Back To School

Dear CPS Teachers,

I am thinking about you today as you eek out the final hours of summer and consider what life for the next 10 months will be like as you educate and comfort our city’s kids.

Some of you have been doing this a long time and I know each year is different.  I can imagine, for those of you who teach in the inner city , the record breaking gun violence we’ve experienced this summer may be a little unnerving.  I want to acknowledge that this year returning to those innocent children is probably the best thing that could happen in creating calm from the chaos.  Some of these little ones may have lost parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, best friends and you will struggle with the challenges of teaching those children about subjects that may not feel as important to them.  However, your teaching may be their very ticket out of this hell hole.  Remember the story of the starfish and how your efforts are critical to the survival of these kids and their kids. Know that your dedication to the vocation you have chosen helps each of us.

After a recent shooting, one of you posted on Facebook that this was the loss of your third student.  My heart broke.  I know how you love your kids and try to provide a safe haven for them during the day.  I love that our schools feed kids in the mornings and at lunch time to ensure they are nourished and have some respite from abuse and neglect.  I also appreciate all you go through in order to get to your jobs each day.  Like our police, firefighters and paramedics, you are often first responders to the most ugly situations in our city.  I’m pretty sure you don’t feel appreciated most of the time.  Today, I hope you do.

Hang in there this year and know what you are doing is likely the salvation of a generation and a city.







Birthday Wishes


Today I turn 49. In 365 days, I’ll pass a milestone that scares me. Not for the usual reasons like receiving an AARP card, but for something far more terrifying. On her 50th birthday, my Mom was in a coma battling the blood cancer (acute lymphocytic leukemia) that would eventually take her life 49 days later. When she died, we knew she was young. As I creep closer and closer to her age, I am humbled by how truly young she was.

Nobody knew my Mom the same way we did, and not one of us loved her in quite the same way. We sometimes loved the same things but each of us loved something different. To some, it was her quirkiness, passion, compassion, wackiness, devotion or sheer determination.  To others it was her sensibility, kindness, truthfulness, sense of humor or environmental awareness (she warned about GMO’s and “super cows” a/k/a bovine hormones in the 70’s) Each of us has a special story to accompany each adjective.  Some stories are shared, some are individual.

I’ve thought about my Mom millions of times, and sometimes even hear her voice in my head telling me to “hang in there” or “go get ’em” or any of the other words of encouragement she’d offer. Today, I hear her singing “happy birthday” and telling me how proud she is (like she always did) of what I’ve accomplished. While I never became the brain surgeon she said I could, I have done a pretty good job choosing a wonderful husband and have worked hard to accomplish meaning in my life.

I wish I still had her here to rub my head or just sit with me. Here’s to treasuring the next 414 days. After all, I’ve got a lot of living to do!


This Beatles song about sums up how I am feeling right now.  Besos, my lovelies.

When Is It Considered Cray-Cray & When Is It Considered Genius?

