by J.R. Plate

Off Interstate 90/94 heading east into downtown Chicago, lies a unique but unfortunately rare business incubator that has 95 years of rich history, with a future poised to change the way businesses operate. Boasting an impressive list of sustainable features that helped it achieve its LEED Platinum certification, the building houses Green Exchange, where female business owners possess stories, experiences and ultimately, a level of success in their respective fields that is second to none.

Admittedly, there was a certain amount of nerves going into the interviews with the five following business owners from Green Exchange. It was stressful to think I might not be able to properly convey the stories that represent the great work and achievement this group has put out. But after conducting these interviews, two reoccurring themes emerged: Passion and community. Each of these business owners spoke of how beneficial it was to be located in Green Exchange and have the opportunity to be among a community that shares a similar vision of following where their hearts take them and gaining peace of mind through their efforts. Each owner has a story of how passionate they are about their respective fields, too. Working around these themes has made the task at hand more tangible. I hope you enjoy each of their stories.

Photo by Elaine Melko /
Melissa Graham

Melissa Graham – Founding Executive Director, Purple Asparagus

In 2005 Melissa came to a career crossroads. She had recently given birth to her son and was hoping to be able to work part time at the law firm where she had been an established attorney. But her request for part time work was denied. She and her husband discussed the possibility of taking on a new career. They concluded that it had to be doing something she was passionate about. Her passion for cooking and food spawned a catering company called Monogram Events. In the beginning, Purple Asparagus was a non-profit arm of Monogram, which allowed Melissa to offer food classes and events for children and their families as a side project to her catering business.

But then an opportunity changed her business’ direction. Melissa was offered the opportunity to present her first school program that would focus on season fruits and vegetables. This opportunity morphed into an established program called Delicious, Nutritious Adventures. Delicious, Nutritious Adventures has become the back bone of purple Asparagus, and ultimately pushed Melissa to end her catering company and place 100% of her energy into the educational side of food.

“The program is designed to increase food literacy. As the year goes on we challenge the students more. Our statement is, if 100% of the kids like what they’re trying and what we’re making, then we aren’t doing our job.” What began as an “experimental program” that would occur maybe 12 times per year, now operates in 18 schools throughout Chicago. The program put on more than 30 classes in the 2011-2012 school year. As Purple Asparagus widens their reach, you can be sure the positive impact they are having on Chicago school children’s health and education will only become increasingly more evident.

Photo by Elaine Melko /
Lisa Elkins

Lisa Elkins, Architect, LEED AP, 2 Point Perspective: Architecture & Interiors

Lisa Elkins became the forefront of the sustainable architectural movement through her work in San Francisco and London. Coming to Chicago was the next step in her career, and it has proven to be the biggest. After being diagnosed with a heart tumor and having emergency surgery 2 weeks later, Lisa came away from her experience with a drive to pursue her dream of starting her own architectural firm. She knew that this was the time to start her own company. And that’s how 2 Point Perspective was born. 2006 was the first year she began her endeavor and within a year she had built the business enough that her husband, Rob, would be able to join the firm full-time. Having the ability to improve someone’s space, especially a residential space, drives Lisa’s love for design.

“When you create a home for someone you’re really changing the way they are able to live. When their house actually works for them they ultimately have a happier life.”

2 Point Perspective works on both residential and commercial projects. Moving offices into Green Exchange has offered a positive work place environment. Not to mention, Lisa and her husband had the opportunity to work on the design of two spaces within the building. Having the community of other like-minded businesses has been valuable as well.

“I love the community aspect. I think it’s so important to be able to bump into your neighbors and know that they care bout the same things you care about. The synergies have been impressive,” said Lisa of her fellow Green Exchange tenants. The ability to have a work environment filled with like-minded people and with opportunities to do good work is a good example as to how a true incubator should work.

Photo by Elaine Melko /
Jamie Davis

Jamie Davis – Owner, Greenhouse Loft

There is nothing better than attending a wedding, party, or other function at a beautiful venue. The downside is that many of these events produce a lot of waste. Realizing this issue existed, Jamie Davis wanted to change the way events are held and executed. Having been a photographer for some time and working out of West Loop Studio, Jamie began to get more involved in the events the space was also being utilized for. Over the next six years or so, the event business grew and Steve Ewert, Jamie’s business partner, talked of selling the building that housed West Loop Studios. With this opportunity presenting itself, Jamie knew her next workspace to operate sustainable events had to also embrace sustainability. This workspace would be at Green Exchange.

Greenhouse Loft has become the premier sustainable venue for events in Chicago. Although every client that books the space embraces green services in a different way, Jamie works hard to bring to light how much better the event could be with some forethought.

“The average wedding produces 400–600 pounds of waste. Because we compost and recycle, we were able to get away with having only one bag of landfill waste for a party of 200,” explains Jamie.

In addition to having amazing events space at Green Exchange, Jamie was able to take advantage of the community aspect that the the Greenhouse Loft for Jamie. Leveraging the ability to work with Lisa has proven beneficial for both businesses.

Photo by Elaine Melko /
Shannon Downey

Shannon Downey, Owner, Pivotal Production

A little more than 5 years ago Shannon Downey had her “aha” moment while working as a freelance marketer for some of the larger experiential of an event, the opportunity to make these events more sustainable presented itself. While working on the Opening Ceremonies for the World Boxing Championship, Shannon realized how much trash was created out of non-recyclable items that had been used for a mere number of hours.

“You have a million dollar budget, build a bunch of shit and then recycled once an event is over. The best part is that marketing pieces even budget to produce. Having the ability to do the work she loves in a way that isn’t blatantly harmful to the environment is very satisfying for Shannon.

“Being around other business owners who have the same mindset keeps you on track and makes you want to be better. The community sums up the community aspect that is Green Exchange, not only for business owners.

Photo by Elaine Melko /
Heather N. Schafer

Heather N. Schafer, Schafer Smith LLC

Heather Schafer has always held good positions with solid organizations. She began her professional career as a scientist in biology and ecology for the Center for Disease Control, and later moved into law. However, as time wore on her discontent grew, even as she moved up the corporate ladder. After practicing law for 6 years at a big firm in Chicago, Heather knew it was time to take her life and career in a different direction.

Maintaining her desire to work in law, Heather wanted to use her skills and knowledge to help companies patent their intellectual property and organize their business. Shortly after starting her own law firm, a long time friend, Nick Smith, decided it was also his time to walk away from his large firm and join Heather. Their top priority of having the freedom to run their own business was, they wanted to enjoy their work!

“I only want to work with clients who I’m passionate about,” Heather explained. “I want to work on projects that I believe in and feel good about.”

For them, quality of life within their jobs is critical, and for Heather, this translated into getting along with her clientele, as well locating her business in a positive environment. Therefore, she no longer had a desire to operate in the environment her former law firm provided.

“I don’t want the money, I don’t want power, I want ‘soul wealth,’” she explained. Having the ability to provide a skill such as legal work and do it in a way that is beneficial beyond the immediate services provided, makes Schafer Smith, LLC the type of business that is redefining its industry.

Listening to each one of these women’s stories and how they have come to this point in their careers is motivational, to say the least. Add into the mix that they all approach their businesses with a sustainable mindset and people come together. To learn more about each of these amazing business owners and Green Exchange go to:

Photo by Elaine Melko /
Green Exchange Team