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Q&A with Amanda Salhoot (IMC11), VP of Business Development and Partnerships at Chill Anywhere

Amanda Salhoot (IMC11) is the current vice president of business development and partnerships at Chill Anywhere, a meditation app that combats the current mental health crisis. Amanda has previously worked at Chicago Ideas, Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago and Performics.

Since graduating from IMC, you’ve worked in marketing communications (marcom) for both nonprofit and for-profit companies. How does your approach differ, if at all, between working for a children’s hospital and for a digital marcom company, for example?

I became a full-time IMC graduate student after working for about 10 years. My background was in marketing, specifically in the magazine publishing industry. In addition to my full-time work, I was very active philanthropically serving on boards and volunteering for organizations focused on empowering women and children. While I enjoyed magazine publishing, the philanthropic work was what made my heart sing. I went to IMC with the objectives of merging my professional and philanthropic experience and then working for a nonprofit or social impact organization upon graduation. Plus, marketing had evolved since I studied it in undergrad — digital media, analytics and consumer behavior — so this was my opportunity to really immerse myself and sharpen my marketing skills. 

I’ve found that while the mission and the “customer” of a children’s hospital foundation and a digital marcom company may be different, each organization must put the customer at the center of what they do to be successful. For Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago Foundation, I developed donor-centered marketing strategies to advance a spectrum of fundraising initiatives through individual giving, corporate cause marketing campaigns, foundational grants and fundraising events. During my interim role at Performics, I was internally focused and developed employee engagement strategies for colleagues in offices around the world. 

What are some of the essential skills you took away from IMC and how have you used them in your career to date?

In addition to instilling in me a customer-centric viewpoint, IMC really helped me become much more driven by both qualitative and quantitative data. I now turn to data and consumer insights when developing marketing strategies and measuring the success of initiatives. While not every initiative will be a wild success, there are still insights to be gleaned that can then help shape the next thing you do.

Also, from an organizational management perspective, it is essential to set data-driven goals for your team to ensure that we are all working towards similar objectives and to measure progress along the way. It is fun to look back during a quarterly or annual review to celebrate what individuals and the team as a whole have accomplished.

Lastly, IMC strengthened my ability to work with cross-functional teams. Having the chance to collaborate with people who have different areas of expertise helps strengthen you as a marketer and also takes your work to a higher level.

During your time at Chicago Ideas, how did that organization’s concept evolve and what did you enjoy most about being part of a platform for open discussion and change?

Chicago Ideas was developed to make ideas accessible by democratizing them. For $15, you could go to the Harris Theater to see Hillary and Chelsea Clinton speak, see a DJ set with Questlove or get an exclusive tour of EY’s forensics lab. While stage programs and in-person experiences were the foundation of Chicago Ideas, we realized that content and going into the community had the power to reach even more people to inspire and activate change. For content, we invested in a content team and technology to make it possible to create videos, develop a podcast and really leverage the power of social media. For community, we had always had a youth program that engaged high school students from under-resourced communities.

In 2018, we grew the community engagement team and made a commitment to Chicago Ideas becoming a platform for the entire city. We did this by not only featuring diverse voices in our stage programs, but by having organizations throughout the city host events, by committing to having 25% of our audience come from low socioeconomic neighborhoods and by creating content about organizations and people throughout the city. In 2019 alone, Chicago Ideas partnered with over 140 nonprofit organizations.

One of my favorite initiatives the team worked on was called The 77 Project, a storytelling and media project in which we created a unique piece of content on an organization or individual in each of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods. As the head of corporate and individual fundraising, I was able to connect with the country’s most forward-thinking organizations and individuals across industries. Together we would develop mutually beneficial custom partnerships that advanced their specific business objectives while supporting Chicago Ideas’ mission as a nonprofit. 

Can you talk a little about your new job at Chill Anywhere and why this technology is so relevant right now?

