Chicago Women Talk Social Media, Charging Clients, and Why They Pursued Entrepreneurship

Six female entrepreneurs shared their stories of success at Kristin Ford’s first LevelUp – Building a Stronger Her event at The Frontier in Chicago, IL in October 2017. 

This was better than a Forbes article – it was the real women – all young, all successful, all entrepreneurs sharing their stories about how they – well, how they got terribly ill, how they were under-resourced, how they were deemed too young, how they failed and how, despite all of those things, they made it. They built the businesses they said they were going to build. And some went on to build more businesses.

Kristin Ford, a successful entrepreneur, who has extensive work coordinating and running events for Nike Inc., and then in LA where she’s assisted with big events like LA Fashion Week and movie premiers, decided to break out on her own and start a company.

For her first event, she gathered strong, female entrepreneurs for a ladies brunch in Chicago at The Frontier in October 2017.

After a mimosa and some of the freshest and decadent food, including beignets, we all gathered to hear from these six women.

By the end of the luncheon, the bartender turned to me and told me about his dream to start his own company.

Female Entrepreneur Panelists:

Samantha Frontera- A former morning news producer at KQTV and television news reporter at WFFT-TV, Samantha didn’t want to be told she wasn’t good enough every day. She decided to take her talent and build her own PR company, Exclusive PR. Windy City Cosmo has worked with her agency on several occasions including this female entrepreneurship story and this Grateful4Her campaign. 

Chrishon Lampley – Despite several setbacks, Chrishon followed her passion for wine and in 2013 founded Love Cork Screw wines. She also has six wine scented candles in Target. As she’s built her brand with 20,000+ social media followers, she’s been recognized for her brand. Chrishon was awarded Fifth Third Bank’s Entrepreneur of the Year and is a tastemaker for Mariano’s. 

Chrishon Lampley, a sommelier who founded Love Cork Screw in 2013 and partners with grocery store chain, Mariano’s. Photo: Love Cork Screw

Chiara Graham – Chiara believes in creating a lifestyle with multiple forms of revenue.  She is the co-owner of Graham Financial Mall. She is also a realtor in Atlanta at Keller Williams. On top of that, she founded iGoalDig, where she helps others become an entrepreneur and tap into their passion. From Chicago, Chiara now resides in Atlanta.

Theresa Siaw – Theresa is a serial entrepreneur. She is currently directing Omni Healthcare, a multi-location Chicago health clinic for the underserved. One of the projects at the  Omni Healthcare Division Street location is to launch a program to reintegrate former gang members back into the Humboldt Park community in a positive, productive way. You can read about one of their back to school initiatives here. 

Theresa Siaw, Chicago Entrepreneur in the healthcare sector. Photo: Omni Healthcare

Dominique El Jones – She is Miss. Illinois United States 2016. She is also a project engineer at Reed Construction.

Jessica Zweig Fisher – Jessica is one of Inc. Magazine’s  top digital marketers to watch in 2017. She founded SimplyBe Agency where she does content development and content growth and much more. Prior to that, she built Chicago’s largest magazine for women.

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THIS IS A PVA: (Positive vibes announcement) Yesterday, my team and I went out for cocktails at @thechicagodelta for a Friday happy hour. (My new favorite bar in Chicago, PS.) The guy who sat us was named Eddie, and as he passed out our menus and filled our water glasses, he casually asked us how we were all doing. "Great, thanks. You?", we casually replied. His response: "Living the dream. I get to wake up every day, breathe, live this life, work this job, be in this cool city, hang around new people all the time. Living my best life." He meant every word of it, I could feel it. It wasn't cheesy, it was 100% sincere, and it shell shocked me. It made me super present to the language I use when describing how I am. It reminded me that we can ALL "live the dream," in any moment, of any day, no matter what it is we think we are chasing. The fact that we get to wake up to a life that let's us breathe, connect, work, do and meet people like Eddie IS the dream. So next time someone asks you "how are you doing?," consider that your answer could change someone's entire perspective, and that genuine positive vibes are not only effective, they are essential. Happy Saturday, guys. 💛✌🏼#positivevibes #livingthedream . . . . . . . . #liveyourdreams #followyourdreams #liveyourbestlife #spreadlove #kindnessmatters #positivevibesonly #vibes #vibesdontlie #youareloved #sincere #ootd #stylesaturday #styleinspo #igstyle #connection #girlboss #bossbabe #ladyboss #dreamteam #dreamwork #hustlehard #bareyoursoul #realtalk💯 #happysaturday #saturdayvibes

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What made you take the leap into entrepreneurship?

“Entrepreneurship was always in me,” Chrishon Lampley. 

