From Volunteer to CEO

Niki McKay shares how she built one of the fastest-growing private businesses in the state with Blue Danube Productions.

Niki McKay didn’t set out to start her own company.

“Originally, when I left Seattle University, I had all these plans,” says McKay, who is a dual graduate—earning degrees in 1988 from Matteo Ricci College and in Business Management the following year. “I wanted to work for the World Bank or some big corporation. Eventually, I got involved with Seattle Children’s Hospital as a volunteer. We were producing events to raise money for the Uncompensated Care Fund and people would come up to me and say, ‘You’re really good at this. You should make money doing this.’ I thought about it and decided to give myself a weekend to come up with a business plan and a name. And so, here we are 17 years later.”

Here is the headquarters of Blue Danube Productions, which McKay (née Szablya, when she attended SU) founded in 2007 and leads as CEO. Today the production company—with its nearly 20 employees at its Seattle headquarters and an additional 120 contractors in offices throughout the country—works on about 400 events annually. 

Among other awards and accolades, Blue Danube was recognized as the #1 fastest-growing woman-owned companies in the state in 2023 and again this year, and in 2023 was ranked the second fastest-growing private company in the state by the Puget Sound Business Journal.

In this Q&A, McKay talks about her time at Seattle University, her experience leading a successful company and most memorable event.

How did your academic journey unfold?

McKay: I started out as a mechanical engineering student—I come from a family of engineers. I was doing fine…ish. I was a super-awesome student except for my engineering classes. My advisors said, ‘Look, you’re clearly struggling in your engineering classes. Why don’t you take a break and spend a quarter taking classes that look interesting. Just do something fun.’ It was a game-changer. I switched to business and the world suddenly made sense.

What was the biggest takeaway from your time at Seattle University?

McKay: I tell this to anyone who asks me about SU: The Jesuits taught me how to think and question everything. My favorite professor was (History Professor) Dr. Dave Madsen. We got to know each other pretty well because I worked in Matteo Ricci as a work study. We used to get into these big discussions about philosophy and one of the things that it taught me was you can look at the same problem from different perspectives. I value how Jesuit education taught me to question things in a productive, healthy way, whether that be a process I’m doing here at work or with something going on in the world or even a conversation I’m having with a friend who’s looking for advice.

Why did you choose “Blue Danube” as the name of your company?

McKay: I’m Hungarian. Hungary’s capital city is Budapest and Buda and Pest used to be two different cities separated by the Danube River. Back in the day, the founding fathers built a bridge to bring the city together. The audio/video world and event planners don’t speak the same language. We are the bridge that brings people together to create flawless events.

How is Blue Danube different from other event production companies?

McKay: When I started the company, I said I wanted to be ‘The Nordstrom of A/V.’ When we sit down with our clients we ask what they want to get out of an event, rather than telling them we have this or that equipment. I want us to be a cut above, approachable. We don’t talk down to our clients. We educate them and involve them in the process.

What’s been the most memorable event you’ve been involved 
with so far?

McKay: We worked with the Pacific Science Center on a luminary series for two years and one of those years they brought in Stephen Hawking, Jack Horner and Leroy Hood. It was amazing, working with all these incredible minds. We work with celebrities a lot and people always ask if I got their autograph. Celebrities don’t get me excited. For me, it’s people who change the world. 

What challenges have you confronted as woman in business?

McKay: I’ve tried to not pull the woman-owned company card, but in the past couple years, I’ve increasingly been seeing how women are not treated equally in the business world. I had a recent experience with another company that was so shocking I stopped doing business with them. When I told them I would’ve been treated differently if I had been a man, they said, ‘You’re not wrong.’ But I love the fact that these sorts of issues are a conversation now and things are happening in the industry and world to change it. I don’t believe it’s going to stay this way. It can’t stay this way.

Any career advice for students?

McKay: Tap into Seattle University’s network. If you know what you want to do, be specific in what you’re asking for. If you’re still figuring it out, try different things. It’s okay to explore. 

What do you like to do outside of work?

McKay: Travel, travel, travel. When I travel, I like to go to one country and stay there and immerse myself in the culture. I think it’s so important to see things in a different light and this is something I instilled in my children from the time they were very young.

Written by Mike Thee

Monday, July 1, 2024