Chill, a modern meditation studio across the street from the Merchandise Mart in downtown Chicago, was founded three years ago by Kellogg alum Laura Sage. We wanted to create a space of respite where busy professionals could go for a quick chair massage, a meditation or yoga class or to take a workshop to deepen their practice. Pretty quickly, businesses started to approach us to help with their employee wellness initiatives ranging from a single private session to a whole mindfulness curriculum. Since then we have worked with over 300 organizations ranging from global consumer packaged goods companies to law firms and universities, developing sessions exploring themes such as stress and anxiety management, mindful leadership and collaboration, and rest and relationships. 

Given that most of our partners are global and have employees around the world, we started to livestream the sessions. This then inspired us to create our app, Chill Anywhere, which we started to develop at the beginning of 2019. Chill Anywhere allows us to extend our mission by helping even more people “live less stressed, more mindful lives.” Users will find a growing library of over 400 on-demand meditation and yoga sessions, daily livestreamed classes and a journal to reflect on their practice and track personal goals.

For employers, Chill Anywhere is a scalable resource to help with the current employee mental health crisis. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, most employers (66%) identified mental health as the top clinical priority to address by 2021, according to the Willis Towers Watson 24th Annual Best Practices in Health Care Employer Survey. This level of employer focus was driven by the rising prevalence of mental health conditions prior to the pandemic — around three in 10 employees suffer from severe stress, anxiety or depression, according to the 2019/2020 Global Benefits Attitudes Survey. As expected, further research collected during the pandemic indicates a worsening state of mental health among workers: over 9 in 10 employees (92%) now report some level of anxiety, with 55% indicating a moderate or high degree of anxiety. While counseling is a good reactive intervention, most organizations still don’t have a plan to proactively address mental wellbeing. The technology and online community of Chill Anywhere is a cost-effective and scalable resource for employers. 

What are some of the goals for the company/app?

COVID-19 forced us to close our physical studio and allowed us to fast-track the development of Chill Anywhere, which we always planned to be our sole business focus. While we have experienced great growth in our first three years, fundraising remains our top goal. We are currently in our next round of fundraising and plan to use those funds for technology product enhancements, marketing expansion and partnership development in specific corporate verticals.

Our other main focus is growing our user base through business development. Mindfulness and meditation, expected to be a $2 billion market by 2022, and corporate wellness, expected to be a $66 billion market by 2022, are converging. We believe that Chill Anywhere is positioned to be a leading vertical solution for that intersection. With three years of in-person studio experience and three years of in-person corporate programming, Chill Anywhere has the ideal foundation for bringing mindfulness and meditation to the corporate wellness market. B2B competitors can’t strike the balance of consumer brand and institutional solution, while B2C competitors are attempting to scale consumer meditation mobile apps into an enterprise space. With the pandemic being an uncertain time resulting in stress for organizations and individuals, we feel that the work we are doing is more important than ever. We are committed to helping as many people as possible. 

What advice do you have for IMC students about to graduate in December? Any hints for success?

My biggest piece of advice is to grow and cultivate your network. It will be your most valuable resource. I have secured all of my postgraduate roles through my network, three having ties to IMC. Right after graduation I had an interim role with Performics where many of their senior leaders were IMC alums. My next role at Lurie Children’s came to fruition because I was having an informational coffee with an IMC alum who worked for Feeding America. While there was not a current role at Feeding America, she asked me if there were other roles or organizations that I was interested in. I mentioned that I saw a marketing role with Lurie Children’s Foundation. She knew someone on the team and sent over my resume, and I had an interview a week later. Lastly, a former IMC faculty member, Dan Gruber, invited me to a small Chicago Ideas book club discussion he facilitated back in 2012 where I met Bonnie, a Chicago Ideas staff member. After the event Bonnie and I had coffee and stayed in touch. In 2017, when the perfect role at Chicago Ideas came up, I reached out to Bonnie who then submitted my resume.

While I know entering the job market in the midst of a pandemic may be scary, lean on your network. Your connections will be your biggest supporters and will likely play an important role in each step of your professional journey.


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Q&A with Casey Newton (BSJ02), Founder of Platformer

By Jude Cramer (BSJ23)

Casey Newton (BSJ02) is a leading voice in tech journalism and a finalist for the 2020 Ellie Award for Reporting. He’s best known for writing daily newsletter The Interface for The Verge since 2017. Now he’s stepping out on his own, releasing a new newsletter, Platformer, on Substack. I talked with him about his Medill experience, how he fell in love with tech journalism and what the future holds for his career.