We lost a Chicago icon recently.  Charlie Trotter, renowned restaurateur, died suddenly at the age of 54.   Like many, I kind of forgot about Charlie Trotter after he closed his restaurant in August 2012.  He had a good run of 25 years and decided to call it quits. He wanted to go back to school and study philosophy.  The handful of people I know who worked for Charlie Trotter all said the same things.  He was a perfectionist.  He was intense.  He was belittling.   He was crazy.  Lots of people didn’t like him and he became a legend. He changed the world’s perspective on Chicago cuisine and this city is now a destination on any culinary map.
In a recent 60 Minutes interview Nick Saban, the illustrious football coach at the University of Alabama was featured.  While I don’t have much love for sports, I do appreciate college football.  My teams are either my alma mater, Southern Illinois University (Go Dawgs!) or Notre Dame.   After the 60 Minutes piece,  Alabama certainly might become #3.  I really liked what the guy had to say.  Coach Saban was shown at a team practice laying into freshman, Eddie Jackson.  It was painful watching him correct the kid who was awkward and just couldn’t seem to do anything right in front of the 60-Minutes cameras.  I reasoned Eddie Jackson must have some talent  if he was recruited by Alabama. Coach Saban demands hard work and follows the principles and rules of  football to a T.  He said he doesn’t worry about winning because if the rules are followed, and plays are executed the right way, winning is a natural result.   Later in the program, freshman Eddie Jackson got it and had an amazing turnaround.  He even scored a couple of touchdown’s.  Having standards will help Alabama maintain their top ranking for college football.
I’ve had some pretty explosive women in my life who have demanded what Charlie Trotter and Coach Saban have wanted from their underlings.  The first was my Sixth Grade teacher.  I went to a Catholic Grammar School where we were taught by Mercy nuns or Sisters of NO Mercy as we affectionately referred to them.  The summer before the school year started, I prayed and prayed and prayed I would not have Sr. Sheila for homeroom.  God had other plans.  Good thing the cute boy I liked since 1st grade was also in my class which made the thought of Room 106 that much more tolerable.  Sister Sheila was a militant perfectionist. She demanded we do things right or we do them over.   She taught math which leaves little to the imagination when it comes to right or wrong.   She also had some interesting requirements and mystifying linear focus.  Everything from desks to lockers to our homework pages were to be lined up.  Our desks were in perfectly straight rows with a specific amount of measured space between them.  When leaving our desks, chairs were never to be pushed in but were to touch the front of the desk directly behind them. She required we use a red pen and ruler to trace the line on the side of our already lined college rule paper.  For math homework, if one answer was wrong, we were required to stay after school and not only figure out the incorrect answer (with her help) but also redo all the correct answers until the page was to her liking.  I said I hated  her home room, but secretly I loved it.  Our family life was in chaos when I was in 6th Grade, so having this sort of routine and discipline was exactly what needed.   Sr. Sheila had high standards and nobody was going to get away with not following the rules  to her liking.  In 7th Grade, when things were a little more laid back, I really missed Sr. Sheila and her predictable, militant ways.  Turns out, I liked the structure.
My final “tough-as-nails” coach was named Carol Vining.  Carol was the Marketing Director at a local mall and anybody who knew her would agree she was “HELL in heels”.  Another perfectionist,  she was impatient and belittling.  Carol took things to the extreme and she got things done.   She was my “Charlie Trotter” who taught me to work hard and deliver results.   In High School, I modeled for fashion shows and helped her and the team of riff-raff employees she assembled decorate for Easter, Sidewalk Sales and Christmas.  After college, I took a position as her assistant.   Not a fun job for a Twenty-something-year-old who thought she knew it all.  I was schooled and challenged daily by this woman.  I was taught to toughen up and deliver results.  She WAS the retail version of a USMC Boot Camp Drill Instructor.  It sucked.  I hated it.  I hated her.  Like Sr. Sheila, she required excellence.  Everything in the office was to be “lined up like soldiers”.  Papers, files, invoices, desks, etc. As a part of my job, I was required to keep the books and do the accounting.  I sucked at Accounting in college and this was not my strength.  Are you seeing a pattern with math challenges yet?   I would labor for hours and days over errors.  Because Carol said “numbers didn’t lie”, I was forced to find where I miscalculated and make the necessary corrections.  What sheer joy and elation I experienced when finding my error and making the adjustment.  As a business woman, she was an iron fist in a velvet glove.  She once told me there was  only thing she couldn’t do that a man could (use your imagination).  I still think if she put her mind to it, she could have done that too.  Carol and I did not part on the best of terms.  We had a big blow out, I quit and we didn’t speak for years until I ran into her at a Christmas party.  Carol had been battling cancer for about 20 years  and I knew her time on this planet was coming to an end.   I decided to rise above my cold war with her and tell her how much I learned.  We had a candid conversation but she didn’t seem to remember anything but good.  We laughed about the craziness and I told her she was also the best mentor I ever had.   She was a relentless taskmaster and taught me to be one, likewise.  Like Charlie Trotter, Coach Saban and Sr. Sheila, Carol worked hard and did things the right way the first time and if they weren’t done right, they were done over.  She also taught me to value myself as a woman in business and to use my talents.   I could do just about anything a man could- except, in my case, heavy lifting.
My husband and I were talking about our businesses over the weekend when he paraphrased a Charlie Trotter quote, “I demand excellence not perfection”.  I started thinking about all the people in my life who really pushed me.  I didn’t like it at the time, but I see the value in retrospect.  Words like “crazy” and “perfectionist” are used as negative but I think they are signs of genius.
“I have always looked at it this way: If you strive like crazy for perfection – an all-out assault on total perfection – at the very least you will hit a high level of excellence, and then you might be able to sleep at night. To accomplish something truly significant, excellence has to become a life plan.” Charlie Trotter. (Taken from the book: “Lessons in Excellence from Charlie Trotter;” by Paul Clarke; Ten Speed Press; 1999)
Caroline Dwan is a small business marketing consultant in Chicago.  She and her husband have owned their small business since June, 2000.