“I think I got turned down a lot of times in the job market. I started my own business. It was very hard to get my first client. I saw a check for $5 one time. I loved being my own boss. I started with one employee and now we have 20. Everyone has it in them – you have to find your own passion and what you’re good at,” Theresa Siaw.

“Right now I still work for a corporation. I think it’s important to understand your own goals. Yes, you’re working for someone else but it’s going to benefit you. Never lose your dream while serving someone else’s dream.  I started my first company when I was 26,” Chiara Graham.

“I did what a lot of entrepreneurs did – I solved my problems. I launched Cheeky Chicago,” Jessica Zweig Fisher.

“I feel like I fell into being an entrepreneur. I was a broadcaster and it’s not glamorous. In small markets, you don’t have your family and the women are very competitive. I didn’t love going into the cornfield and hearing I wasn’t good enough for the news director. I worked at an agency who fired everyone a week before Christmas…Someone just said, ‘why don’t you try to do this and go for this?’ Having that one person who believes in you, helps you take that step forward,” Samantha Frontera. 

When Do I Start Charging Clients? And When Do I Start Charging Them More?

“Money. I have none. It has to move off the shelf. And consistently move off the shelf. You always have to feed profits back into your business,” Chrishon Lampley. 

“When I started iGoalDig, it was just a t-shirt line. I wasn’t charging people for picking my brain and for consultations. I was talking to strangers for 30 min. I realize the value of just talking. Everything costs. Someone asked if I can sit down with a stranger about business. I thought, ‘You want to have lunch? You have to pay,'” Chiara Graham. 

“A year ago a couple came to me who owned a restaurant. Again, my company is a re-launch. So, I was willing to take smaller clients…Now, people try to low ball me, I just say ‘no.’ Know you’re worth. It’s okay to have a lower price contract, but once you have several case studies, you need to keep going,” Samantha Frontera. 

“When you feel that fear rise up that you’re going to ask for more money than you’re used to, lean into that,” Jessica Zweig Fisher.

Social Media is All About Me: A Wake-Up Call to Turning Likes Into Dollars:

“People aren’t picking up magazines like they use to. They’re looking at Facebook. Tell people to like your Facebook page,” Chrishon Lampley.

“Social Media is no longer social media, it’s the Internet. I’m in branding. They don’t call it ‘talk media.’ They call it social media because it’s about socializing. You want to inspire, entertain,” Jessica Zweig Fisher. 

She encouraged everyone to read, “Jab, Jab, Jab Right Hook: How to Tell Your Story in a Noisy Social World.” As a branding expert, Jessica shared that people don’t really care about you, it’s more effective when your social media comes from a place of service or value.

Resources to Pursue Entrepreneurship:

This LevelUp luncheon addressed several questions, but one of the main ones is how to start a business. We all have ideas. We all wish that things existed that don’t. But, there’s only a select few that pursue their dreams every single day. So, how do you get started?

I encourage everyone to take these three steps:

  1. Find a group: there are so many female groups and resources out there to help you get started and to introduce you to the people you need to know. There are these professional networking groups and then there are groups like Ms. Tech, SheSays Chicago, and pop-up events like this panelist discussion: Chicago Female Entrepreneurs and ArcLight Partner to Discuss ‘Joy’. Get to know the women who are raising over $1 million for their startups or those who are building their empire in Chicago. We all need people to bounce ideas off of, learn from, and encourage us on the journey.
  2. Write down your goals. Write out your ideas. And put them into a business plan. Do some research about the industry. Find out how you can make a profit. Think about how much money you will need. Consider how you will bootstrap or raise money.
  3. Start. After you have thought about everything that could go wrong – the money you don’t have, the knowledge you don’t have and every other fear or doubt – start, despite it all. Don’t quit your job. Don’t do something irrational. But where you are right now, you can start working on your passion.  



3 Easy Ways For Entrepreneurs to Get Self-Care Every Day

As most of you know, Windy City Cosmo embraces the hustle and self-care. As a female making their way and building their career in the entrepreneurial world—I have to! From frequently attending networking events to appearing on the radio, the freelance life can definitely take its toll.

In today’s fast-paced lifestyle, it’s easy to neglect taking care of yourself. Every now and then, we have to pick our heads up from the daily grind and spend some time on ourselves. Over the past few years of living and learning as an entrepreneur in the city of Chicago, I’ve developed a few healthy habits of my own. Call it self-care or a healthy lifestyle. There are a lot of things that you can do for self-care like take a bubble bath or get your nails done or take a walk with a friend but I’ve found through looking at other entrepreneurial sites like Thrive Global and Shopify, that there are some easy ways to incorporate self-care every day that won’t get you out of your workflow – rather improve it. In order to help out those of you who are just starting out or may be struggling to make it to the next level, here are my top 3 health tips.