How did your education and your experience at Northwestern help prepare you for your career?

There were sort of two phases of me getting into journalism at college. I’d been the editor of my high school paper, and then liked it enough that when I asked my guidance counselor where I should go to college, she said, “Well, if you want to be a journalist, you should go to Medill.” And that was basically it for me. So I visited the school, I loved it, applied, got in and showed up to campus.

All my friends who worked at The Daily Northwestern talked about it as this all-consuming cult. And I thought, “Well, I don’t know if I’m ready to join a cult, I kind of want to enjoy college a little.” So I didn’t start working at The Daily until I was a sophomore, but I completely fell in love with it. I mean, the people who were working there at the time were just the best, most patient teachers. And I really feel like most of the journalism education that I got that I still use to this day, I learned from the other editors at The Daily who would sit down next to me when I, you know, wrote my terrible story about some event, and would just go through it line by line and fix it and teach me that way. So I had a great experience at Medill and Northwestern generally, but it was really The Daily that was at the center of it for me.

Now you’re a pretty prolific tech journalist. What led to your interest in tech journalism? Was that always your intended field?

My first job was covering state and local politics, and I kind of bounced around. I worked for a couple of newspapers. I was hopping from beat to beat. I worked in Arizona for like six and a half years. And then a couple of my friends moved to San Francisco and I visited, and it was just a love at first sight thing where I felt like, “Oh, this is where I should have been the whole time. This is the greatest city in the world.” And so my initial interest had actually just been moving to San Francisco. I spent about two years looking for a job here. 

While I was here, I stopped in and saw some old friends who were working at the San Francisco Chronicle, two of whom had been my former editors in Arizona. Two months after that, one of the editors at the Chronicle called me and said, “Hey, have you ever thought about being a tech reporter?” And I was like, “No, but what would that be?” And he said, “Well, you know, you just move here and write all about Apple and Google and Facebook and whatever seems interesting.” I was like, “That sounds like the greatest job in the world. Like, can I do that?” So they hired me to do it, and it really was the best thing that ever happened to me.

Wow, it’s really amazing how that just fell into your lap almost, and then changed the trajectory of your whole career.

It’s honestly terrifying! I’m more impressed with people who are very intentional about their careers. But this was definitely a happy accident.

So you started at The Verge in 2013, and while there you started a daily tech newsletter, The Interface. Now you’re leaving The Verge to produce your own newsletter with Substack — what influenced your decision to make that move?

I loved doing the newsletter. I wanted to figure out if there was a way where I could do it forever, and it seemed like the best way to do that was to just totally control my own destiny. I felt like the thing I was doing was valuable. People would email me sometimes saying, “I can’t believe this is free. I wish I could pay for this.” And at some point, I thought, “Maybe I should let them.” 

And how is Platformer different from The Interface? How is it the same?

Right now, it looks almost identical to The Interface in content. Each day, I’m still bringing you a column about today’s biggest news and platforms, and I’m bringing you the best links about that subject from the best journalists in the world. And I think that format is going to endure for a while. 

Where I hope that I can start to separate it from The Interface is that there’s just going to be more original reporting in it. In the past, if I had a scoop, I would just put that on The Verge and then the newsletter would be a separate thing. Now, the newsletter itself could be the scoop. 

The hope is that over time Platformer starts to grow in people’s imaginations as, hopefully, the smartest site on the internet about platforms in particular and, you know, maybe a few other things along the way.

Do you have anything to say to your fellow Medill alumni?