Burning On The Feet of Avalon!

I used to think the words to Elton John’s song Rocket Man were “Burning on the feet of Avalon” instead of “Burning out his fuse up here alone” and my husband thought Prince was saying “Two-thousand zero zero party odems” instead of “two-thousand zero zero party over, oops out of time”.  Sometimes what we think we hear makes no sense but we repeat it anyway.

Every once in a while, I hear a rumor that is so ridiculous, I have to remind myself to consider  if its  similar to my interpretation of  Rocket Man.  Sometimes the content is political, sometimes it’s about people in the neighborhood but, lots of times, it’s about businesses and most of the time it’s not positive.  Full disclosure:  from time to time, I have been guilty of this practice.   Recently, I have been trying to catch myself by listening to my words and thinking these little nuggets all the way through.

Throughout my journey in this life, I have learned the very important lesson of defending those not present.  I believe it is possibly the most valuable AND challenging attribute a person can have.  Like most mere mortals, I seem to forget how critical a couple of well thought out sentences can put the kibosh on a rumor.  When hearing something negative, suggestions to the “victim” like “Did you talk to a manager?”,  “Did you call the owner?”,  “Did you let the waiter/waitress know you were dissatisfied with your meal?”, and “What was their response?” could change direction and put a stop to gossip. I find it is a good way to diffuse negativity and make people  think about the words they hear.  They might even decide things weren’t so horrible after all.

Recently, on Facebook, somebody was complaining about a big box store’s customers leaving garbage and (God forbid) a shopping cart on the side of the street where mostly small businesses dwell.  She was really fuming. I believe in being the change you want to see happen (thank you to the original Mr. Gandhi), so I asked if she picked up the garbage and returned the cart? Excuse #1…”it was too windy and I was with my little dog, Toto”…excuse #2…”I didn’t want to cross the big, busy street” (that has a traffic light) so I asked if she called a manager at the store to let him/her know about this egregious offense.  She had not.  While I have no love for big boxes and I have been ticked off about poor quality, customer service issues, etc., etc., etc.,  this store is already here and if it goes away, we have another big empty building in our community.

During a recent event where we were providing food service, I had a customer service episode that made me wince at my response.  There was one line for hotdogs, pop, chips.  Nachos, candy and ice cream were at a separate station in which I was in charge.  The line for the hotdogs was really long so I let people know they could step up to my area if they wanted nachos, candy and ice cream.  A lady, who had been in the hot dog line longer than she liked, came up and started yelling at me.  Naturally, I ignored her anger and asked her what I could get her.  She ordered ice cream and nachos and was in a major huff.  I took a deep breath and thought about my response.  Who was going to win here?  Why was I trying to be in the position of power?  Wasn’t she right? How would I feel?  I decided to apologize.  It was sincere.  I told her  I was wrong for not acknowledging the issue and I completely understood,  how she would be confused without there being any signage directing her to a smaller line.  She was still a little angry and told me  all she wanted was some acknowledgement.  Don’t we all!

