“Knowing you have a community of women who have your back is so critical to being able to survive.”
Pick a season and this is where you might find the creative community of women changing Chicago: in the sunlit industrial space of a renovated firehouse or creative studio, surrounded by the season’s first blooms of magenta and green, snacking on hors d’oeuvres with flutes of Prosecco in hand.
United by their passions, formally they are brought together by Forth Chicago, a quarterly salon designed to create space for bright ideas curated around a central theme. The samplings of women entrepreneurs come from all corners, ranging from graphic designers to strategists, Etsy shop owners and lawyers. No networking, no skills-trading, no pretense: They are gathered intimately, in groups of ten at a time, and come to meet other like-minded women, learn from each other’s wisdom, and simply talk.
The three founders, Lisa Guillot, Julie Schumacher, and Kelly Allison believe there is a beautiful enough reason to simply prioritize ideas and the women behind them. And when it becomes authentically about the people, friendships are formed, community is made, and the benefits of finding business partners naturally follow.
“I think for so long, women hid behind the book club,” Schumacher said. “That’s where you got together but you don’t talk about the book, you talk about your marriage. Forth is the business equivalent of saying ‘You’re welcome here, let’s just talk.’ And it works.”
Past themes of Forth, a playful nod to the quarterly aspect of the salon that implies momentum, include dealing with change (accented with ombre flowers and food), passion projects (where everything is served “on the side” in side carts), to letting go (complete with a bundle of balloons and wish papers that disappear when lit up). A fall salon with the theme “owning your awesome” featured boastful peacock feathers and a jewel-toned, Moroccan theme.
Unlike the women-specific groups created by all-male trustee boards, usually in reaction to societal pressures rather than authentically-intentioned, Forth has given women a chance to champion for themselves.
“They talk a lot about how women are more prone to the impostor syndrome, and whether it’s us feeling like we can charge the rates we think we’re worth, or calling out someone who’s using language that isn’t acceptable in a meeting, knowing you have a community of women who have your back is so critical to being able to survive,” Schumacher said.
The co-founders of Forth Chicago, a designer, writer, and photographer who call themselves the “three fourths,” get along almost too-harmoniously. Unlike the often-catty, love-hate Instagram competition present amongst the most glamorous lifestyle—something that Guillot admits once being incredibly envious of—they are also surprisingly supportive, down-to-earth, and full of grace.
Forth Chicago started with Guillot, who heads a boutique brand design studio named Step Brightly during her daytime job (“Her spirit animal is Kate Spade,” Schumacher said of her)—during our interview, she quite literally lit up the room, aptly donning a sunflower-yellow peacoat inside a minimalist café. Back in 2012, she had been inspired by an article she read in the New York Times Style section (“Where I find all of my ideas,” she exudes) about the two men behind The Fat Radish, who biked around New York City delivering farm-to-table lunches in hopes of growing their catering service.
They started off going door-to-door, but slowly grew and began catering high-end salons, New York Fashion Week, “and all these magical things kept happening to them” before expanding into a restaurant, Guillot said. It turns out, the chefs were also in relationships with well-connected women—model-actress Dree Hemingway, and a fashion editor—both of whom used their industry connections to help their partners’ business gain momentum.
“It was really the women who created the synergy for this project.” Guillot said. “I kept thinking ‘Wow, that’s so exciting!’ I want to make beautifully styled wonderful things, and invite creative women to join us.”
She recruited Allison, a lifestyle photographer and previous Paper Source coworker, and Schumacher, a writer and friend she met at a Jill Salzman book opening. Together, they launched the inaugural salon in the spring of 2013, based on “starting stories.”
Two years later, Forth is thoughtfully scaling the initiative to bring together creative women through public events like workshops on speed mentoring and running an Etsy shop. It has grown to over 100 people, and between salons, the Forth community has stayed close-knit through a private Facebook group, where new friends find business partners, bridesmaids, and after-work cocktail buddies in the mix. Fittingly, Forth’s most recent spring salon in March was about planning the ‘next’ while loving the ‘now,’ which is exactly the crossroads it finds itself at.
But the key to such an organic community is exactly that: organic. Guillot harps on the idea of growing responsibly and being thoughtful about the things that go into each salon, which keeps the community authentic. Forth is anything but networking in the big and corporate sense.
“In part, it’s because we’re all trying to figure out how to enjoy the place we’re at—at Forth we’re all successful and all busy, but we’re also definitely peeking down the block and seeing where we could take this,” Schumacher said. “Figuring out how to be content and hungry at the same time, and staying present and positive is really hard.”
While Forth remains active on its Twitter, sends out regular newsletters, and frequently updates its blog with features of Forth community members, recipes from past salons, and food for thought, the analog salon experience is one of a kind in Chicago. Still, the founders know that ultimately trust within builds the community at-large.
“It’s that inch-by-inch growth I’d love to be protect of,” Guillot says. “There’s obviously a need here in Chicago that people want to meet and greet, but there’s a lot more heart to it.”
(Images from Kelly Allison)