The Key to Better Networking? Saya Hillman Says, “Take it Back to the Dinner Table”

Posted January 9, 2011

We wanted to start the year off at Technori with a person who encompasses much of what we discussed in our open letter to the community. Someone who is building meaningful connections and encouraging community inside the business world here in Chicago. It just so happens she has found a way to build a small business around that concept as well. Meet Saya Hillman. ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- ------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------- MOST OF US BUILD LISTS of things we want to get done, things to accomplish, chores to work though, and dreams to chase. Many of these lists will get whittled down from 10 items to one or two. Most are thrown away, deleted, or forgotten. Saya Hillman started out 2008 by creating a list called “Things I wish I could get paid to do.” This list included everything from “working with inner city youth” to "being optimistic.” Mixed in were gems like “watching documentaries,” “doing karaoke,” and "wearing flips flops and jeans.” At first it didn’t seem like there was any chance a business could be built on such an abstract list of items that didn’t necessarily have much connection to one another. However, Mac & Cheese Productions would be born out of them, and it certainly wasn’t a clear path to success. “Well, I wouldn't recommend starting your own business the way that I did it. I would recommend getting some clients set while you still have a normal job and still have a paycheck coming in. You know, build up a client base and get some type of idea first of all of what you want to do… I had no idea how I was going to make money. I just knew I wanted to be on my own." BORN AND RAISED in Evanston, the Saya that people know today would have been unrecognizable as a child. Instead of the vibrant outgoing woman she is now, she often found herself constantly alienated by her very diverse background. “I was raised by a single mom and I'm biracial. Even though Evanston is a very diverse town, it's very segregated diversity. North Evanston was white, South Evanston is black… I felt very abnormal growing up. You know, I'm a 6-foot female and my mom's Jewish, but I don't identify with being Jewish…  Most of my friends came from fairly wealthy families. So everything I felt like I had in my life was abnormal… “Not only the race stuff and the single mom stuff, but we didn’t have a lot of money and my mom is also kind of a free spirit. We didn't have what most people have when they're growing up; they want a Barbie doll, My Little Pony,… I wanted a toaster oven, I wanted a vacuum cleaner, microwave, a car, Tupperware, non-organic peanut butter like Skippy that you spread easily because everyone else had it. I wanted it because I thought it would make me and my family more normal. So, yeah, all those things to me meant normalcy.” The woman you see today is so opinionated and proud of her work that it’s bizarre to think that for most of her youth she  typically just went with the flow on everything. She wore clothes multiple sizes too big to blend in, and she went along with the groupthink no matter how much she disagreed with it. Adding to her feelings of being abnormal, Saya grew up without a father in her life and has, to this day, never met him. “I think not having a dad growing up just added to my feelings of being abnormal since my friends had two parents, and even if they didn't have two parents together then they had divorced parents and they would see whoever they didn't live with on a regular basis. So I definitely think that was a negative impact, and also from a financial standpoint it was hard. There was no child support or anything for my mom, and she's been self-employed her whole life. “But I really don't think about it at all, unless people ask me, and I have a very full and rich life without him. So, yeah, I think now as an adult it's fine. It's not a hindrance at all, but growing up it was definitely difficult.” RAISED BY AN ENTREPRENEUR single mom made for an interesting childhood. Literally, from the day Saya was born her mother has been working for herself. “The last time she worked for someone was she worked for Northwestern University and her water broke with me, and so that was 32 years ago. She decided she really wanted to stay at home with me so she just came up with all these really interesting ways to make money staying at home.