I just have so much admiration for people who have stayed in journalism. Journalism is a really hard business to stay in. It tends to attract the most idealistic people that I’ve ever met. And unfortunately, once folks leave college, you’re just met with the cold realities of it being an extremely difficult business where the business models are very shaky, and where your fate is often controlled by a private equity firm, or, you know, someone with no editorial values. And it sucks! And so people leave. And so as a result, we don’t have nearly enough watchdogs for our democracy. And so the cool thing about having gone to a journalism school where there are so many great alumni and so many great students there now is just being part of a community of people who believe in that as an ideal and something worth fighting for.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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Medill alumna Clarke Humphrey (BSJ14) emphasizes the importance of a representative political space

As Deputy Digital Director for Joe Biden, Humphrey has successfully directed a mostly grassroots-based online fundraising program.

by Julia Richardson, BSJ23
Graphic by Carly Schulman

At 28 years old, Clarke Humphrey (Medill ’14) is leading the charge on ads, emails, texting and store fundraising for former Vice President Joe Biden’s presidential campaign. As Biden’s deputy digital director, Humphrey is running a historically successful fundraising program fueled by grassroots support.

After she graduated from Northwestern, Humphrey worked as a production assistant at the Democratic National Committee, where she contributed to the DNC online fundraising efforts for the midterm elections. In 2016, she joined then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign as digital director for North Carolina.

Humphrey went on to oversee the DNC’s ads program for the 2018 election cycle and worked for Bully Pulpit Interactive, a political ad agency in Washington, D.C., before becoming the DNC’s primary online director. In June, she landed her current position as deputy digital director, a job she describes as “reactive.”

“I would say throughout days, they don’t really look the same, so you are basically dealing with whatever is happening in the world at the time,” Humphrey said. “What I have envisioned my role to be is kind of just doing what I call blocking and tackling, so the folks on my team have the space to run effective programming.”

Leading up to the 2020 election, Humphrey focused on making sure there is enough money to run the Biden campaign’s ads. She also negotiates for resources that her team may need and organizes emails from significant signers, such as former President Barack Obama. She said the campaign has raised a large amount of money in the last few months, allowing for more TV ads and campaign efforts in battleground states.

Although working amid the uncertainties of a global pandemic has been difficult, Humphrey says one of the most rewarding parts of her job is grassroots fundraising.

“This campaign is primarily funded by people who are giving us donations of $200 or less, and that is the program that I oversee,” she said. “Just being in a position where literally millions of people are giving their hard-earned dollars to own a part of this campaign, and power the work that needs to be done. That, to me, is what makes this work really fulfilling.”

Lauren Williams, Humphrey’s friend and former colleague at the DNC, said Humphrey’s ability to build a strong fundraising team while maintaining good relationships is an “underrated skill,” and that she has a unique way of connecting with both supporters and people she works with.

“She takes her work incredibly seriously, but does not take herself too seriously,” Williams said. “All while coming across not as a very stuffy spokesperson, but she comes across as a real person with a bright personality and a sense of humor.”

Shelby Cole, former digital director for vice presidential nominee U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.), said Humphrey has especially succeeded at running an ethical fundraising program with messages grounded in truth and reality.

“She, I think, really believes strongly in treating supporters like human beings and not ATM machines,” Cole said. “So, having watched her step into this role and run this program at this scale, as a Black woman to do it, too… I don’t think anyone has ever done what she’s done.”

Although Humphrey is what Cole describes as “the best in the industry,” she did not always plan to work in politics. She said she had envisioned herself as a magazine writer and only considered campaign work once graduation was approaching and it came time for her to apply for jobs.

However, Medill Dean Charles Whitaker, who taught Humphrey and worked with her in NU’s chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists, said her career path did not come as a surprise to him.

“She was always a really strong leader, someone who… I could tell was going to go into politics because she was good at assembling people and rallying them around a cause,” Whitaker said. “(Her position) is a great intersection of things she is good at and is passionate about.”

Humphrey said that her work has allowed her to learn a lot about herself and that she enjoys working in the political space. But she said she hopes to diversify the space going forward, as it still may be difficult for those without money or connections to become involved.

“That affects the work that we’re able to produce,” she said. “We are talking to so many different and diverse groups of people, and the people doing that work should reflect the basic folks that we are trying to talk to, and so one thing that I have learned about myself is that I’m very passionate about getting the space to a place where that actually is true.”