Next time somebody gets snarky regarding a business, I challenge you to speak up and share your experiences – good and bad. Whether the comment is in-person or on Yelp, Facebook, etc., take a minute to do that business a favor and stick up for them or get to the core of what the person is pissed about.  It’s also a nice idea to let the business know if you saw something posted on a social media site so they can respond accordingly.  If you are a customer who has been wronged, talk to the person who wronged you.  If they don’t respond, talk to a manager or owner.   If you are a business owner, look at your reviews on Yelp and use it as an opportunity to apologize if you were wrong,  gently reflect your opinion or use it as a marketing tool.


“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”

― Mahatma Gandhi

Caroline Dwan is a marketing consultant with close to 20 years experience in advertising, non-profit fundraising and marketing. Her passion in life is working with small business owners. In fact, she loves it so much, she decided to marry and become one herself. Caroline and her husband own a small restaurant and catering business on Chicago’s South side.

Help! I need somebody!



For the past two weeks, my live-in father has been talking about making Chicken Saltimbocca for a Sunday family dinner. My Dad LOVES to cook. He talked all week about purchasing the pounded chicken and prosciutto. He even got a special sage pesto from his chef friend. He was like a kid anticipating Santa and I’m pretty sure he didn’t sleep the night before. Every detail was planned and he would often share each step on how he would prepare the meal. You might think, “Geez, its only a dinner”. To my Dad, it was his obsession. Sunday came and we purchased ingredients from two markets ensuring we had the best for his creation. My sister, Elizabeth, was coming over at 5 pm. He didn’t even take a nap.

During our Sunday shopping adventure, Dad started complaining about his ankles hurting. For him to complain means it was pretty intense pain. My Dad is 76 and has a litany of health issues. Having just lost 40 lbs., he’s in much better shape but doesn’t move like he used to and standing for an extended period of time is no bueno. He just can’t do it any more. So, he asked Elizabeth to assist. A good idea to ask for help however, there was one problem – Elizabeth is the cleaner of the family and not the cook so a project like this was really not her bag. As soon as she arrived, he needed to sit down and would direct her instead of cooking himself. She tried to follow his instructions like “dredge the chicken” (she looked at him like he had two heads). I translated. Instructions continued and she just wasn’t getting it. I was biting my tongue completely feeling her frustration and worried about butting in. Finally, I couldn’t take it any longer. Since I love to cook as much as my Dad, I decided to help out. Without saying a word, she gave me an ear-to-ear grin and promptly started doing dishes and cleaning the kitchen. I even think she started whistling “Zipity Do Da”. We shared our strengths and we were both happy.

The lesson of this story is familiar and one I have struggled with throughout my professional life. I have spent most of my career doing what I’m good at. After a short time of unemployment in 2010, I decided to switch careers and move out of my comfort zone. Everything started out fine when I was taking baby steps. As time when by, the dials started getting turned up and, unlike my Dad, I was not able to say “Uncle, my ankles hurt. I need an assistant” (well, I had an assistant but that’s another story). Things were so intense, many days I felt like I was in that episode of “I Love Lucy”. You know, the one where she and Ethel are in the chocolate factory. I simply could not keep up. The conveyor belt was moving too quickly. Soon, I was working 12 – 15 hour days trying to keep up and answer literally 100 emails per day and at least a dozen phone calls. I was also on the road traveling my vast territory which kept me away from the people I love most in the world. I was never around. I was always tired and I was burnt out! Because I was unable to catch up, I started waking up at 4:30 am to get my day started. That was rock bottom. I missed my family and my life. I asked for help but, like my Dad asking Elizabeth to cook, I was asking the wrong person. Nobody could help me and the one person who could would not (for whatever reason). I was sunk. Through some act of divine intervention, we decided to break up and I was free to move on with my life and do what was most important to me – LIVE and not just exist.

The lesson for me is knowing when to walk away OR how to find the right person or people or village to lend a hand. If I need an extra set of eyes, arms or feet, I need to ask. Or I need to be OK walking away.

