Naperville veteran uses photo booth business to boost charities
Joining the military and starting a business both have given the same thing to Suzy Chang of Naperville: a chance to serve and advance.
Chang, 41, followed in the service footsteps of her father and her brother, both Navy veterans, when she enlisted in the Air Force to advance her education after graduating from Naperville North High School in 1997.
And she started a new path in serving others -- and advancing her business prospects -- when she launched her photo booth company, Alfresco Photo, in 2015.
"My whole approach to my business has been more about community than competition," Chang said. "That's how I've grown."
Alfresco Photo is known around Naperville for supporting charities by providing greater awareness for their cause. Alfresco installs photo booths at charitable events -- creating a unique experience people love to share -- then tracks the exposure the photos gain through social media. The approach helps charities net more fundraising dollars.
"This data is valuable because it shows the exposure a business receives through sponsoring Alfresco Photo at an event," Chang said. "Alfresco then helps charities build sponsorships and supports them through the selling process."
"She never runs out of energy to be helpful and pitch in, and she has done a lot for local charities," said Lisa Gangi, chairwoman of the Americanism committee of the Exchange Club of Naperville. "It adds a dimension of bringing a group together and also obviously broadcasting the message and the mission of each organization that she's working with."
Chang's path to becoming an entrepreneur had some challenging steps. Growing up, she lived in Naperville for a year or so but mainly circled the globe with her parents, who were missionaries.
"We traveled and lived all over Asia and part of the Middle East," she said. "By the time I was 12 years old, I had lived in 11 countries and traveled to 37."
But by the time she was 17, her parents were divorced and she was legally emancipated and living with a friend's family in Naperville. While friends were making plans to attend college, Chang said, she wondered how she'd pay.
That's when her brother's advice came in handy. Andrew Kabbe, a diver in the Navy, advised his sister to consider the Air Force instead for its higher ratio of women to men. She took his advice and met with a Navy recruiter.
"It felt really good and I never looked back," she said.
She served four years in the Air Force, mainly in a command post controller role at Columbus Air Force Base in Mississippi, helping the post's top brass handle any emergency or classified situations.
"Our big emergencies were, 'Another pilot puked in the cockpit,'" she said.
Chang's commitment to active-duty service was due to end days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. And while she said she would have been happy to serve longer, she was honorably discharged as scheduled and went on to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she earned a bachelor's degree in media studies.
She later returned to Naperville and reconnected with one of her brother's longtime friends, Saejin Chang, who is now her husband.
The Naperville Area Chamber of Commerce helped her with networking as she started her business, and soon, instead of attending entrepreneurship events to learn, she was sharing knowledge as a board member for NaperLaunch at the Naperville Public Library.
"Her input was valuable because of her own entrepreneur journey," said Kent Palmer, who runs the NaperLaunch program. "She helped us understand more of what entrepreneurs go through and helped us identify ways to assist them."
The list of nonprofit organizations Chang has assisted through Alfresco Photo booths is long. It includes 360 Youth Services, DuPage Foundation, Edward Foundation, Naperville Jaycees, KidsMatter, and Loaves & Fishes Community Services, to name a few.
"I develop partnerships that work well for both of us," Chang said.
She even brings photo fun each Halloween to the house she shares with her husband, their two children and her in-laws. Setting up a green-screen photo booth in the garage, Chang said, she tells trick-or-treaters (and their moms), "I give out memories, not cavities."