“ Starting off her mother would begin working as a typist out of their home, transcribing hand written thesis papers and dissertations for Northwestern University students. After a couple years, she decided to chase something she could be more passionate about. “She started going along the bicycle trails up on the North Shore and collecting wild flowers, and then she'd bring them home and press them and dry them. Then she would make picture frame collages out of these dried flowers and sell them at craft fairs, and then she became the only female apprentice in a woodworking workshop.” From those pursuits she would eventually land upon her true calling as an organic landscaper. “When I was about maybe eight, that was when she decided she wanted to be an organic landscaper and gardener, so she designed people's gardens, and she also kept them up and planted them, and that's what she did for the majority of my life. She actually just retired maybe five years ago from doing that." You would think that being the daughter of an entrepreneur would make her passionate about becoming one herself. However, at first, she viewed it as one more extension of not being “normal” like everyone else she knew who had jobs, commuted to work, and worked in the skyscrapers downtown. No, instead, as Saya approached the end of high school, she wanted to get away from everything she knew. To be her own “normal” person and experience something completely different. BOSTON COLLEGE is where she would find herself after high school, but, interestingly enough, she almost didn’t attend as “Saya” at all. “Another thing that made me abnormal growing up was my name. Saya is not a very common name, and I was actually this close to changing it to what I thought was the epitome of normalcy as far as names goes. I almost changed it to Alexis and I'm so glad I didn’t…” It seems that no matter how far we go from our roots, we find ourselves in the same places again and again. If Saya wanted to pick a place where she could finally fit in, Boston College was probably not the best choice. “That was the mindset I was in, like, 'freedom. Nobody knows me, I can be whoever I want.' BC is a very white, Irish, Catholic, homogeneous place, and I stuck out like a sore thumb…” However, for the first time in her life, being different wouldn’t hold her back. It would actually push her to the become the woman she is today. “I started applying for scholarships to go to college, because we didn't have tons of money and BC's really expensive. The only way I was able to go was all these different scholarships was I was able to play up all my unique traits. I got all these Jewish scholarships, black scholarships; I got a scholarship for being tall. Something like the Tall Women of America or something like that. I think that started planting the seed like, ‘Oh, there's some good that can come out of being different.’” At BC, she would get heavily involved in social causes, and these experiences would lay the foundation for her to eventually start Mac & Cheese Productions. During her years in Boston, she joined many of the university’s social programs, which took her Jamaica to work with leprosy victims and AIDS patients. It would also drive her interview for and win the Martin Luther King scholarship at BC, which paid 75 percent of her senior year tuition. After graduating and returning to Chicago, she temporarily worked at a coffee shop, before getting job at a downtown non-profit and moving to Wrigleyville. Saya felt that she had finally arrived: She was living and working in the city, she had a steady paycheck, and she had a job she enjoyed. Even though her work at the non-profit--teaching reading to kids through art--was very fulfilling, after three years she found herself wanting something different. MAC & CHEESE PRODUCTIONS is the end result of a life filled with 10,000 experiences. Some breathtaking, others heart breaking, but all-in-all they have been filled with the kind of raw moments that can only result in a person like Saya. Her next job, as an associate producer for a company that made social issue documentaries, gave her the skillset needed to eventually launch her own production house. “That really peaked my interest that, you know. I still had this social issue angle and still non-profit, but it was something brand new. I had never taken a film class, and I didn't know anything about making documentaries, so I was like, 'I'll just try and send in my resume.' He hired me and said, ‘Well, I'm willing to train you in all the technical aspects because you have the social issues experience interest.’  So, I'm really grateful to him that he did that because I think it's a really hard field to break into if you don't have any experience. I was up against NYU film school students and people like that." While building documentaries for her new employer, she got the chance to work on a documentary about Sargent Shriver (Maria Shriver’s father). “Sargent Shriver created all of these amazing social programs like Head Start and Peace Core, and so I was able to jump in on that project right in the beginning and got to travel. I had never traveled for work before, and I got go to LBJ Library in Austin. I got to go to NBC Archives in New York and JFK Library and got access to all the private Kennedy home movies and photos…” After one year, she was let go from the foundation and decided it was time to set out on her own. Not any easy decision for anyone, but it was one that felt right. “I was let go in September and, in my mind, I was hoping to make it through January. I was