1. Have a bedtime routine. I set my phone so it tells me when I should go to bed to get 8 hours of sleep. I’ve had issues falling asleep and having a routine has helped me to make bedtime something I look forward to. I usually do a little cleaning, take a hot shower, do my face wash routine and then make hot tea, stretch and heat up my sleeping mask (yes you heard that right!). If I’m still not tired, I try to catch up on articles or read a book in bed.

2. Work out. I’m not saying to work out to lose weight, work out to become mentally strong. When you dedicate time to challenge yourself and commit to moving your body, your whole day is changed. I’ve had many issues with working out. I’ve tripped over the concrete while running at night. I’ve missed waking up early for a spin class, and I’ve forgotten to repack my gym bag. If you have an hour lunch, I suggest working out for lunch.

It helps in four ways

A) it helps you move your body and feel refreshed after sitting

B) it helps you bring your lunch instead of wasting money on eating out

C) it helps relieve stress

D ) it helps you stay focused. When you only have 30 minutes you work out and give it your all.

3. This may sound silly, but make sure you smile every day. It changes everything. I got a positivity journal and it takes 5 minutes to fill out. In the morning you write down what will make today great and at night you reflect. Practicing gratitude and thinking positively is so important. Don’t neglect your thoughts and how you’re feeling. Spending time turning negative thoughts into positive is life-changing. This is one of my personal favorite tips, and it even caught the attention of others as it was included in an infographic (see below) by Elysium Health.

Self-Care for Entrepreneurs

As you can see, there’s more than one way to work some type of wellness routine into your daily life. Also, everyone is different so something that works for me might not work for you. You can check out the infographic to see even more advice from others as well as some science-backed advice from Elysium. For those of you looking to dive even deeper into the more scientific aspects of healthy living, you can check out this resource on NAD+ and how it’s connected to our health.


This Startup Offers Models a Way to Get Discovered Besides Instagram

There is a new tool for all professional and aspiring models. In fact, one year after the app launched, over 5,000 models are now using this tool, Agent Inc., for faster, smarter & safer bookings.

There’s a lot of questions about the modeling world.

For one, there is a lot more at stake in terms of safety. Your work is your body – quite literally and sometimes you don’t know the photographer or the destination or have a say on all the clothes or scenes you’ll be doing. In the wake of Allyssa Milano’s Me Too Campaign, where women and men shared posts if they were sexually assaulted or harassed, it’s easy to see the prevalence of the disconcerting matter. In the fashion and modeling world, it is nice to see that one of the key factors in creating this model booking app was the safety of the models and photographers involved.

But beyond safety, there’s also professionalism – on both sides. If you want a model, where do you go? How do you know if they are going to show up on time and is there a trusted way to get them? As a freelance writer and someone who hired freelance writers, trust is one of the hardest parts of working on the freelance level. There are modeling agencies, much like there are for marketing agencies. But for freelancing – I guess you find an Instagram model? And being someone who shadowed PR firms and had to look up bloggers and social media influencers, it isn’t exactly streamlined or search friendly.

Another factor is payment. Even established brands like Vogue, which set the standards for fashion, don’t pay a living wage to models. There are two accounts that Vogue pays models $250 for a session and another one that says Vogue pays fashion models $300 per day. 

There’s a new approach to finding a model and booking a session.

Windy City Cosmo interviewed Mark Willingham, the former President of Operations for high-fashion brand Carmen Steffens who is revolutionizing the modeling industry with his new venture, Agent Inc. He’s already been interviewed by Bloomberg and other media outlets.

We discuss his business idea, how he runs his startup, and also delve into the modeling industry and how social media is changing the landscape and how his app is helping to unify a $1.2 billion dollar fragmented industry.

Windy City Cosmo: How did you get your business idea?

Willingham: My two business partners, Dustin Diaz and Ashley St. Clair, came up with the idea when Dustin was awarded a book deal on photography and lighting. He was trying to hire 20 models to shoot for the book and, not knowing where to find them, he ultimately ended up reaching out to models on Instagram (this is how to be scouted on Instagram, btw) and Model Mayhem. Well, his experience was less-than-desirable with more than half of the booked models not showing up. Of those models that did, there was a range of issues from not being experienced to not being able to accept payment by credit card. One model even asked if she could give him marijuana as change for a $100 bill!

