Chamber president talks college, building business and bettering Towson

Eight years ago, Tim Bojanowski, a Towson High School graduate, was pushing a mop, cleaning the floor at a local restaurant where he worked as a bartender.

Feeling sorry for himself, he called an uncle one day to voice his frustrations over working a job he said he believed was beneath him.

The then-Towson resident had been admitted to the University of Maryland during the previous year, and attended as a freshman, but a miscommunication with the financial aid office the summer before his sophomore year meant he would not be receiving the money he needed to return to school, he said.

Unable to afford his sophomore year and not wanting to take on student loans, Bojanowski took time off to work and save up the money to attend Towson University instead.

“There I was pushing this mop thinking, ‘I’m better than this,’” said Bojanowski, who now lives in Cockeysville. “I called up my uncle who told me, ‘No. You’re not. Right now, this is who you are and where you need to be.’”

Now 28, a business owner and president of the Towson Chamber of Commerce Board of Directors, Bojanowski said his uncle’s words were a lesson in a work ethic and life philosophy that he’s taken to heart — when life deals you a difficult hand, you work harder to get to the next stage and continue ‘pushing the mop.’

That ethic has propelled him to work overtime to pay for a good life for his two daughters, Natalie, 3, and Camellia, 1, to volunteer for a variety of local causes and boards, and to start and grow a marketing firm with his college sweetheart, Ali Bojanowski, who became his wife, he said.

The couple launched Zest Social Media Solutions—a nod at Ali Bojanowski’s maiden name, Lemon— in 2009 as a side venture that initially made $12,000 a year. At the time, Bojanowski was attending Towson University, while his wife was interning at a marketing agency.

Today, despite Bojanowski’s self-proclaimed aversion to the modern need to be plugged in 24/7, Zest averages about $1.5 million in revenue a year by offering web and social media marketing solutions to businesses out of an office on Chesapeake Avenue. He and his wife now run the business full-time with 15 employees.

“I hate the Internet, social media and computers, but they’re mops,” Bojanowski said of the web tools he uses for his business. “You’ve got to push the mop.”

On being Mark Zuckerberg

Bojanowski, a 2007 graduate of Towson High School, said his parents did everything they could to make sure he and his two siblings could attend school in Towson, moving to the more affordable outer edges of the school district, just west of Loch Raven Boulevard, from Parkville. Bojanowski lived there with his parents and older brother, Brooks, and younger sister, Grace, both of who also went to Towson High.

“They considered it this private school education paid for with public tax dollars and it very much was,” Bojanowski said of his parents.

While at Towson, Bojanowski dabbled in football, played varsity lacrosse and was voted “typically Towson” by members of his graduating class.

Described as a goal-oriented family man by those close to him, Bojanowski started Zest at just 19.

“I didn’t have a thought that he’d start his own business,” Bojanowski’s childhood friend and high school classmate, Andrew Kolarik, said. “Growing up, he was goal-oriented. He was very structured. Everyone had pegged him—including his parents—for some branch of the military. What’s ironic about that is that both his brother and sister have been involved with the military in some way, shape or form, and Tim has stayed away but has kept himself occupied.”

Bojanowski’s mother, Kathryn McClelland Bojanowski, describes her son as wiser than his 28 years.

“I am extremely proud of him and often surprised,” his mother said. “Tim is kind of fearless. I think he always has been.”

As a child, she said her son always enjoyed shaking hands with adults.

“I used to say he was a little old man in a boy’s suit,” McClelland Bojanowski said. “I’m not surprised at his success, because he’s such a determined guy.”

In 2011, with three courses left to complete at Towson University, Bojanowski abandoned his degree to pursue Zest full time after a disagreement with a professor who told him a web shortcut “wouldn’t work in the real world.”

And yet, the couple had successfully been using the same shortcut for two years in their business, Bojanowski said.

“I’d be talking to teachers who were teaching from textbooks that would be out of date the second they were printed,” Bojanowski said of the quickly changing field of social media marketing. “Everybody wants to be Mark Zuckerberg, but four-year college degrees are not mindful of what today’s graduates need.”

Armed with real-world experience and a growing demand in the emerging field, the couple worked out of Ali’s parents’ basement in Cockeysville before expanding to an office in Towson.

“This was right around the time when social media was emerging as another marketing channel,” said Ali Bojanowski, who originally had the idea for the business. “Businesses knew they should be on it, but weren’t sure where to start. The next thing I knew I was working with several companies on their social media.”

One of those companies is MacKenzie Commercial Real Estate.

The commercial real estate and property management company has used Zest to enhance its web and social media presence for the past three years, according to Katy Hayes, MacKenzie’s marketing director.

“They are very responsive and easy to work with, and most importantly, they are very passionate about what they do, Tim especially,” Hayes said of Zest. “Tim takes the time to get to know his clients and their business goals. He becomes invested in their needs and best interests. He is then able to advise on best practices specific to each client.”

Signs of revitalization

At 28, Bojanowski is one of the youngest presidents to lead the Towson Chamber of Commerce’s board of directors, but not the only young blood elected to lead, executive director Nancy Hafford said.

“Some people just have it in their DNA, where they love what they do and work is never work,” Hafford said. “It’s their passion. I know that’s the kind of man that he is. When he sets his sights on something he gives it everything he has and it’s not fake, it’s not anything he has to force because that comes naturally. It’s his true passion.”

Along with a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, genders and career fields, having a variety of ages involved in the chamber’s leadership brings new perspectives to the organization’s ideas, she said.

Though age was not the main factor in choosing Bojanowski, Hafford said, it ended up being an added advantage.

“We’re a changing community,” Hafford said of Towson. “We’re not a little suburban community anymore. We’re an urban community and have to embrace the diversity that that type of community has.”

As he walked in downtown Towson on a recent afternoon, Bojanowski stopped to pick up an empty milk jug tossed by the side of Pennsylvania Avenue. He pointed out a weedy patch of overgrown grass that needed trimming, before turning onto York Road and heading north to the traffic circle, where he paused at a bus stop littered with napkins and fast food containers.

“People say Towson is dirty and it is in spots like any other town,” Bojanowski said of the stretch of road next to the bus stop. "But it's on us as a community to show that's not a reflection of downtown as a whole so that we encourage people to work, live and play here. If you’re wanting people to be here downtown, they need to enjoy being near their work and shopping.”

As president of the chamber’s board, Bojanowski is sensitive to the needs of Towson. The unincorporated community of more than 55,000 is also the Baltimore County seat; however Towson has no mayor, no city council and no department of public works, to oversee cleanliness and beautification efforts in the increasingly populated core, he said, while pointing out Towson’s newest luxury apartment complex, The Flats@703.

Instead, the Towson Chamber of Commerce, a donation-based nonprofit, hires part-time workers to pick up trash on Towson streets, helps install new trash cans and hangs decorative floral baskets throughout downtown. The chamber also hosts a community cleanup with Towson University students each year and dozens of free community events and festivals.

The work is a continued effort to get people to live, work and play in downtown Towson, Bojanowski said.

Though the signs of revitalization are starting to be seen along York Road and Washington Avenue, Towson must figure out how to retain businesses after they open before it can build on what’s already present, he added. To do that, it needs to understand its identity with a clearer vision for the businesses that can thrive, he said.

Towson, he said, is partly, but not quite, a college town, and its core has just begun to feature the amenities needed to attract millenials and empty-nesters to jump into the city-like lifestyle that can be found downtown, Bojanowski said.

“You’re starting to see the signs of businesses coming but we need to figure out how to keep them here,” Bojanowski said. “We need business and if we get that, we justify the beds and the entertainment.”

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