A little more than a decade ago, designer and entrepreneur Tina Roth Eisenberg began inviting other creative professionals to a weekly gathering as a way to forge connections. “It was a little breakfast, a 20-minute talk, and then you go off to work,” Eisenberg said in a talk she delivered at the 99U conference in New York City five years ago. “It was the community I wished existed when I moved to New York and didn’t know a soul.”
When Eisenberg was approached by people who wanted to follow her example and bring the model — which she named CreativeMornings — to other cities, “I figured, why not?” she said.
Fast forward to 2019: CreativeMornings now has more than 200 chapters that meet weekly in more than 65 countries — and ultimately working to reverse the trend of loneliness around the world.
“I was always a little bit surprised that it was so successful,” Eisenberg has said, “until I came across this quote by [social-media theorist] Clay Shirky: ‘We systematically overestimate the value of access to information and underestimate the value of access to each other.’ And that completely made sense.”
Tara Segall, a designer from the St. Petersburg, Florida area, relied on the CreativeMornings chapter in Atlanta, Georgia, to help her connect when she was a student. “When I came back to Saint Pete and saw all the great design and creativity that was happening here, I was really surprised to find out that there wasn’t a local CreativeMornings chapter,” she told Convene. “There wasn’t really any place for creatives to convene, especially across industries. It was all just pockets of creativity and as a freelancer, it was a little bit difficult to connect with the community.”
At first, Segall waited for someone else to start a chapter. “It just became one of those things,” she said, “where you’re looking around wondering who’s going to do it. I eventually realized there was me.”
CreativeMornings hosts submit an application to start a chapter in their areas, and take on responsibility for leading a team in finding monthly speakers, a venue, local sponsors, marketing the events, and creating a video for event talks. (The videos are posted on local chapter sites, and some appear on CreativeMornings’ main website.) CreativeMornings has global sponsors that provide chapters with website platforms, email, and online ticketing.
Events are always free to attendees, and everyone works as a volunteer, including speakers, except for a handful of employees at CreativeMornings’ headquarters in Brooklyn, New York. The CreativeMornings website estimates that hosts donate about 40 hours of their time each month, but Segall just laughed when I asked her how much time she spent each month on CreativeMornings events, and talked instead about her team of 20 volunteers.
“We are volunteers, but we get a ton of cultural support, moral support, and operational support,” from the headquarters team, Segall said. “I’ve never felt more integrated into a community that wasn’t
physically here.” Chapter organizers talk to one another on a Slack channel and follow each other on Instagram, Segall said. “It’s a big global conversation of helpers,” she said. “And it’s incredible as far as the day-to-day and the financial support that all comes locally.”
One way that the CreativeMornings chapters stay connected is by organizing events around a common theme — last month, the theme was water, and previous themes have included anxiety, chaos, community, curiosity, and courage. “Every chapter is celebrating, exploring, and speaking on the same theme at the same time,” Segall said. “But the way that they interpret it through their speaker in their city, it can be very different.”
In February, when Segall’s chapter got to pick the global theme, they chose symmetry. St. Petersburg, Florida, and St. Petersburg, Russia, are currently the only two chapters with the same name, and the chapters played it up, mirroring one another in their event details, including the hosts wearing the same outfits, Segall said.
The CreativeMornings Manifesto begins with, “Everybody is creative,” and ends with, “Everybody is welcome.” Her chapter endeavors to create a space for speakers that allows them to be themselves, Segall said. When filling speaker slots, “we definitely choose people who might be novice speakers — we choose people based on their story, not based on their speaking or experience. And I think that really makes a difference. It’s great to have polished speakers, but they have practiced their story. And I think the more that you practice the story and the more that you tell it, it becomes more of a presentation and less of a conversation.”
The St. Petersburg CreativeMornings events are “pretty intimate,” she added. “We are in a space, where even with 200 people, you know, you can make eye contact with everybody.” They actively work to make the events more diverse, Segall added. “I think that that kind of begins and ends with the speaker selection, because we’ve seen that each of our speakers bring in their tribes. If you have an 82-year-old activist speak, our attendance that day gets a lot older. If it is a 22-year-old nonprofit entrepreneur, it gets a lot younger.” About 50 percent of attendees are new each month and some of those people stay and become regulars, she said.
Every two years, CreativeMornings invites chapter hosts to a three-day conference called the CreativeMornings Summit. Segall was a speaker at the most recent event, held at the rustic Iroquois Springs summer camp in upstate New York last August. A marching band welcomed the camp attendees — more than 300 volunteers from 89 chapters — who sat around campfires at night, roasting marshmallows. In between, they heard keynote speakers including Seth Godin, designer Ingrid Fetell Lee, and Priya Parker. “It was the best of both worlds,” Segall said. “A friendly, down-to-earth summer camp, with high-level, big-dollar conference speakers.”
“Lives change because of community,” CreativeMornings’ head of content Paul Jun wrote in a post summing up the CreativeMornings Summit event, “because of people seeing one another, respecting
one another, and supporting one another. Loneliness in an age of connection is simply fear winning over the power of love, and it shows that there’s more work to be done.”
“It is incredible the magic that happens at these [chapter] events,” Segall added. “I say that very seriously, that it’s like magic. It’s inexplicable, the connection. When you open the doors and give people like a gift, it really changes the way that they experience events. Obviously, you can’t just put on free conferences all the time, but I think that there’s something about the fact that we are all giving. When our attendees come and receive this gift of an event every month, they want to give back, too.”
Then, “just extrapolate that out into all of the connections that are happening at our events every month, just in our city,” she said. “And then think about that across [CreativeMornings’ network of 201] cities. That’s got to be changing the world. The more positive interactions that we can build into our community, the more positive is the impact that you can have. That’s what we’re aiming for.”
Barbara Palmer is Convene’s deputy editor.