like ‘I’m going to make it through December and then I'm going to quit in January,' so I wasn't upset or anything because I was all ready planning on leaving. It just happened a little quicker than I thought it would. "That year did two things for me: It made me realize what a cool world technology is and digital media and film and how powerful a vehicle it can be to share a message. Also it,made me realize I never wanted to work for anybody ever again. I've been self-employed ever since." She would turn to one of her oldest companions in times of stress: a list. Out of this turmoil came her “Things I want to get paid to do” list. “So, that first week after I let go I made a list of all the things, no matter how silly or how unrealistic, that I wish I could get paid to do. I love making lists and I love criteria, so some of the things on my list were 'I love wearing flip flops and blue jeans,' 'I love playing board games,' 'I like meeting people,' 'I like having people over to my home,' 'I like being out on my couch,' 'I like talking about Chicago and sharing information about Chicago.' All in all, it was about 25 things on that list and obviously a lot of those are ridiculous, but I've managed to incorporate all those things into my professional life now. “So, I was like, 'how can I combine those?' And that's how I came up with doing video production, and I really thought video production would be, for the most part, limited to making special event DVDs for things like bar mitzvahs or weddings. I still do a little bit of that. Of course, that's where a lot of the money is, but it's just not the creativity outlet I was looking for. I just kind of randomly came up with this video production idea. I made $375 between that October and December, and thank god for unemployment, because that was the only way I was able to continue on.” However, video production wouldn’t end up being the bread-and-butter for Saya's business; it would be the connections that came out of the work that would lead to her most successful venture. “I realized productions of Mac 'n Cheese Productions could be a lot more than just video. I realized that productions could also be all these events that I'm throwing. I kind of put myself in the [category of] accidental entrepreneur, because most of the stuff that I've done outside of video production that makes me money just started as an accident.” Saya had a knack for throwing really good dinner parties for all of the friends she had made in the non-profit and video worlds. These dinner parties eventually would outgrow her financial ability to support them, and from the growing demand came the idea for “Minglers,” as she likes to call them. “Minglers started off as I just enjoyed throwing dinner parties for friends, being that none of my friends would know each other, as a way to help them meet new people. Those got so popular that I started getting emails from friends of friends saying, 'I hear you throw these dinner parties, can I come?' I wasn't charging or anything, and it got to be so crazy I was putting in all this money and time. "Then I realized, 'I need to get paid to do this.' So that's how the Minglers were born.” At her home in Roscoe Village, Saya's Minglers have grown to become a healthy business that brings together strangers for the purpose of creating new connections. Saya has now hosted more than 800 people at her dining room table (though now they have taken the format of a cocktail party). There is one very unique requirement for those who attend: You must come alone. “I think the two things that make those unique and different from other events are the fact you have to come by yourself and the fact it's in a home. I've been approached by bars and restaurants about connecting with them and, you know, I feel that if I have it in the back of a bar or a restaurant, it's going to become similar to a lot of the events that are all ready out there. I like the living room vibe where it's just comfortable. I suggest people just wear jeans and t-shirts. Don't get dressed up. Don't wear heels. Don't bring business cards or a resume. Just be yourself, and don't worry about trying to impress people at all." As for the future, Saya feels that there is a significant opportunity to expand the Minglers to other parts of the country and even around the world. “I've actually been asked by a lot of people in other cities, London, New York, Amsterdam, Boston; ‘I wish we had the Minglers here! Will you come run them here?’ I would love to do that and just find hosts in those cities who have similar personalities and drive. You don't need stuff to run these Minglers, really. It's just the personality of whoever the host is. You need a venue and a network, and that's really about it. Yeah, so I think that my next professional goal is to grow these events.” These days, Saya is certainly a part of both the Minglers network as well as the Chicago entrepreneur community as a whole. We'd take that over "normal" any day. http://www.macncheeseproductions.com/