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Cory Dukes

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July 31, 8:30am • • part of a series on Underdog

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“Create a business plan when you’re seven years old… and then never create a business plan again.” - Saya Hillman (Mac & Cheese Productions)

Thanks so much to everyone who joined us for an incredible and hilarious morning with Saya Hillman for #CMPioneer! Each month, we love seeing what you enjoyed most and took away from each talk. Check out some highlights from Friday’s event below!

Wise questions for the would-be #pioneer from @sayahillman @chicago_cm

A post shared by Marco Siegel-Acevedo (@siegeacedesign) on

Next week we’ll be joined by Saya Hillman, “Head Cheese-It” of Mac & Cheese Productions℠, who, in deciding to blaze her own path towards her “Life of Yes℠” through the creation of Mac & Cheese Productions, has helped countless others embrace their own Life of Yes, and all the positivity, self-efficacy, playfulness, & community that comes with. We couldn’t wait until next week to hear from Saya, so check out our brief interview with her below, and set your reminder to register for tickets Monday morning (10/23) starting at 11am!

Details and registration here.

Define what this month’s theme, PIONEER, means to you in one sentence or less.

Either I don’t fit in any of the already existing boxes or already existing boxes lack what I want so I’m going to create my own box and invite others to join me.

List three words that begin with the letter “M” to describe yourself/your personality.


In three words, describe how you felt when you first started Mac & Cheese Productions.

Go, don’t think.…

How do you come up with M&C’s Offerings (e.g. Sleepaway Camp, Idea Potluck)?

I question:

  • what areas of my life are stressful and could be made easier/more enjoyable
  • what am I nostalgic for
  • what do I envy
  • what do I want more of
  • what am I good at that others struggle with
  • what are sources of angst or sadness for others
  • how can I tweak someone else’s XYZ that would put a Life of Yes℠ spin on it
  • what can I create with what I have (physically and skills-wise)
  • how can I make myself feel good
  • how can I make others feel good
  • how can I monetize avenues to fulfillment and personal growth in ways that make sense for who I am and what I bring to the table
  • how can I act now

What is one daily practice/habit that helps you cultivate a Life of Yes?

I work from home so I clean right before I go to bed or right when I wake up (ideally, the former so that I can hit the ground running in the AM). My mind is much more likely to be inspired, relaxed, and motivated when my environment is serene, decluttered, and inviting. I also take cleaning breaks throughout the day, when I still want to be productive but need to get up from the computer and move my body. Some of my best ideas come when I’m scrubbing toilets. (Also why I now have a “housecleaner” branch on the Mac & Cheese tree – get paid to do something I love, am good at, and you hate? OK!).

What’s your favorite thing about being your own boss?

Autonomy – 10AM Tuesday yoga or Trader Joe’s, afternoon naps, wake up slowly via the sun not the alarm, no pants most days, take random days off and spontaneous trips, make decisions without having to run them by anyone, choose when I want to be “on” and interact with others and when I need Saya-Time, adding and subtracting branches to the Mac & Cheese tree when I want, no time-wasters (meetings, protocol, conference calls, office small talk, red tape, inefficient systems).

What is one piece of advice you’d share with someone who wants to blaze a new path for themselves, whether starting a business, going to school, accepting an exciting new role, or making another big life decision?

The Perfect Time Unicorn, and his cousins More Time and Better Time, don’t exist. Stop waiting for the perfect time, more time, or a better time to take that trip, quit your job, move to another city, ask that cute barista out. You will never win that game. All your ducks will never line up. Your future self will not have more time than your current self. There will always be an excuse not to jump. Just jump. Nike the bejeezus out of life and just do it. Whatever it is. You can always change course, you can always come back.

Last Friday at Savage Smyth, Rule29 founder and Creative Director Justin Ahrens joined us to talk Compassion. Justin shared the story of how “a few knucklehead friends with an idea” grew into Wheels4Water, and how Wheels4Water has evolved and come to raise more than $430,000 and help more than 10,750 people receive safe water, sanitation & hygiene training.

Check out some highlights attendees shared below, and stay tuned for news of this month’s speaker!

On September 29th, we’ll hear from Rule29 Principal and Creative Director, Justin Ahrens, presenting on September’s theme of Compassion. We reached out to Justin early to share a little insight with you, and he responded during a more than 3,000-mile bike ride! 

That bike ride, his project Wheels4Water, has, since 2014, aimed to bring awareness and funds to community water projects throughout Africa. With the help of communities across America, the 2014-2016 rides raised more than $230,000. In 2017, W4W is bringing clean water & sanitation to a school and village in Uganda, and hopes to bring the total number of people who have gained access to safe water through their work to 10,000. 

