Founder Profile: Sarah Neukom, Founder of ESP Presents and Exchange312 - Chicago
What is your background and what led you to start ESP Presents?
I started doing events while in college, so early on I knew that I had a desire to plan, bring people together, and create an opportunity to bring happiness to others. When I graduated from Bates College, I moved to Boston and worked at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and was there for about six years working on the special events team. My role was to create large scale fundraising events for Dana-Farber, and also serve as a consultant to people in the community who wanted to fundraise on behalf of Dana-Farber. That's when I really started to fall in love with the nonprofit portion.
I've always been very cause driven. I loved the thought of making a living while also doing really valuable work that was lifesaving. The people that I met and the stories that I was getting to hear were so inspiring.
That being said, it was also a career that I internalized a lot. I became completely consumed by my job, so by the time I was 26 or 27, I legitimately had a quarter life crisis and had to stop and pause. I decided to take a moment to find myself and stop giving everything I had to everybody else. This was when the economy crashed and everyone was having a hard time finding jobs. I called my parents and told them I was going to quit. And they were like, "Sarah, are you sure? What are you going to do?" I told them I was going to go work at a Red Sox bar.
So I did! I left my very coveted job, and I went to work as a server at a bar next door to Fenway. Then of course, because I live with overachiever syndrome, I also took on planning and booking the restaurant's events. In researching what was happening in Boston, I found this event that was coming to the city - Great Urban Race - and it needed a venue that would be able to accommodate a thousand people. I reached out and found that it was run by a company based out of Chicago. Long story short - I reached out, booked their event, met an incredible team from the company, and made my way out to Chicago a month later for an interview. I ended up moving to Chicago for the opportunity, and worked at Red Frog Events for three years, before deciding to leave to pursue my own entrepreneurial aspirations.
Fast forward to 2013 - I met my current partner Matt Woodburn through mutual friends. He was about to open Chop Shop and was looking for someone to do venue sales. My goal was to open and run my own event space, so this seemed like the perfect opportunity to collaborate and learn.
During that time, Matt and I both had clients from our previous careers calling us asking for event help. In 2014, a former client of mine reached out - she was planning a full day summit on mental health and asked for my help to do it. We put together our first proposal and it was accepted! Late 2014 was when we officially launched ESP Presents and the first event was in spring of 2015 - The Kennedy Forum - it's a full day national summit dedicated to mental health. That event created a waterfall, with more requests, more events, and more opportunities. So by the start of 2016, we had 20 events on the ESP calendar and decided we needed to actually start bringing people on. So we made our first hire in January 2016. We now have a team of 7 plus Matt and I!
When you were transitioning to ESP full-time, were you focused on mission driven events?
My time at Dana-Farber taught me that you can have an impact, do incredible work, and still make a living. Over the years I’ve realized that making people feel good is my mission. Our business is all about hospitality, and hosting, and taking care of people. That can be done with both non-profit, and for profit work. I feel incredibly inspired when I can relate to the cause, or mission that we’re supporting. I also feel great when I’m an authentic user or advocate of a brand that we’re working with. The idea of doing good work, supporting our communities, and lending our skills to organizations/brands that are making an impact is what keeps me going every day.
What does ESP event planning look like?
We're a different style of production company because we're very inclusive and anything a client needs, we'll do it. We like to say “We do our jobs, so you can do yours,” which means if you are a nonprofit - you need to focus on raising money, awareness, and stewarding your donors, we'll handle all the nitty-gritty logistical stuff. We handle everything from concepting and creating, ideating about what an event might look/feel like, to the on-site execution.
We manage everything from venue selection, site tours, catering, AV, volunteer recruitment and management, mobile bidding, guest management, photography and video sourcing, design work, program creation, budgeting, the list goes on. We have a small and mighty team, who often feels more like family. We spend a lot of time together, we support each other, and we all celebrate the wins, and collaboratively address the challenges. We sincerely value and respect our clients, our vendors, and each other - and that makes everything we do feel fun, and fulfilling.
What is ESP Cares?
ESP Cares focuses on getting non-profits access to incredible, high value, experiences that can be used as auction packages, at no risk. We manage the entire process of procuring the experience, working with the charities to help it sell at its highest value, and then coordinating the details for the winners. With all of our non-profit work, we know that getting access to auction items can be exhausting, so we saw this as a niche that we can fill.
You just opened Exchange312! What is the space?
We're calling 2019 ESP 2.0. This is our year of growth, and a new venue was the perfect way to embrace that! In our hunt for a new office space, we came across a blank canvas space at 1714 W. Division. The moment Matt and I saw it, we knew it was ours. There were no walls, no HVAC, no restrooms, but instead a beautiful blank canvas that we would be able to design entirely to our own spec, and create not only a new headquarters and showroom for ESP Presents, but also a space in which we can flex our love for hosting.
The venue is Exchange312, and the space is about 5,000 square feet, with 2,500 sq feet of completely transformable, intimate, event space that can fit anywhere from 15-150 people. We also have a private and super luxurious, boardroom that can hold 12. We’re here and ready to host everything from intimate/unique wedding celebrations, anniversary parties, corporate off-sites, cocktail parties - and we’re super excited for the first-ever BIDE Market this upcoming September - which we’re thrilled to be a collaborator alongside The Glossary!
Why is it important for you for women to support each other and what has that looked like in your life?
I’m a firm believer in supporting good people no matter their gender, race, background, or lifestyle. Everyone has a story and everyone has a purpose, sometimes they just need to be revealed and heard. I’ve always gotten along well with women - both personally and professionally. All my managers and bosses have been women, I have a tight circle of girlfriends and I have nothing but respect for all the female entrepreneurs who are hustling everyday. It’s not easy. There is plenty of work to be done in this world so the idea of collaborating, rather than competing, is what feels right for me.
What is something you're learning right now?
I think I learn 10 new things every day. Learning how to say no is a big one, especially for a lifelong “people pleaser.” I’ve learned you have to check yourself every so often and make sure you’re doing things for the right reasons. Managing a growing business is hard. You’re responsible to, and for, a lot of people so everything can feel like an urgent priority on certain days. Learning to listen to my gut, and make well-informed decisions, followed by appropriate actions is something I’m actively working on right now.