By Corilyn Shropshire Chicago Tribune
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) "Bonfire Women" is a new talent development and networking program designed to inspire women in the earlier stages of their careers. So far, 15 employers, including CBRE, Motorola Solutions and FCB have signed on and will pay $10,000 for each employee they send to the program.
Alli Otto has worked in commercial real estate since college. She's done well in her job at CBRE, winning big clients and putting together important deals, but she wants to do better.
So Otto, 27, is turning to Bonfire Women, a new Chicago company that will run nine-month boot camps for professional millennial women. The goal, as co-founders and serial entrepreneurs Rachel Bellow and Suzanne Muchin describe it, is to equip women to achieve success on their own terms.
For some, that success is defined as getting the top job at a company. For others, it may be just operating at the top of their game. "Not all women will define their success based on their ability to get into the C-suite," Muchin said.
Many talent development programs and networking groups are geared toward women who've already crashed through the so-called glass ceiling and need support from others who've made a similar climb. Bonfire, which has been organized as a for-profit venture, is designed to cultivate women not fresh out of college, but in the earlier stages of their careers.
It's "bringing them around the bonfire," Muchin said. "These are women who are two to three levels down, but still considered great talent."
Bonfire's start comes at a time where there is renewed emphasis on advancing women in corporate America.
In Chicago, there are a number of organizations and spaces dedicated to women and their careers. They run the gamut, from The Chicago Network, which has provided education, leadership training and mentoring opportunities for women in senior leadership roles since 1979, to EvolveHer, a women-only co-working space that opened in early 2018, providing classes, networking and even workouts.
In New York City, there is Chief, an elite club for women at the vice president level and higher.
And in Springfield, Gov. J.B. Pritzker last month signed legislation that will lead to an annual report on the gender, racial and ethnic diversity on the corporate boards of Illinois' publicly traded companies, with the idea that it prompts companies to increase diversity.
Muchin, in her 50s, and Bellow, in her 60s, said they've blazed their own path. They decided the best new business would be one that would help young women "redefine the workplace," Muchin said.
The duo, who founded the company earlier this year, are best friends who have launched five businesses together, including the brand strategy firm Mind+Matter Studio in Chicago. Muchin is also an associate professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management. Bellow, who is based in New York City, started her career on the design team of the MacArthur Foundation's "genius grant" awards and has launched seven companies, primarily focused on social entrepreneurship.
The pair met in 1998, connected over their shared passion for making nonprofits more business-minded and have been working and laughing together ever since, Muchin said.
They hired Rebecca Sholiton, a Kellogg graduate and co-founder and former CEO of Wise Apple, a healthy lunch delivery service for children, to run Bonfire.
So far, 15 employers, including CBRE, Motorola Solutions and FCB have signed on and will pay $10,000 for each employee they send to the program. The women are nominated by their companies but then have to apply and be accepted into the program, which will operate out of a space at 151 N. Franklin St. that can accommodate 100 participants.
Outside of work hours, the women will attend retreats and meetings in small groups, participate in interactive events with titles such as "Claim Your Voice" and "Use Your Power," attend skill-building practice sessions and complete an online curriculum.
There's also self-reflection and mentoring. In the end, Bellow and Muchin said they believe the women will leave understanding how to create change in their workplaces.
"In order to matter more in the world, you need to understand what that means," Bellow said. "Once you become an agent of mattering more ... now you're the most valuable asset for your colleagues and your company." The participants, she added, ultimately will think of leadership and themselves differently.
Motorola Solutions plans to send three to five women to the program.
"I see Bonfire as a progressive feeder system into our existing efforts to help develop women in our company," said CEO Greg Brown.
"An outside program such as Bonfire gives (women) exposure and a fresh perspective outside the four walls of the company," he said. "It's an opportunity to expose our women to a network that may not be available to them."
The founders say they are also looking for women who don't necessarily fit the bill of the natural standout star in the workplace. Tech nerd with her nose buried in her work? Please apply. The bull-in-the-china-shop who can put offcoworkers with her sometimes-abrasive smarts? Bonfire wants her too. It's their chance to learn and stand out.
Muchin and Bellow plan to expand the program to other cities in the near future.
To fund the venture, the duo approached some of Chicago's most deep-pocketed movers and shakers and soon will close a $2 million funding round. Financial backers include Chicago businesswoman and lawyer Sheli Rosenberg, Chicago Park District Commissioner and former investment manager Ashley Hemphill Netzky and Jellyvision founder Harry Nathan Gottlieb.
Gottlieb said he invested not only because he believes in the business sense of his longtime friend and business adviser Muchin, but because he thinks everyone should have the opportunity to reach "their fullest potential."
"For generations, that was not true for women and that's only starting to change now," he said. "For years I've gone to award ceremonies for just women. I can't wait for these ceremonies to be anachronistic."
Muchin and Bellow say that millennial women are in a particular position to have a real impact on the workplace and the way people work.
The business will use the slogan "Bonfire: All Rise."
"When we say, 'All rise,' we really believe that if women work they way they want to and create the conditions in which they are most successful, others will rise with them," Muchin said.
"We're not trying to burn down the current system," she said. "We're saying work is not going to change anytime soon and we don't want to wait for that."
That's exactly what CBRE's Otto, who said she has no plans to sit in the C-suite, is looking for. "It's an awesome opportunity to grow outside my industry with like-minded women who are trying to shake things up in Chicago," she said. "I'm looking for a renewed sense of confidence in my ability to dominate even as a female in a male-dominated industry."
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