All of this got Dustin thinking that if he had such a bad experience trying to book models for one job, there must be a much bigger overall problem in the industry. It turns out he was right. He and Ashley did some research and discovered a fragmented $1.2B industry that is highly inefficient, has little to no transparency, and little to no safeguards against predators. Agent Inc. was conceptualized as an answer to these problems. Agent provides companies with the tools to quickly find and book the perfect model for every job while empowering models to take control of their modeling careers, increasing their billings in an environment that is safer and completely transparent.

Our goal at Agent is not to replace traditional agencies, but to re-imagine the entire industry where all the players–models and the companies that hire models and agencies themselves–benefit from the efficiencies and safeguards that are core to the Agent platform.

Marketing a Startup: Market Research and The Target Market for Your App:

Windy City Cosmo: How long did it take you to go from idea to business?

Willingham: It all happened lightning quick…we went from concept to a business – with commitments from investors–in less than 2 weeks! In all fairness, in addition to the idea, Dustin’s technology pedigree was a real help in moving things forward so quickly. He was one of the early-on employees at Twitter and had stints at both Google and Yahoo. In addition, Dustin started with Uber founder, Garrett Camp.

Windy City Cosmo: Can you tell me more about the state of modeling with the Instagram and blogging age? Does your app help bloggers and Instagram models find photographers or is it just for agencies?

Willingham: Instagram, blogging and social media overall have had a real impact on the modeling industry. Some good and some bad. The good part is that models can now promote themselves without the need for traditional agency representation. The bad part is that, without safeguards, models who independently use social media to book jobs are exposing themselves to a wide range of dangers including criminals and sex offenders. Unfortunately, this is the reality of the unchecked Internet. At Agent, we have created a safer booking environment for models where they are also assured of getting paid as soon as a job is complete.

The Agent platform currently focuses on connecting models with companies and photographers that hire models, but this is just a matter of near-term focus. We will shortly be introducing additional talent account types including photographers, stylists, makeup artists, social influencers and more.

Windy City Cosmo: It seems that this app is for catalog talent – do you anticipate high-end fashion using this or for events like New York Fashion Week coming up?

Willingham: The Agent platform currently covers all types of modeling categories including commercial, runway, fit, promotional, event, etc. That being said, our main focus today is not on the super high-end market segment (i.e., super models, etc.) that is addressed by the major national modeling agencies. Our focus is on the long-tail of the US industry which represents $1 billion in annual bookings. The long-tail is approximately 80% of the overall US market share.

Windy City Cosmo: What were some of the steps that you took to create your business? Did you survey people? Did you seek out investors? Did you start solo?

Willingham: Dustin, Ashley and I all bring unique strengths and experience to the business. Dustin is an amazing tech guy who also has a deeply creative soul, Ashley is super talented when it comes to UX design and I bring 11 years of experience in high-end fashion and a background in growing companies and brands. Together, we have been able to bring out the best in each other and build a platform that we believe is truly going to change the modeling industry on a worldwide basis.

Throughout this journey, we have continuously reached out to companies and models for feedback. It is imperative that we fully understand their personal industry experiences so that we can provide ongoing, real value on all fronts.

We were very fortunate that a team of investors believed in our vision from the very beginning. Today, we have a deep and diverse investment and advisory team behind us that includes major modeling and talent industry influencers. Their belief and investment in us is a fantastic vote of confidence that we are indeed positioned to change the way that companies book models.

Windy City Cosmo: How do you market to models and stylists and photographers to be on your platform?

Willingham: We started off by doing a small amount of social media advertising and then things just took off. In addition to online advertising, both word-of-mouth and media coverage have contributed to us having more than 5,000 registered models on the Agent platform. Today, we are the fastest growing modeling platform in the world.

Windy City Cosmo: I understand that you launched in LA then will move to NY and Miami. Will you be moving to Chicago next?

Willingham: We started off focusing on four markets: LA, NY, Miami and Las Vegas.

We currently have offices in both Los Angeles and NYC because having a physical location on both coasts positions us to not only support our initial focus cities, but also all the major cities in between. Chicago is definitely a key city for us–with requests already being received from companies who want to book models there–so we expect Chicago to be our next major area of expansion. I anticipate that this will occur within the next 4-6 months.

Windy City Cosmo: Can you tell me more about your business and the services you offer?

Willingham: Agent is a technology-driven platform, which is the result of our focus to completely re-imagine the modeling industry.

The modeling industry, at its core, has pretty much remained the same for the past 70 years with modeling agencies representing models (often on an exclusive basis) and connecting them with companies that want to book models. The traditional modeling agencies take a commission of up to 20% from both the model and the company. Also, the process of booking a model can be quite time-consuming as the companies need to search through an agency’s book of models, either online or in-print, identify which models are of interest to them and then communicate this to the agency–via phone or email–who then need to determine the model’s availability for the proposed job. Depending on the complexity of the job and a variety of other factors, this process can take from a few hours to a week or more. Then, there are issues of safety (if the person hiring the model has a criminal/sex offender background), payment (if it will take weeks or even months for the model to be paid), lack of transparency (how much the modeling agency is actually getting paid by the client) and career control (exclusivity agreements between models and agencies tie the model’s hands, preventing them from controlling their own destiny).