Published Nov. 2, 2020 in the Daily Northwestern

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Medill alumna Audrey Cheng leads software development school in Nairobi

Audrey Cheng (MSJ15), co-founder and CEO of Moringa School in Nairobi, Kenya and Kigali, Rwanda. Moringa School provides software development and data science training.

by William Clark, BSJ24
Graphic by Emma Ruck

In the five years since Audrey Cheng (BSJ15) has graduated, she co-founded a software development and data science school with campuses in Kenya and Rwanda, worked with the World Bank to run a 20-week coding program in Pakistan and was featured on Forbes’ “30 Under 30” list for social entrepreneurs.

However, Cheng resists placing too much focus on her recognitions.

“It’s really validating to receive them, but I think ultimately what matters most is, ‘Are we solving a real problem? Are we doing it in a really meaningful and effective way?’” she said.

Cheng is working to solve what she called a “skills gap” in East Africa. The term describes the gap between technical skills African youth are acquiring in schools and the rapidly changing needs of the African economy as it increases automation.

The employment gap is another hurdle African youth face, Cheng said. As the population grows, the economy and jobs market must grow with it, and if it doesn’t, finding employment could become difficult and competitive.

During her sophomore year at Northwestern, Cheng started working remotely with the Savannah Fund, a capital fund that invests in African technology startups. She took the Spring Quarter of her junior year off to work with them in Nairobi, Kenya.

Cheng said she enjoyed the work but realized that as important as investment was, access to technological skills training for local youth was central to economic stimulation.

“You don’t get to build these amazing companies without that kind of skill,” Cheng said.

So, she co-founded a school.

In May 2014, Moringa School started its first class in Nairobi. Moringa offers students short, intensive programs that focus on building technical, career-oriented skills. These courses are split into two sections, a five-week introduction to programming and a 15-week program where students focus on a specific coding language of their choice. Throughout the program, students complete hands-on projects with mentors.

“(Moringa’s learning model) helped me interact with people,” Moringa graduate Ruth Mwangi said. “It also helps you learn to work in teams, because you’re usually put in pairs and have to work with your partner trying to solve problems.”

Other Moringa graduates said the school’s curriculum fosters a sense of community.

“We still have… communication groups in WhatsApp,” Reuben Gathii, a 2020 graduate, said. “We get to talk, we share ideas, we review each other’s code and we learn things from each other.”

But it’s not just the student community that allows for collaboration.

Moringa students receive technical mentors who help them find job opportunities after graduation, Billy Ayiera, another 2020 graduate, said.

Ninety-five percent of Moringa graduates have been hired at reputable companies, and graduates record a 350 percent average salary increase after graduation, according to the school’s website.

Moringa’s sense of community helps students succeed in the technology industry post-graduation, but it also addresses a problem Cheng said she noticed when she started working with Western organizations in Africa.

Too often, Western organizations seeking to “aid” African communities lack knowledge and respect for African independence, cultures and lifestyles, Cheng wrote in a 2014 Huffington Post op-ed. They draw on a stereotypical view of Africa that reduces the continent to disease, poverty, hunger and war, ignoring positivity, growth and vibrancy.

But Moringa is a company, not a charity, and Cheng said she believes this model incentivizes the school to better serve the needs of the community.

“At a nonprofit… the money is coming from donors, and so ultimately organizations are responsible and accountable to their donors, as opposed to… the person that they’re actually serving,” she said. “In a company, because the person who is paying is also the user, we have to be meeting their needs, and we are accountable to our students.”

Moringa also offers need-based flexible installment plans, as well as financial aid amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Sasha Achieng, who leads community engagement at Moringa, said she frequently surveys the student community to ensure that their needs are met.

Moringa is currently using the online model to access more students across Africa during the pandemic, but in the future, they’re looking into geographic expansion, Cheng said.

“There’s basically space for everyone to grow,” Achieng said. “I mean, if I started (in 2018) as an intern and I’m currently leading in the company, it really speaks for itself, right?”

Published Nov. 11, 2020, in the Daily Northwestern

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Washington Post reporter Fenit Nirappil (BSJ12) talks undergrad, branching out

The Medill graduate is now a D.C. city hall reporter for The Washington Post, where he has reported on Black Lives Matter protests and local politics.