Join us on September 29th at Savage Smyth, and check out our Q&A with Justin below!

Define what this month’s theme, Compassion, means to you in one sentence or less.

    For me, compassion means the idea to give of oneself, or one’s possessions was never invented. It is an innate part of humanity. We give to share. We give to love. We give to make the world a better place.

    What does it mean to you to “make creative matter”?

      This is part of how I typically describe it:

      We understand design changes our experience.

      We know stories shape us.

      That wonder awakens us.

      And the only way that tomorrow will be better than today…

      Is if we help others see possibility more clearly.

      And this is why we make creative matter.

      List three words that begin with the letter “C” to describe yourself/your personality.

        - Curious

        - Collaborator

        - Caring

        Can you share a person or project that embodies your definition of compassion?

          Sister Mary Corita Kent: I loved her passion coming through in her art and how she wanted to influence others to see the world differently -

          What are the top three places you find inspiration?

            - Music

            - Making space to shoot images daily

            - Travel & Adventure

            How does your work with Rule29 influence your nonprofit/charity work?

              The work is really intertwined. Each type of work we do really informs and makes the other types of work better. Primarily in the way we ask questions and the posture we take whether its for profit or non-profit. In many ways the exploring, process and developing of the story for each now looks very similar but continues to evolve.

              Where did the name ‘Rule29’ come from?

                We wanted a name that would make people ask what the meaning was and then we tell them…

                “Real genius is about trying things.” - Nathaniel Salzman

                Last Friday’s event with Nathaniel Salzman was so much fun! Missed out? Check out some highlights attendees shared below, and join us next month when Justin Ahrens, founder and principal of Rule 29, presents on Compassion

                Nathaniel Salzman would be the first to admit he is not, in fact, a genius. He is, however, a jack of all trades, a master of some, a designer, an inventor and a tinkerer. We can’t wait to find out what Nathaniel has in store for us when he joins us next week on Friday, 8/25, at The Nerdery. Check out our Q & A with him below, and get ready for tickets to be released on Monday!

                In one sentence or less, define what this month’s theme, Genius, means to you.

                If luck is where opportunity meets preparation, then genius is where education meets persistence. 

                How does Chicago influence you or your work?

                Chicago is a city that speaks its mind and knows how to hustle. It’s also lousy with high-performing people. There is so much opportunity here for someone to connect with smart, driven people and do meaningful work. 

                List three words that begin with the letter “R” to describe yourself/your personality.

                Random, Rational, Relatable 

                Can you share a person or project that fits your definition of genius?

                I agree with Elizabeth Gilbert that genius is not something you are. It’s something you access. So no person is a genius. Instead, I believe that anyone is able to do genius work, and a great example of that is the sculptor Tom Sachs. He and his studio team make amazing pieces of art and propaganda, all of which must conform to the arbitrary boundaries of the Studio Code. These constraints create a consistent vocabulary that Tom then uses to explore everything from his love/hate relationship with consumerism, to cargo cult objects, to space exploration and even topics as heavy as slavery. 

                What are the top three places you find inspiration?

                1. Audiobooks and podcasts. For example, I use the book recommendations made on The Tim Ferriss Show podcast to feed what books I add to my Audible reading list. This has served me very well.
                2. YouTube creators like Alec Steele, Casey Neistat, The Nerdwriter, and Liza Koshy
                3. Spending time in a quiet room, in a comfortable chair, apart from my iPhone, having a good think

                At July’s Creative Mornings event, we heard artist/activist/cultural producer Elijah McKinnon talk about equality– about doing things in service of others, about accountability and trust and compassion. 

                Missed it? Check out some highlights below shared by fellow Chicago morning people during and after Elijah’s presentation!

                Equality and Inspiration for change. @chicago_cm @elijaa_ #equality #chicago #chingón #goodfriday

                A post shared by GCreative (@germs_cd) on

                Presenting on July’s theme of Equality will be artist/activist/cultural producer/marketing maven Elijah McKinnon! Elijah is the Founder and Creative Director of the independent consultancy People Who Care, “a collective of queer, femme and people of color specializing in campaign development & management, brand strategy and cultural productions for non-profits and grassroots initiatives.”

                Since we can never just wait until that one CreativeMornings Friday each month, we asked Elijah a few questions prior to their talk! Check out their answers below, and join us next Friday, July 28th, at Savage Smyth!

                How does Chicago influence you or your work?
                I’m deeply inspired by Chicago’s rich cultural landscape and the cities commitment to exuding resilience. There is so much history rooted in the working class that motivates me to constantly push a little harder. Hanging out on rooftops in the West Loop and taking in the skyline also brings a ton of joy to me and my creative process. 