Now, with the Agent platform, things are much different . . . and much better. Agent offers companies more diversity and overall options than a traditional modeling agency. Agent provides real value to both sides of the marketplace, empowering companies to efficiently find and book highly-vetted models in minutes by utilizing powerful, granular search filters. The Agent platform is free to use and a small fee of 5% is only charged to companies once they have completed the job and electronically paid the model. Furthermore, for companies which book models, Agent provides a guarantee of 100% satisfaction and offers 24/7 customer support. This type of guarantee or support is unheard of in the industry.

For models, the Agent platform is focused on empowering them, providing the tools and guidance to control and grow their careers. We have created a much safer work environment for models by running a criminal/sex offender background check on every person who wants to use the platform to book them. In addition, the models set their own rates on the platform and they are electronically paid immediately (direct deposit in to their bank accounts) when the job is completed. Further, Agent is non-exclusive, free for models to apply and be listed and only charges a 10% booking fee when they are paid for a job (as opposed to the 20% fee charged by traditional agencies).

In addition, the Agent provides total transparency, giving both the power to rate each other at the completion of each job.

Running a Successful Startup:

Windy City Cosmo: What’s the hardest part of running the business?

Willingham: The most challenging part of the business for us is our relentless pursuit to provide a solution that seamlessly covers all booking scenarios. Our goal is to ensure that every client has a better overall experience than if they had worked with a traditional modeling agency. A key part of this deliverable is the integration of artificial intelligence (AI) and predictive analysis to match models with jobs.

Windy City Cosmo: How do you distinguish yourself among competitors?

Willingham: At this time, our competitors are truly the traditional modeling agencies as they are where the majority of the business currently gets booked. However, it is important to note that the top 4 modeling agencies only account for less than 20% of the annual industry revenues and the remaining 80% of revenues (almost $1 billion!) are booked by 6,500 smaller agencies with each of them averaging only 2 employees. The industry is super fragmented. We differentiate from the traditional agencies and other emerging technology-focused agencies in that our goal at Agent is not to replace existing agencies, but rather to make the overall industry both stronger and bigger. Models benefit from Agent in that we empower them with control over their careers, we provide a safer environment from which to book jobs, we charge much lower booking fees and we provide education tools and guidance on how to continuously make more money. Clients benefit from Agent’s super-efficient booking process, greatly reduced booking fees, 100% guarantee and 24/7 live customer service.  And, traditional agencies in the long-tail will benefit from us when we make our software available to them for licensing.

Windy City Cosmo: Do you use any apps to manage the business? If so, what are your favorites?

Willingham: Yes, we do! We leverage Stripe as our trusted technology partner for processing and managing payments on our platform. Stripe is used by thousands of businesses worldwide including Lyft. Also, we use Intercom as our main Agent in-app communication and customer service tool. And, my favorite? Well, it’s Slack for sure. We heavily depend on Slack for continuous communication between all Agent team members. It’s super-efficient, always there and always on.

Windy City Cosmo: What, do you find, is the hardest part of starting a business?

Willingham: Keeping a super-targeted focus is always a challenge when starting and growing a new business. It is so easy to broaden the scope of what you are doing based on “a great new idea” or “a natural extension that makes perfect sense.” The reality is that if you don’t stay focused there is a good chance that you will never gain enough traction to win. And, we like to win. Initially, we had included more talent types in our offering, but scaled them back to focus solely on models. We will broaden our offering as we grow but for now it is focus, focus, focus on models and the companies that book them.

Windy City Cosmo: How do you network as an entrepreneur? Do you use LinkedIn? Do you send emails? Do you go to events? 

Willingham: Networking has been an essential part of our company’s forward momentum and we use all tools available including LinkedIn, WhatsApp, Instagram, attending technology and modeling industry related events and good old-fashioned meet-ups at local coffee shops. Actually, during our first year of business and prior to having an ever-growing in-house team, I believe that Ashley, Dustin and I spent more time meeting with people at coffee houses around Los Angeles (where we started) than most people spend in coffee houses during an entire lifetime!


How to Be a Successful Entrepreneur, Love Yourself and Build Inclusion

Success – some people define it in terms of numbers. Some of us define it by our relationships. And some of us define it by the difference we make in other people’s lives. One conference hoped to help with all three areas – being an entrepreneur, practicing self-love and learning balance, and most importantly, thinking beyond ourselves to build a better, more inclusive workplace where everyone has a seat in the office.