By Alex Perry (BSJ24)

Washington Post city hall reporter Fenit Nirappil entered Northwestern with an affinity for writing and left with an interdisciplinary experience that set him up for success.

After graduating, Nirappil interned at the Associated Press’ San Francisco Bureau. After a short stint at The Oregonian, he returned to the Associated Press. He then completed the American University and The Washington Post’s master’s program, where he interned at the Post while getting his master’s in journalism and public affairs.

Now a D.C. city hall reporter for the Post, Nirappil has reported on Black Lives Matter protests and local politics.

While at Medill, Nirappil balanced law and journalism, competing on the mock trial team and writing for “The Protest,” an independent run student publication. During his senior year, he planned on taking the LSAT during Spring Quarter and found an internship for post-graduation.

“I was very deliberate in not doing The Daily while I was at Northwestern,” Nirappil said. “I’m a big believer that your extracurriculars should be outside of your main curriculum.”

Nirappil recalled enterprise reporting in the Ravenswood neighborhood of Chicago during his sophomore year and his ability to report on environments like lesbian bars and wild animal expositions through the projects offered. During his junior year, he participated in the South Africa Journalism Residency program and the Medill Innocence Project.

Medill Prof. Douglas Foster, a faculty advisor for the South Africa program, remembered Nirappil as a humble student who was always open to learning from his peers and the communities he reported on.

“There’s a kind of quality of soft-spoken earnestness,” Foster said. “From the beginning, he was serious about the limitations of journalism and the possibilities in journalism.”

Foster also recalled Nirappil’s tendency to support his classmates instead of competing with them. To Foster, Nirappil was a team builder. When a classmate scooped Nirappil, he would “learn something from it” and apply it to his next piece.

Former classmate Sarah Eberspacher (Medill ‘12) said Nirappil was authentically friendly and open to reaching out to classmates outside of Medill. Eberspacher has known Nirappil since they lived on the same floor of 1835 Hinman and remembers thinking of him as a sociable and confident person.

“I think he takes a lot of pleasure in surrounding himself with a variety of people and learning different perspectives,” Eberspacher said.

This article was originally published in the Daily Northwestern on Nov. 19.

Twitter: @WhoIsAlexPerry

Graphic by Angeli Mittal

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How Black Medill alumni at theGrio tackled 2020

By Jude Cramer (BSJ23)

For all journalists, 2020 was a wild ride. This especially rings true for journalists working at theGrio, a news outlet owned by Byron Allen’s Entertainment studios dedicated to covering and serving Black Americans. Several Medill alumni hold positions on theGrio’s leadership team, and in the chaos of 2020, they feel theGrio’s mission was as crucial as ever.

Natasha Alford
Vice president of digital content and senior correspondent Natasha Alford (MSJ14).

“There’s been a reckoning with the way that certain communities are covered in the media,” says Natasha Alford (MSJ14), vice president of digital content and senior correspondent at theGrio. “Having a brand like theGrio that’s been around for more than a decade now, that has built trust with the African American community and has deep connections, and can just sort of have a depth in the storytelling is, I think, really important.”

Mariel Turner
Senior editor Mariel Turner (MSJ15).

Mariel Turner (MSJ15), senior editor at theGrio, says that working in an all-Black newsroom means her voice is always heard. “You know, I think often when I was working at predominantly white outlets, there would be certain public figures … that I would pitch for coverage. And it was often shut down because the people in the room didn’t know the importance of those figures, or they didn’t think that it was relevant to our audience,” she says.

“When [Black journalists] come into the space, there’s certain stories that they’re not going to have to fight for somebody to believe is important, to get the attention that it deserves,” agrees Alford. “But I think the flip side of that is that we are constantly immersed in the trauma of being Black in America. We’re reporting on issues, and we’re experiencing certain issues at the same time.”

Those issues have never gotten more national attention than they did in 2020, with the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd and other Black Americans inciting massive Black Lives Matter protests across the nation. 

Cortney Wills
Entertainment director Cortney Wills (BSJ06).

Entertainment director at theGrio Cortney Wills (BSJ06) says that reporting on these killings and their aftermaths as a Black person is a challenge in itself.