Since that time, I’m fortunate to have found my own little Pride (as in a pack of lionesses) who are there to lift me up and help me out. I have friends who seem to have all the special skills I need to reference as I build my consulting business. One is an editor, one works in Assisted Living, one is a lawyer, another an HR person, somebody else is in finance and the list goes on. They help me, I help them. We trade dinners or wine or ideas and it works like a charm.

Several years ago, I heard a story about heaven and hell that really caught my attention. I would not refer to myself as a religious person these days, but I would call myself spiritual. The story goes like this “A lady finds herself in purgatory and is greeted by St. Peter. For whatever reason, she gets to choose where she’d like to go. Heaven or Hell. First, she is taken to hell and there is a huge banquet on a table and the setting is beautiful but the people look miserable. They have 12 foot forks attached to their hands and are not able to enjoy the feast. She asks if she can see Heaven. When she arrives, its the same set up as Hell with the beautiful setting and the feast. They even have the same 12 foot forks attached to their hands. The difference is all the people are laughing and filled with joy because they are feeding each other”. Find those people who can help feed you. After all, they nourish your soul. We ARE better together.

Caroline Dwan is a marketing consultant who specializes in helping small businesses embrace new ways to go to market. She also specializes in non-profit fundraising and corporate sponsorship having worked for several years as a professional special event fundraiser. Caroline and her husband own a small restaurant on Chicago’s south side.

Want to build a tribe? Start with your own teepee.

I’ve been having a lot of conversations lately pertaining to a relatively common marketing term called “Building A Tribe”. I don’t know who originally coined the phrase, but I like it. It means getting people so enamored with your brand, they want to be a part of whatever you’ve got going on. They follow you on Facebook, Twitter, Pintrest, Tumbler, Instagram, LinkedIn, Yelp and they are obsessed. They come to your place regularly and when they don’t, you miss them. They tell all their friends about your awesomeness, feel connected to you and your staff, show up regularly and are the non-creepy version of Annie Wilkes (Misery). They become your “biggest fans” and they are the customers who light up when they see you and you kind of do the same. They become your buddy, your pal. We have a little tribe for our small business. They bring us offerings (home-made salsa, cookies, chocolates, presents, etc.) they invite us to private events (weddings, Christening’s, Graduation Party’s, house party’s, etc.), they make us their peeps, their bro’s, their besties and we kinda feel the same way about them. They hang out at the counter of our restaurant and talk to my husband about his beer selection. Or Barbecue. Or how they wish they could open a restaurant. Their kids come behind the counter and ask for hugs or removable tattoos (with our logo on them), they love us. And, we love them. A lot. We laugh with them, comfort them when they are sad, we “float them ’til next Tuesday” by putting food on their tab when they are low on dough because tuition payments are due. We cry when they die. We even made a wall of our dearly departed’s funeral programs and death notices. We watch their kids grow and bring in their kids. We hire them when they need the work and we hire their kids when we need workers. They are our community.

Our other tribe is comprised of employees. We often refer to them as “the island of misfit toys”. Despite their faults and shortcomings, they bring special gifts to the place and it simply would not be the same without them. My husband, whom I often refer to as Gandhi, has an incredible knack when it comes to leadership and he is the reason why we have had such a low turnover rate. In fact, we have owned our restaurant since 2000 and have a less than 10% of them leave. My husband picks some pretty great people. Some times he misses but most of the time he finds diamonds in the rough. He trains them well and discovers their greatest strengths. He is also pretty transparent with them and shares the books so they see when we have a good day, where the money goes. When we have a bad day, they see that too.

I recently listened to Seth Godin’s audiobook Tribes He shares his perspective on leadership vs. management. My husband is a leader. As a result, employees are happy which always makes customers happy. I believe part of the reason we have a great external tribe (customers) is because we have a great Chief who is an alchemist and turns “lead into gold”.

Caroline Dwan is a marketing consultant with close to 20 years experience in print and digital advertising sales, non-profit fundraising and marketing. She and her husband own a small business on Chicago’s South side.