Over 200 industry executives, entrepreneurs, trailblazers, investors, former pro-athletes, educators, government officials and community leaders gathered at a women and diversity conference, FWD Collective, in the River West neighborhood in Chicago on Friday, September 15, 2017.

Even in cities, and sometimes especially in cities, diversity is something that isn’t happenstance. It’s curated. It’s thought about. It’s enforced and then needs to be reinforced in our communities and especially our workplaces.

Michael Donnelly founded FWD Collective to draw attention to diversity in the workplace and in entrepreneurship. Their discussions have expanded from a focus solely on venture capital to include business development, sharing your story, building teams, and beyond.

“The FWD Collective Summit is an expansion of the two successful VentureFWD events in Chicago2016 and San Francisco 2017, with a larger mission focusing on professional inclusion across multiple verticals, ”Donnelly, Founder of FWD Collective said. “Our events connect emerging entrepreneurs with established business professionals by facilitating discussions on business development, venture capital, building teams, and beyond.”


Addressing Barriers in the Workplace: Building a Diverse Community

FWD Collective was seriously an experience. It takes down the barriers but also addresses them. By being part of this women and diversity conference in Chicago we learned a few amazing statistics about how diverse teams perform in the workplace:

  • Ethnically, diverse teams outperform non-diverse ones by 35%.
  • Teams where men and women are equal earn 41% more revenue.
  • Companies reporting highest levels of racial diversity in their organizations bring in nearly 15 times more sales revenue than those with lowest levels of racial diversity.

But we also learned that even though there is reported success, there is also fear and exclusion in the workplace. FWD Collective shared:

  • There are fewer Fortune 500 CEOs who are women (4.1%) than who are named David (4.5%) or John (5.3%)
  • 83% of venture-backed founders have a racial composition that is entirely Caucasion.
  • Only 5 of all Fortune 500 companies have African American CEOs.

Entrepreneurs and Tech Influencers at The Women and Diversity Conference:

The summit included sessions with a diverse group including:
Kristi Ross | TastyTrade & Moxie Award Tech Woman of the Year
Ryan Mundy | Techlete Ventures & Former Chicago Bear
● Iggy Rodriguez | Bachelorette S13 & VP at Hero
Katy Lynch | Codeverse & Top 50 Tech Influencer
Rodrigo Garcia | CTO & CIO of Illinois State Treasurer
Claire Lew | Know Your Company & Crain’s 20 In Their 20s
Neal Sales-Griffin | CodeNow & Crain’s 40 Under 40
● And more!

Established entrepreneurs like Katy Lynch, whose new startup plans to teach a billion kids to read, spoke on a panel and encouraged those with business ideas to know the long road ahead and to not just quit your job, but build your plans and your dreams while working. Some tips they shared included making sure you can prove that your business is self-sustaining. Another key thing to do when you are building your business is to get in front of as many people that you can and learn the industry.

In the line-up was Deena McKay, Founder of the podcast, Black Tech Unplugged moderating a panelist including Silvana Favaretto, Founder of The Tulle Project,  Keisha Howard, Founder of  Sugar Gamers. which makes gaming accessible to like-minded women and other underserved demographics, and Kesia King, Founder of Chop Chop Mobile Salon and Barber. 

This panel discussion talked about building a business out of passion and perseverance.

“It’s not about blowing everyone’s mind. It’s about the things that connect each other,” Favaretto shared, ” I started a personal project. I wore a tulle skirt for 100 days. My goal is to empower women to be whatever they want to be.”

King started out with her mobile hair salon by creating a pop-up model at events. She said that she could prove interested that way.

Howard said that the recession hit and that changed the game for her. She entered into a gaming competition in California. Even though she realized she wasn’t good at gaming, she came back to Chicago and took out an ad on Craigslist to see if women and people of color were interested in being part of a gaming community. “We don’t see ourselves represented in these spaces,” Howard of Sugar Gamers shared. Based on that interest and momentum, she started building her company.

The panelist discussion also talked about the drive you need to have to be in business.

When King learned from a fellow Chamber of Commerce member that she wasn’t the first to market a mobile hair salon in Chicago, she shared that “I lost it. I was devastated.” But she didn’t stop there. “Competition is inevitable. Keep going and know that business is tough. You’re going to have highs and lows.”

Practical Sessions on Marketing and SEO:

The conference was an all-day event with panel discussions covering business plans, empowerment, and getting started with a business idea. At the same time, there were workshop classes about marketing, branding, finding your value and sanity and also offering practical foundations on search engine optimization (SEO).