“We didn’t have any time to react to these events that had very real emotional, traumatizing effects on us as Black people,” she says. “It really showed me that in order to do this job well, you also have to take care of each other personally and emotionally.”

That emotional support is another way theGrio’s all-Black environment separates it from other newsrooms. 

“Being able to work with people that not only empathize with you, but also understand how you feel or how you may not have the capacity to work at a certain level because of everything else that’s happening,” Turner says. “That’s the biggest thing … is just having a little bit more of that family feeling.”

Wills agrees, saying, “I can’t imagine having to do this job at this time, anywhere else.”

To best serve its Black readers, theGrio is very intentional in its news coverage, says Alford.

“When we have certain conversations with families, we’re moving beyond some of the trite narratives, you know, so it’s not about getting a crying mother, or just talking about how sad something is, but we’re focused on asking hard questions about action and organizing and policy change,” she says. “I think in many ways, we’ve been pushing the coverage to move beyond just the obvious of, ‘Is there a problem?’ into, ‘What is the solution?’”

TheGrio’s coverage is also often more nuanced than that of non-specialized media outlets, says Turner, particularly when it comes to police brutality and the Black Lives Matter movement.

“[In 2020] with the resurgence [of Black Lives Matter], we really tried to focus on stories that were more special to our community … actually speaking with people in the community, talking to different leadership there and making sure that it was a boots-on-the-ground kind of coverage,” she says. “We really try to give a voice to the people that mainstream media may not feel compelled to talk to or to cover.”

“You know, our first story about police brutality was not Ahmaud Arbery — that probably was not the first one of the week,” says Wills. “I think theGrio never lets up on the things that we are shining a light on and conversations that we are starting.”

Chief content officer Todd Johnson (BSJ07, MSJ08).

In addition to Alford, Turner and Wills, theGrio’s chief content officer Todd Johnson is also a Medill alumnus who received his BSJ in 2008 and his Medill master’s degree in 2009. Alford says she saw his picture in the hall every day while studying at Medill’s Chicago newsroom, and it inspired her to seek a career at theGrio.

“When you see someone, it creates a sense of possibility for you. So me seeing Todd at theGrio made me aware of Black media as an option for me,” she says. “It was not until I went to Medill that it truly crystallized for me what I should be doing with my life.”

TheGrio’s conversations are about so much more than just Black struggles — Black media, Black successes and, above all, Black joy are present in almost everything theGrio produces. 

Alford says, “I hope that any journalist, particularly Black student journalists, who are looking for a place and don’t feel like they see that space in the current media landscape — I hope that they know that they can still create their own world, and they can still do impactful storytelling.”

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Medill alum goes from journalist to entrepreneur with a set of cookware

By: Kaitlyn Thompson (BSJ11, IMC17)

In 2018, Medill alumna Sierra Tishgart (BSJ12) left her dream job as a food writer and editor at New York Magazine for – cookware.

 About a year ago, Tishgart had what she thought was a simple desire to become a more confident cook. She knew in order to motivate herself to cook more, she first had to replace her chipping set of pots and pans. Her instincts as a trained journalist led her to research first. A few Google searches later, she found herself quickly overwhelmed by the many cookware options available. From the type of material, to number of pieces, to the colors, Tishgart learned the possibilities for cookware were endless. In addition, most of the options she found were unnecessarily cost-prohibitive, too complicated to use or downright ugly.

 Tishgart couldn’t accept the fact that finding the perfect cookware had to be so complicated. So, she took the matter into her own hands. Tishgart invited her friend (and co-founder) Maddy Moelis to help create a better cookware solution, one that was custom-built down to every last detail. They named it Great Jones, a line of beautiful yet practical pots and pans intended to help people, “feel equipped and empowered to cook more frequently.”

 Over the course nine months, Tishgart and Moelis worked to bring Great Jones to life. In November 2018, they launched Great Jones online with a five-piece cookware set – the basic pieces Tishgart believes every cook needs in order to cook successfully at home. Since launch, the entrepreneurs have been celebrated by Forbes (named to their “30 Under 30” list) and others for modernizing the cookware shopping experience from start-to finish.

