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A Friendship, Years in the Making 

At FIT, mentorship doesn’t stop at graduation

It’s not just the high-level industry experience and connections that make FIT faculty special, it’s also their commitment to educating, nurturing, and mentoring students. Often the relationships shaped in the classroom flourish after students become alumni and need help in their careers. Such has been the case with David Brogna, retired assistant professor of Home Products Development, and Leeann Brzozowski, who graduated from the program in 2002.

Brzozowski adores Brogna: “He’s one of the most influential people in my life to date.” And Brogna feels connected to Brzozowski (and many other former students) in an almost parental way. “It’s not so much that I’m always in touch with them, it’s that they’re always there,” he says. “Leeann doesn’t know how many times I talk about her and her products.”

Brogna taught at FIT for 30 years and wrote the core curriculum for the Home Products Development program. Early in his career, he worked as a merchant for Macy’s and A&S; for the past 24 years, he and his partner have owned In Home, a housewares and furniture boutique in the upscale Hamptons village of Sag Harbor. In 2005, he received the Paradigm Award for lifetime achievement from the Home Fashion Products Association. He retired from FIT in 2018 but keeps in touch with most of his former students.

In Brzozowski’s second year at FIT, she’d been accepted into the Interior Design bachelor’s program when Brogna’s introductory class in Home Products Development lured her away. After she graduated, he guided her toward showroom sales, because she enjoyed customer interaction and the “limitless” commission-based income (she is currently a national sales director for the furniture company Chai Ming Studios). She kept up a phone and text-message correspondence with Brogna; every time she needed to make a career decision, including a few risky leaps, she consulted him first. “Our alumni need a sounding board,” he says. “They need to know that there’s someone covering them. I wouldn’t let them make the wrong move.”

That correspondence accelerated when Brzozowski launched her own product. Born and raised on the Jersey Shore, she has always loved lying out on the beach but could rarely get comfortable. On her stomach, she resorted to digging holes in the sand to make room for her chest; on her back, she’d roll up another towel to elevate her head. “You’re at a place of leisure, where you’re supposed to be relaxed,” Brzozowski says. “This was crazy.”

She decided to do something about it. In 2015, she began developing the Sol Mat, a thick foam mat with two ergonomic advantages: a concealed chest contour that allows for “breathing room” and a built-in pillow. (A men’s version includes the pillow but not the contour.) “It’s an upgrade to the beach towel,” she says. “It’s lighter than a yoga mat. And you can remove the cover and throw it in the laundry.”

Brzozowski perfected the design and found a way to manufacture it in the U.S. with marine-grade foam and fade-resistant Sunbrella fabric. But launching a new product is a giant challenge for a solo entrepreneur, and she turned to her mentor for help.

Brogna guided her through the patenting process, helped her identify her target market, and advised her on creating brand extensions, such as a Sol Mat for kids and one for dogs. His nephew did her graphic design. And Brogna recommended that she host pop-up shops to hear customer feedback firsthand. In 2018, he invited Brzozowski to set up a Memorial Day pop-up inside In Home. “Everyone who walked in was fascinated by the product,” he says.

Brzozowski also held an event on Shelter Island and one at the SoHo outpost of The Laundress, an eco-friendly cleaning products company. “These pop-ups have been huge for research,” Brzozowski says. “It’s fuel—it gets you motivated.”

Thanks to a connection from Brogna, Brzozowski is in talks with Wayfair to sell the product through the mass online retailer. First, though, she is exploring options to produce it at a lower price point. The average retail price is currently $250.

“It’s like I’m back at school,” Brzozowski says. “It’s like I’m doing my senior project on another scale.”

“But this time it’s not for a grade,” Brogna responds, “it’s everything.”