Seach Engine Optimization and Link Building:

“I love working in this industry! It is fun and ever changing so there is always something new to learn. I have had the opportunity to grow from an account manager to my current position of Vice President. I truly believe that you can succeed as a woman in any industry as long as you put everything you have into it. Do something you love and you will be successful at it.” Sarah McMillin, Vice President at Loud Interactive, who gave a presentation on SEO.

McMillin shared foundations of SEO including the 5 key variables:

  1. Popularity
  2. Authority
  3. Relevance
  4. Social Media
  5. User Signals

One of her skillsets is link building. McMillin shared that you have to ask to be referenced in articles by asking “Can you link to me or can I write about you?” Pro tip: the best sites to be referenced on are .gov and .edu.

To establish your brand, she suggests signing up for Help a Report Out (HARO), where reporters will ask for expertise on a topic or need a quote for the article. To go a step further, make sure you ask for a link back to your site when you provide the data/quote.

Another tool for networking with bloggers and reporters and link building is to use Buzz Stream where you can search for a topic and find bloggers.

Marketing, Personas, and Sales:

Another marketing presentation was organized by Jill Rossini, Director of Marketing and Strategy at Conundrum Marketing Solutions.

She broke marketing down into three sections:

  • increase leads
  • to drive revenue
  • build relationships

She emphasized starting with “why” you’re building your businesses. Once you know the “why” then you can build a brand around that. Next, she suggested gathering 360-degree feedback of your brand which will help you understand your audience and build personas. Asking for feedback is key to improving your product or service. Lastly, she addressed building a list of people you want to talk to such as influencers, partners, or gatekeepers and to keep growing your contacts through account-based networking. 

Mind, Body, and Soul: How To Take Care of Yourself and Your Business:

What was great about this event is that it addresses the need for diversity. But we didn’t just talk about how we could be more diverse and promote more diverse workplaces and startup funding for underrepresented minorities. We also talked about how to equip ourselves with resources to market and promote our companies, and how to take a holistic view and make sure that our minds and bodies are in alignment and not just our work.

Two workshops stood out to me. The first was with experienced Product & Product Marketing Leader, Entrepreneur, and Speaker, Colleen Wilson. She spoke about how she was not her job and the need for entrepreneurs to find balance. While she shared that she was addicted to achievement, she learned on her journey that “who you are and how you do what you do is more important than what you do.”

While talking about our passion, our values, and our strengths, she really looked at all of us in the classroom and urged us to start appreciating who we are as people and to progress from there.

Transitioning in the afternoon sessions, we actually turned the lights out and meditated with serial entrepreneur, Ann Marie, CEO and Founder of Vue Capital.

Chicago Men and Women Recognized for Their Impact For Diversity in The Workplace:

This year, FWD Collective will also be honoring 10 individuals with the inaugural FWD Awards identifying those who are making a real impact for women & diversity. The awardees are: Freida Curry | WBDC, Emile Cambry | BLUE 1647, Allison Walsh | Chicago Innovation, Omar Duque | IHCC, Samara Mejia Hernandez | MATH Venture Partners, Thomas K.R. Stovall | ImBlackInTech, Holly Copeland | Horizon Pharma Manny Ozaeta | Hispanic Technology Incubator, Dima Elissa | VisMed 3D & AMWA, and Micae Brown | Minority Report N.K.A. Micae Brown Report.

Overall: A Mix of Building Your Skillset, Self-Care, and How to Promote Diversity:

I really appreciated this women and diversity conference. l appreciated the advice that McMillin from Loud Interactive shared about writing content that will be seen and help you build your brand and your audience. It was great to have a mix of skill-building workshops, along with thought-provoking ones about how to build a diverse workplace. I liked the panel discussion and learning how entrepreneurs came up with their ideas – ideas that they thought they couldn’t do and ideas that were involving people of color, men, and women into activities and businesses that were not mainstream or not marketed to like the Sugar Gamers initiative. Finally, I like that the Chicago conference addressed self-help and that we are whole people who need to be more than a job – we need to think about how we treat others and ourselves.

To learn more about FWD Collective and its mission to pop-up in as many cities as possible over the next few years, to expand our conversations, open up opportunities, and create an international community dedicated to professional inclusion and diversity, contact the Founder, Michael Donnelly. 


Meet the Chicago Entrepreneur Behind The Beauty App, LISA

There’s a lot that goes into getting ready for an event. And by event, I mean there’s a lot that goes into getting ready for a week. Is your hair done? Did your gel manicure start to peel?

