Scott Syroka trades big-city job at Google to take on suburban politics
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This story is part of the Des Moines Register’s People to Watch in 2020 series. The stories highlight Iowans we expect great things from in the coming year.
Tired: Making a six-figure salary at Google, living in New York City and “having a great life” after growing up in central Iowa.
Wired: Returning to Johnston, living with your parents and running for the City Council at age 25.
That’s been Scott Syroka's path so far.
“I’ve never felt as fulfilled,” he said of his turn from big money at a big company in a big city. “… I’m right where I’m meant to be right now.”
Syroka, who was elected to the Johnston City Council in November, is one of the Register’s 15 People to Watch in 2020.
The past year was a tumultuous one for Syroka.
After returning to Iowa in 2018 to help gubernatorial candidate Fred Hubbell's campaign, Syroka began preparing to return to Google. But he was "wrecked," neither sleeping nor eating.
While in California for orientation at Google, Syroka said never even got on the bus. Instead, he quit and returned to Iowa.
“It wasn’t my time to be in San Francisco,” Syroka said simply.
It made "no sense" wanting to return, he said, yet there wasn't just one reason he came back.
There was a part of him that wanted to combat Iowa's infamous brain drain: college students and young professionals fleeing the state to make their lives somewhere else. He called it his “tiny act of rebellion."
In less than a year after returning, he had started his own small business — digital marketing firm Next Door Saints — and won a seat on the council.
“It takes a while for people to understand that life is more than money and a good job,” said Linda Hansen, his former principal at Summit Middle School.
Leaving the 'great life'
Syroka originally came back in 2018 to work with state Sen. Rita Hart, Hubbell's lieutenant governor nominee. He sent her an email cold, telling the now-candidate for U.S. Congress that she could use him as a staffer.
Hansen, who worked for Hart, helped persuade her boss.
“You can hire him immediately and you won’t ever regret it,” she told her.
They traveled about 25,000 miles together across the state in the run-up to the election, hearing what Syroka called “heartbreaking” stories about Iowa’s privatized Medicaid system.
That’s what really had captured his attention. From afar in New York, he’d seen stories in the Register about what he viewed as the effects of privatized Medicaid, which then-Gov. Terry Branstad ordered in 2015.
One of the stories focused on his former classmate and her mother. Heather and Anita Kacmarynski received an eviction notice as they struggled to secure Medicaid payments from the private companies administering Iowa’s program.
In another story, a man died after losing his medical care. He wanted to help, and his way of doing that was to help elect a new governor who would reverse the Medicaid privatization.
So Syroka decided to leave the life he’d built in New York, where he'd moved after a previous stint in San Francisco. That meant moving to Wheatland, the small town where Hart lives, about 50 miles east of Cedar Rapids on U.S. Highway 30, and taking a 70% pay cut.
“I was like: 'OK, I have a great life right now. New York City,'" Syroka said. But he decided that just because things were good for him, it didn't mean all was right in the world.
The Hubbell-Hart ticket ultimately fell short, which Syroka said was crushing. He felt like he could give up on politics. But that would have reversed a trend 10 years in the making: constant activism, everything from presidential politics to bond referendums.
Politically active at a young age
Syroka calls himself a “weird kid.” He got involved in climate activism when he was 13, deciding that John Edwards was the Democratic presidential candidate with the best plan to fight climate change.
When that campaign fizzled, he joined the Barack Obama campaign in 2008. He said the campaign showed him the power of bringing people together under a common cause.
At Johnston High School in 2011, he helped found the Silver Cord program, which incentivizes students to collect at least 150 volunteer hours during their time there. Chris Beguhn, the school’s student council adviser, said about 100 students per graduating class earn the cords, amounting to at least 15,000 volunteer hours.
“It’s just Scott to want to have an impact and to see a need and want to get it taken care of,” Beguhn said.
He also helped carve out a seat on the Johnston school board for an ex-officio student member and co-chaired the committee that helped pass a $41 million bond referendum. It spurred an additional $71 million in infrastructure spending, funding the construction of the new high school that opened in 2017.
He kept his hometown in mind after he began studying at Georgetown University, where he raised $500 to send to the Johnston Partnership. Later, after he’d moved on to Google, he started Generation Pay it Forward.
That collection of young Johnston High alumni quickly raised $25,000 to fund the first two years of a weekend lunch program at Summit Middle School, said Andrea Cook, director of the Johnston Partnership. On Fridays, students are given backpacks of food to help get them through the weekend.
“He is the walking embodiment of solidarity to me,” Cook said.
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Joining the City Council
After leaving Google in February, he returned to his parents' house and took a month to adjust to his new reality, meeting with campaigns, startups and potential employers.
Weeks later, he started his firm that helps other small businesses find audiences online.
“This has been quite a year of quarter-life existential crisis,” he said.
Still left in 2019 was his City Council candidacy. A small army of volunteers helped him call voters and knock on their doors, where he'd tell residents about his experience helping pass a school bond and getting a student seat on the school board.
He plans to "modernize" city government. To be more transparent, he’s requested a city-issued email address to make his city correspondence more easily accessible via public records requests. He also wants to video-record council meetings for residents who can’t make the meeting.
He’s excited about the city’s plans for a new town center, hoping it will create a vibrant downtown that Johnston's never had. Syroka also plans to explore whether the suburb can implement a municipal broadband utility.
Other cities have built theirs, and he thinks it would increase internet speed at a lower price. “In my mind, it’s a real no-brainer,” he said.
Syroka said he doesn’t have any regrets about coming back to Johnston. Sure, he misses being near the ocean and hiking through a redwood forest, but he doesn’t have any regrets.
Beguhn and Cook are glad he’s back. As West Des Moines residents, they’re disappointed they can’t vote for him. But Beguhn thinks she'll have her chance if Syroka decides someday to run for the Statehouse.
“Bottom line: I think he’s going to do great things,” she said. “More great things.”
About 'People to Watch'
The Des Moines Register's "15 People to Watch in 2020" are movers and shakers, givers and doers. They were chosen by Des Moines Register news staff from scores of reader nominations. Their stories will run in the Register through Jan. 5.
Get to know Scott Syroka
- BORN: Urbandale,1994; moved to Johnston in 1995
- RESIDENCE: Johnston
- EDUCATION: Johnston Community School District, Class of 2012; Georgetown University, Class of 2016
- OCCUPATION: Small business owner, Next Door Saints LLC; City councilor, Johnston
- CLAIMS TO FAME: Founded Generation Pay It Forward; served as Johnston Schools bond committee co-chair; successfully advocated for legislation adding a student representative on the Johnston school board; founded the JHS Silver Cord Volunteer Program; elected to the Johnston City Council
- FAMILY: Parents, Deb and Bob Syroka; Sister, Stacy Syroka.
- WEBSITE: scottsyroka.com
An earlier version of this story misstated how long Generation Pay It Forward funded a weekend lunch program. The organization raised enough money to fund it for two years.
Austin Cannon covers the city of Des Moines for the Register. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 515-284-8398.
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