                List three words that begin with the letter “E” to describe yourself/your personality.
                Explicit. Empathetic. Encouraging. 

                What are the top three places you find inspiration or energy?
                On the Airplane. Out in nature. In my dreams. 

                What was your #1 takeaway from your time in commercial brand strategy?
                Less is more.

                Where did the idea for People Who Care come from?
                Like many other people, a majority of my concepts and strategies are created from a void. I founded People Who Care in response to non-profit organizations and grassroots initiatives constant lack of diversity. The idea actually began as an inappropriate statement made by a former colleague when I asked him why there were no people of color working on an initiative that directly targeted and impacted the black community. He smiled and told me not to worry because the team that was recruited consisted of “people who cared” about the cause. I resigned from the company about a month later and started People Who Care. It was supposed to be this subversive freelance project that quickly evolved into a consultancy powered by queers, femmes, and people of color that specialize in creative direction, cultural productions, brand strategy, and community organizing exclusively for nonprofits and grassroots initiatives.  

                What is one important thing you’ve learned from the work People Who Care has done?
                Treat people with integrity, compassion, and respect, but most importantly listen to them when they share the moments and experiences that bring them joy! 

                How do you make time for all your commitments and responsibilities?
                Can I get back to you on this? Smile. Because I’d be lying if I said that it’s simple balancing multiple hats with varying levels of responsibilities. My parents passed away at a very young age which presented me with many learning experiences and challenging obstacles to overcome. As I’ve matured, I have learned how to ask for help, cultivate joy and the difference between no(!) and no, thank you! People also fail to remember that I am just one small component of many moving pieces in the projects that I begin or am affiliated with. I’m very fortunate to work with many amazing folks that empower one another to ask for what we need and want; whether it be space, fresh fruit, a nap or window seat on the next plane leaving Chicago.  

                As someone who is deeply involved in social justice/activist work, can you share one way you avoid ‘activist burnout’?
                Good question! Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ve quite mastered how to avoid burning out. As a person who lives within the framework of multiple marginalized identities, I don’t really have the opportunity or luxury to think about those types of things. At the end of the day, I’m human. Just like everyone else in the world I’m trying to drink enough water, get enough sleep, text my lovers and friends back in a timely manner while also seeking liberation for myself and the people I share identities with — some days are brighter than others. 

                June’s event with JC Rivera was held at the beautiful Reva and David Logan Center for the Arts in Hyde Park. In addition to hearing JC’s wisdom on June’s theme of Survival, attendees got to collaborate with the Bear Champ artist on canvases prior to his presentation. Later, everyone in attendance had a chance to win one of the canvases. 

                Making June’s event extra special, we were also joined by students and instructors from After School Matters and Chicago Public Schools Career and Technical Education. 

                Check out highlights shared by attendees below!

                A man and his 🐻 - #bearchamp #creativemornings #cmchi #uchicago

                A post shared by Danyelle Sage (@ellieismycat) on

                Keep on rolling with the punches @jcrivera! Great work! #cmchi

                A post shared by Chad Griffin (@chadwgriffin) on

                Raffel time for the @jcrivera and #creativemornings #chicago audience collaboration pieces. #cmsurvival

                A post shared by Neftali Morales (@gorilao) on

                Raffel time for the @jcrivera and #creativemornings #chicago audience collaboration pieces. #cmsurvival

                A post shared by Neftali Morales (@gorilao) on

                We imagine a world where we’re seen and heard, respected and valued, not for our appearance and privilege, but for our work and character. A world where anyone, anywhere, has equal access to opportunities and resources to become the person they dream about. The formula for equality is a work in progress, and this work is not done from the few with power but rather through the power of community.

                Equality is harmony. Harmony isn’t achieved through one instrument; it’s a collaboration, a symphony of sounds that adds richness and texture to the bigger picture. The pursuit of equality is a long-term game, an unraveling of outdated processes that no longer serves the future we imagine or deserve.

                This month’s global exploration of Equality is chosen by our Johannesburg chapter, illustrated by Katt Phatlane, and presented by… Adobe! Yes, you read that correctly.

                We’re thrilled to announce that we’re partnering with Adobe to stretch our collective mission in connecting and empowering creative communities around the world.  

                With Adobe’s indispensable tools and decades of experience in enabling creatives to bring their ideas to life, along with CreativeMornings’ unwavering commitment to unite and inspire cities with face-to-face connections, we’re honored to be partnering with another company that is eager to champion the future of creativity and add fuel to the engine of generosity. Read more about it!