The Next List: Sarah Neukom
Sarah Neukom is the Co-Founder and President of ESP Presents, a full-service event production firm with deep roots in nonprofit and lifestyle events. She has most recently expanded to create the gorgeous event space Exchange312, which also serves as the company’s headquarters. Prior to ESP Presents, Sarah worked as the director of sales and events for 1st Ward Events, a 6,000 square foot transformable event space inside Chicago Chop Shop. Sarah has a long history of working in event management, both on the agency side as well as in the nonprofit sector.
Tell us about how your career began.
I started with events in college, it was always in my blood, without my knowing it. And I think being an entrepreneur has also always been in my blood too. When I graduated college, I moved to Boston and I had an incredible opportunity working at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, where I was part of the special events team. We produced large scale fundraising events and all of the money went to support the incredible work of the cancer center. Working there was so impactful for me because I realized I could do something where I was not only creating these moments of community and bringing people together in a fun way, but simultaneously raising money for a worthy organization. My work there became the building blocks for the rest of my career, creating experiences but also having an opportunity to give back.
How did you know it was time for a change? Was there a defining moment that sparked you into action?
The most impactful point of change in my career, has served as a guidepost for me in a number of ways. It came in a defining moment, and time, that is very personal. It’s not something that I’ve really discussed publicly before, but in this case, I think it’s important to share as I believe there’s many women who may be able to relate.
When I was in my mid-20’s I went into a deep depression. As someone who had been an internal optimist, constant cheerleader, and only a positive thinker, I found myself in a very dark place, completely out of body. This was around 2007 and a time when people weren't talking about depression and anxiety and what it meant to feel those kinds of emotions. It was very stigmatized. I can remember in detail, 12 years later, the moment that it hit me. I’m grateful every day for the friends and colleagues that surrounded me, and helped me make a change to start caring for myself and not just other people.
I got into therapy, and what I began to understand at that point was that even though I was still young, I was running so hard at my job and giving everything to everyone else that I had nothing left for me. I made the decision to leave my job, try something new, and take a risk on what I wanted. This was at a time when the economy wasn’t great, so leaving a good job didn’t look like the smartest thing to do. But I took the time to step out of what I was supposed to be doing, to step away from the great job and go do something that was just for me. That decision, and the confidence it took to get there, really became the foundation that I needed to make decisions later on in my career. I fought through a cycle of depression and I fought through therapy and got to a point where I was strong enough to say I’m ready to take on what I want for myself. It was during this journey, a massive emotional roller coaster at times, where I was offered a great opportunity to move to Chicago – where my entire next chapter has really come to fruition and evolved in so many ways.
In Chicago I was working for a company called Red Frog Events, producing experiential mud runs all across the country. While I loved my job, I was beginning to realize what I loved more than anything was creating a space to host people, and to have the opportunity to host many different types of experiences. The idea of bringing people together under one roof, whether that is a mud run, an ice cream festival, a fundraiser or a social gathering, really spoke to me. And the dream of having a space of my own to create events started to take shape.
That dream of owning my own space, eventually led me to meet Matt, my partner in business and in life, and kicked off the next step in my journey. Matt was opening up a space in Wicker Park (Chop Shop) and we met at the perfect time – he needed someone to help him launch and run the space and that gave me the opportunity to learn and to help build a venue from the ground up. From that collaboration our events company ESP Presents was born in 2014, and our first client (and still our client six years later) was the Kennedy Forum – a summit dedicated to mental health awareness and destigmatizing depression and anxiety. Talk about full circle.
In 2018 we were outgrowing our office and our team was expanding. We decided it was time to look for a new larger office space, and also an opportunity to create a space in which we could host. That dream was realized with the creation of Exchange312, our new event venue and ESP Presents headquarters.
Where did you find support and inspiration?
Always my family - my parents have been an unbelievable pillar of support for me. I am an only child (I swear I am not spoiled, and I like to share!) and my parents have always supported my ideas, no matter how outlandish they’ve been. They are an amazing inspiration!
I’m also incredibly supported by our ESP Presents/Exchange team of ten dynamic individuals that show up every day and work so hard. They’re the reason I’m here and can make it through the really tough and challenging days.
And of course, Matt, I call him my partner in crime, we support each other at every level of our business and our life together. And to me, that’s the true definition of a partnership.
Outside of the people around me, I find inspiration in traveling and reading inspiring business books and magazines. I’m very visual, so looking at fashion, architecture, and design publications always brings me new ideas on things to try – personally and professionally.
Exchange312, Photo by John Stoffer
Does motherhood play a role in your career path?
My partner Matt has two little girls from his first marriage. They're eight and nine and they're with us three to four days a week. It's been a beautifully wild learning experience as someone that doesn’t have children of my own. They are a huge part of my life and family.
When they are with us, it really goes back to that strong partnership that Matt and I have and being able to run the business as well as a family. How we support each other in supporting them has been this great evolution of our partnership.
And they have definitely put some balance into my life. When we are with them our phones and computers are off and we're really focused on family and being together. Having a blended family has been an incredible addition to my life, and a responsibility that I don’t take lightly.
What was your biggest challenge in changing direction or starting something new?
Getting past the fear of not knowing what will happen, and not having all the answers when you start. When we opened Exchange312, we found the space and there was no HVAC, no walls, no restrooms, there was nothing – but we looked at each other and said “this is the space, this is the next move.” We put our eyes on the prize and didn’t let the fear of “how are we going to do this” paralyze us from moving ahead. We jumped in so quickly, put our vision out there and then did everything in our power to make it a reality. The biggest challenge is getting over the fear, knowing you can do it and then going as fast as you can to get there.
What advice would you give to other women that feel stuck in their current situation?
There is never a perfect time to make a change. There's always a reason why it’s not the right time. The opportunity lies in getting past that point of view and then just being decisive and being confident in going for what you want. There will always be a reason to say I’ll do this next month or next year, but really there is no reason to wait. Because life is like that, something will always happen. Just do it, know there are going to be rough and scary times, but once you make that leap it is so liberating!
Do you have a favorite quote?
I’ll credit Matt with this line, very relevant to my advice for other women as well –
“Hesitation is the death of opportunity”. If you wait, hesitate, think too hard, or push it off, the opportunity will pass and you’ll end of kicking yourself later.
What are you listening to and reading?
I love podcasts. How I Built This is a great one. The episode with Gary Erickson, founder of Cliff Bar, is one of the most inspiring episodes and I recommend it for any entrepreneur. I also recently picked up the book Shoe Dog by Phil Knight, the founder of Nike, and it is awesome. It makes me realize that there are very scary problems and issues out there but you can always find a solution.
What’s NEXT for you?
2020 will be an exciting year for both ESP Presents and Exchange312. We are working on growing a national platform and expanding into multiple markets. So next for me is continuing to manage our team and the exciting growth of a multi-tiered business with multiple revenue streams.
And I’m so grateful for all of it. Being able to take a moment to step back and reflect on the journey and appreciate where we’ve been and where we are going. It’s pretty cool what we have accomplished.
Look for Sarah here:
Exchange312 – 1714 W. Division Street, Chicago
Outside of work Sarah is also passionate about making a positive impact on the world, both in her work and in her personal time. To that end Sarah has served as chair of the associates board for Streetwise since 2012 as well as being an active board member of Collaboration Theatre Company, an organization that incites social change through original devised theatre and community engagement hat cultivates knowledge, dialogue and action around Chicago's most critical social issues.