The more that I attend parties and grow in my marketing and blogging career, the more I realize that it takes makeup and maybe a straightener to get good photos – not just Snapchat filters. And most of all, putting on your best face and looking good not only presents a better image for you and your brand, it also makes you feel more confident.

One platform that is here to help is the LISA App, the first open marketplace mobile application that connects clients to artists in the beauty industry by allowing them to schedule high-quality personal services whenever and wherever they want them, at a price that suits their budget. I had heard of the LISA App from The Tape Play’s launch party and from Chicagogrammers first birthday party and then at the Chicago Yelp Drink and Learn event at Workspring. 

After meeting some of their stylists and having my own hair and makeup done by some of the beauticians through the LISA App, I reached out to the founder, Lisa Nation to learn what inspired her to start this beauty on demand business, the apps that help her streamline her business and some of her secrets to B2B (business to business) success.

How did you get the idea for your business?

It was my husband’s idea, he had that ah ha moment driving to work one day. I’ve been a licensed hairstylist for over 23 years but for the past 17 years I have worked independently due to the commission split salons take from each service provided. When he explained his early concept, I jumped in head first and started to build out the infrastructure from the Artist’s perspective.

How long did you sit on the idea before taking steps to make it a reality?

September 24th, 2014 was when we hashed out the primitive idea, three days later he quit his job and we were off to the races.  We raised our first $100,000 in 2 days with just the concept of LISA, although the app was nameless at the time.

What were some of the steps that you took to create your business? Did you survey people? Did you seek out investors? Did you start solo?

Neither us knew one bit how to build an app, but, we are both resourceful. We strategically put the right people together and started whiteboarding. Once we felt we were in a good spot we held an investor presentation for 60 potential investors. We raised 1mm within 24 hours.

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Lisa Nation, Founder of The Lisa App.

How did you attracts stylists and beauticians?

At LISA we believe that anyone who can use scissors, a brush, chemicals or nimble fingers and make someone look and feel good deserves to be coined an Artist.

How do you build a platform for a community that doesn’t even realize a disruption is needed?

You have to listen to the people who live it everyday, what are their struggles, what would they like to see changed. That’s why LISA is a company that was built by the Artists for the Artists.

Before we began development, we invited 30 Artists to a summer camp in Florida. For 5 days 30 strangers came together to tell us what they would need if an app were built for them. We listened! You cannot build something if the people who are going to use it do not believe in it.

Can you tell me more about your business and the services you offer?

LISA is the first ever, true, open marketplace in the beauty industry that connects consumers and Artists in real time. LISA’s #1 focus is the B2B marketplace. LISA helps over 100 corporations supply beauty and wellness perks to their hardworking employees. LISA has designed software to assist these corporations to make it user-friendly for not only the back office (HR, Benefit Directors) but also for the employees to easily book in office services via the app. As we continue to grow our B2B efforts we will slowly start to promote the B2C marketplace in order for the employees to bring these services home with them.

Where’s your favorite part of getting ready for an event – makeup/hair/nails?

That’s a tough question to answer, I spend so much time making other people look and feel good, I rarely take the time or enjoy getting myself ready. If I had to choose, it would be hair.

What’s the hardest part of owning your own business?

Accountability. No one cares more about your business than you.

How do you distinguish yourself from competitors?

The goal is not to be first and best, the goal is to be early and better. We studied all of our competition and simply did it better. We learned from their mistakes and created features that they did not have, ie; open-marketplace, B2B strategy and all around Artist functionality.

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Do you use any apps to manage your business? If so, what are your favorites?

MailChimp, I use it to view report. Grammarly. Email tracker pro (I’m always watching to see who has opened my emails), Trello; this is how our team shares updates and stay organized and Zapier, I get a notification every time a consumer requests an Artist for a service.

What, do you find, is the hardest part of starting a business?

Prioritizing. Staying with your mission. There is such a temptation to sway from your original concept. DON’T. It will cause you to lose focus.

How do you network as an entrepreneur? Do you use LinkedIn? Do you send emails? Do you go to events?

It’s all about networking. I have joined many groups that inspire me and help me grow as an entrepreneur. I go to and participate in as many events as I possibly can. (get some networking tips here)

Sometimes I’m so tired, I don’t want to go, but I know I have to because it takes only one person and a 3-minute conversation to open a new door for you and you never know who that may be.

Since we are heavily focused on B2B, I’m on LinkedIn more than I am on FB or Instagram. LinkedIn is a terrific resource to learn about companies and the people who work there. Most of my business is email. One thing I have learned through this process is though is to avoid emailing Monday’s and Friday’s.

Windy City Cosmo experienced this first hand and was part of the LISA app’s promo video with Tape Play. (see video below).