Things Chicago Gave Me

Now that I’m moving out of Chicago, people ask if this city changed me. Have I learned a lot? Do I feel like a different person? I try to think of an answer that doesn’t sound like a cheap fortune cookie or a cliché college application, but I can’t. There are simply few ways that Chicago could have changed me more.

When we first moved to this city, neither Marvin nor I had ever even been to Chicago.

We had no idea what to expect. As an east coaster, I’d been raised in a very “coast centric” way of thinking. The city rarely crossed my mind, and when it did, I suppose I thought about prairies and cold, and maybe deep dish pizza.

I moved to Chicago with absolutely no expectations. I had just left my job at a small non-profit and was looking to get myself more deeply involved in international development; maybe get a masters’ degree in the field. My husband was active duty military, though a few weeks in we realized that it would be hard to go back to artillery and base life after catching a glimpse of the civilian world.

We knew exactly one person in town (our friend Ben, who ended up being a link to many of our greatest friendships in this city today). We rented an apartment in Andersonville and marveled at “big city living” after having previously been in a community of exactly 997 inhabitants. We were floored when we saw escalators in the Target on Wilson Ave (I’m not even joking). We adopted a German Shepherd puppy. We got engaged.

When I think back to the Beth Santos who moved to Chicago in 2011, there are some things we have in common. We still have an unreasonable desire for ice cream at most hours of the day. We still have a glint in our eye when we talk about international development, global engagement, and travel. We still can’t resist a TJ Maxx.

But the Beth Santos of 2011 would have been shocked to meet the Beth Santos of now.

She wouldn’t believe her ears if she heard me talk about net revenue and margins like they were simple concepts. The Beth Santos of now is wiser and savvier. She has connections. She has a kick-ass haircut. She drinks coffee while charging down the street of Chicago and she goes home to a husband and walks her dog and refinishes furniture when she’s “bored”.

Chicago gave me education (and a lot of student loan debt).

Beth Santos and Kellogg School graduation

Getting my MBA was one of the best decisions I ever made. It was also one of the most expensive ones. I initially went for it as an alternative to studying international development, which Chicago simply didn’t have a lot of. I figured I could triangulate the subject by studying for-profit techniques that could benefit non-profit organizations.

Yet when I began to study social enterprise and eventually entrepreneurship, I fell in love with these topics. They fueled my desire to understand other things, like accounting and finance, marketing, even operations. I warmed into my business degree and went from quirky art history major to polished (still incredibly quirky) well-rounded professional. I can feel inside me that I have gotten smarter. Though I don’t recommend an MBA for everyone, I couldn’t be more grateful that I made that decision for myself.

Chicago gave me a career.

Speaking at the White House Travel Blogging Summit

Speaking at the White House Travel Blogging Summit

My MBA was my initiation into the startup scene. I remember walking into the halls of 1871 after accepting an internship with Chicago Founders’ Stories as a way to hold me over when I took the leap into running Wanderful full-time. While I worked on my own business, I filled my mind with new ideas – concepts and frameworks from Kellogg and then real-life experiences from founders who had gone before me during our Founders’ Stories tapings. I fell in love with the startup community of Chicago – nurturing, supportive, competitive yet brimming with possibility.

I incorporated Wanderful. I started making money. I opened up my first home office. I made my first hire. I built a team. And then, I was showered with mentors. I met with Shradha Agarwal, Gregg Latterman, Amanda Lannert, Linda Darragh, David Schonthal – people I feel honored to even be sitting in the same room as, let alone talking to about my business ideas. People who gave me their attention and their brain power even when they had a million other things to do.

Chicago gave me words.

Beth Santos speaks at the Women in Travel Summit

Speaking at our second-annual Women in Travel Summit

I learned how to sell. I learned how to talk about my company clearly and confidently; to express myself intelligently; to guide people into my world and to see my vision. To do all these things even when I felt absolutely unconfident inside; even when I wasn’t sure I’d be able to do it. I learned to pitch, to explain, and when I made my first keynote, I learned to inspire.

Chicago gave me confidence.

Beth Santos and her spouse Marvin Mathelier at Chicago Scholars

When I found out that Built in Chicago had listed me as one of their 50 influential people in Chicago tech to follow on Twitter just weeks before I moved to Boston, I nearly laughed out loud. I was grateful and maybe even a little embarrassed to be seen in the same article as some of my biggest role models.

Yet at the same time, I felt the irony of it all. How funny that just as I was moving, I started to get this amazing recognition for my work? Though I did feel grateful, I also felt a little unlucky about the timing.

But then I realized something. Perhaps, instead of this being Chicago spitting in my face, it was rather Chicago’s last gift to me. It’s Chicago saying to Boston, “hey, this is a good one, and you’re getting her now. Make sure you keep an eye on her.” I like to think of it like that. Though I am far from a brilliant and successful Fortune 500 CEO, perhaps Chicago is giving me a warm hug and a push forward. An “I believe in you.”

There are many other things that Chicago has given me in the five years that I have lived here:

A sisterhood in our amazing Wanderful Chicago chapter; lifelong friends whom I will cherish for ages; a profound love of frozen custard and cheese curds; a deeper understanding of my country and the people in it. I found that my mind opened more widely in Chicago, and I learned to accept and even love people with beliefs and values that were significantly different from mine.

I became more rooted in my identity as an American, suddenly fascinated by the Midwest, by domestic travel, and by the various immigration stories that brought us all here.

I became a fan of country music (yes, it happened to me in the Midwest). I sought to explore places I’d never thought I’d visit, like Milwaukee and Detroit. I learned to dance merengue in the park. I stained my first dining table. I memorized just about every crevice in O’Hare airport, especially terminals 1 and 3. I went to my first Bud Billiken Parade.

I will never forget the person that Chicago has made me into; a person that is imperfect, that is still learning, but that I am proud to become.

A person who will strut confidently into Boston and go, “I know none of you know who I am right now, but that will change.” A person who, I hope, will give back – both in her new home and in the place that she called home during such formative years of her life.

Chicago, thank you for everything. But don’t worry. I’m not done with you yet.

Boston, watch out.

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  • Reply
    June 21, 2016 at 7:10 pm

    Love it Beth! What an inspiration you are! You are a beautiful, amazing woman!

    • Reply
      Beth Santos
      June 22, 2016 at 10:12 pm

      Lani, you are just the sweetest! Glad to have people like you in my life 🙂

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