as a small business owner. Her biggest advice to students going into college is to “not be closed off to what possibilities are there for you.” “You might have a clear idea of what you want to do, but don’t allow that to keep you closed-off,” Lea shared.

In college, we students have the opportunity to learn about more topics than we can probably count. Yet, many of us enter higher education with our blinders on, painstakingly focused on achieving an ideal that we may have not fully thought through. Being open to alternative prospects, while overwhelming at times, can serve you better than you may think. It’s worth exploring other majors, taking those entry-level jobs, and capitalizing on life-changing opportunities. While it can be difficult to recognize in the moment, the knowledge that we gain from each of our life experiences will serve us in whatever career we land in, as each of Lea’s experiences contributed to her role as a studio owner.