 Kaitlyn Thompson (BSJ11, IMC17) recently spoke with the co-founder and Medill alumna about what it was like to go from magazine journalist to accidental entrepreneur. This is what Tishgart had to say about the adventure, condensed from an interview and in her own words.

 Thompson: I think it’s fair to say you’ve been on quite a journey over the past year. If you could sum up creating Great Jones cookware, how would you describe it?

Tishgart: Our primary goal in creating our own line of cookware was to make people feel more confident cooking at home. For me, many things make me feel insecure when I try to cook at home. I’ve struggled with not knowing what pan to use, how to prepare the dish, or even just trying to get the perfect Instagram shot of my food. None of it left me feeling very confident in the kitchen. The irony is before I even tried to start cooking more, I couldn’t even find good tools to start – the right pots and pans. I knew if I didn’t feel confident in the kitchen, I was probably not alone.

Thompson: In the article you wrote in March 2019 for Bon Appétit, you talk about what it was like to quit your job and build a business (later to be called Great Jones) but to have to keep the business a secret. Now, the secret’s out! What’s it like to see people talking about your company?

Tishgart: It’s simply wild. It still feels a bit surreal to see Great Jones living and breathing. One year ago, no one held our products in their hands. Now, people are using the cookware, and it’s so fun to see the many ways they make the products work for them. For example, I love to see people use our cookware as bakeware. All of our pots and pans can go in the oven, so it’s fun to watch others make them multi-use.

Thompson: Early on, you decided to bring on a business partner – your friend Maddy Moelis. What made you decide you wanted a co-founder to help launch Great Jones?

Tishgart: I knew I had certain skills that Great Jones would need, like my journalism background and my relationships with chefs and other food editors, but I also knew I had some gaps. I brought Maddy on board because I knew she could fill those gaps, having learned lessons from working at Warby Parker and Zola in particular.  As co-founders, we’ve put a lot of work into learning what we thrive at, what we do best independently, and what we do well together to make ourselves the best business leaders. Our company is changing rapidly. Our first hire was someone to run our social media accounts, but since then, we’ve brought on operations, customer experience, experiential marketing, data analytics. It’s been a great ride to see the growth and change with Maddy by my side.

Thompson: What do you think your time at Medill and Northwestern did to prepare you to start your own company?

Tishgart: I believe journalists make for great entrepreneurs. At its core, being an entrepreneur is about approaching strangers and pitching ideas. One of the first skills any journalist learns is how to ask total strangers for time, advice and help. Medill pushed me out of my comfort zone and taught me how to sell myself and my ideas. I also think Medill instilled in me an ability to do really thorough research, something I use daily in my work on Great Jones.

Thompson: What was the most surprising thing you learned about yourself in the process of launching your own business?

Tishgart: I’ve learned the extent of my work ethic. Creating and running a company is so much work. I’ve also learned how rewarding it is to have the opportunity to not just create a set of products, but a strong workplace culture where people can feel supported. We have a team of all women right now, and I love that Great Jones is a safe workplace where everyone can grow and thrive. Finally, I have actually become a better cook! Perhaps more important than just improving my skills, I cook more. Our cookware has opened up the door to do exactly what I had always hoped: to make cooking a part of my everyday routine.

Thompson: As we close our time together, what advice would you give to Medill alums looking to start their own businesses?

Tishgart: I would encourage any potential entrepreneur, whether they are connected to Medill or not, to ask themselves why they are the right person to start the business or tell the story. I believe every entrepreneur needs to have a very compelling answer to that question. Ideas are everywhere, but what positioned Maddy and me for success with Great Jones was that we really made sense for this project. I spent five years immersed in the food world, and Maddy had a deep knowledge of the startup space, plus she knew cookware. When you know the answer is that you are the best person to bring that company or idea to life, then there’s one thing left to do. Go for it!

Tishgart and her business partner Moelis both reside in New York City. For more on Great Jones’ line of modern and accessible cookware, click here

Kaitlyn Thompson is a marketing strategist, passionate storyteller, global citizen, green tea connoisseur and chili cook-off champion always asking “why.”

Cover photo: from left: Sierra Tishgart and Maddy Moelis