Featured Story

The Whole Self Issue October 2022

I'll go first: Prioritizing mental health at TestBox

I'll go first: Prioritizing mental health at TestBox

CreativeMornings cover
Photo Story

Come together now: Creative​Mornings builds connection on a global scale

An inside look at how designer Tina Roth Eisenberg has grown a global network of creatives who are as committed to kindness as they are to their crafts.

    Designer and entrepreneur Tina Roth Eisenberg keeps a drawer filled with confetti in her office. The unedited transcript of our conversation included 20 instances of the word “magic” and 14 of “magical.” As we spoke for almost an hour on Zoom, she leaned into the conversation — literally leaning forward toward the screen during our interview — exuding positive, engaging energy.

    Tina’s inclination to lean in, enthuse, and connect, in combination with her creative expertise (she authors a blog, Swissmiss, which draws one million unique visitors a month), creates a special kind of alchemy. The resulting gold: CreativeMornings, a monthly global lecture series with a devoted following around the world.

    Fueled by a deeply held purpose to bring people together and a committed network of volunteers and corporate partners, Tina has been the self-described “mama bear” of CreativeMornings for over 14 years. From humble beginnings in her Brooklyn studio to now 224 global chapters, CreativeMornings draws an average of 25,000 monthly participants to free, inclusive breakfast talks and networking events.

    And CreativeMornings hasn’t been Tina’s only project. She also founded the Brooklyn coworking space Friends Work Here, the temporary tattoo company Tattly, which she recently sold, and the to-do list app TeuxDeux along the way.

    In a conversation liberally sprinkled with moments of authentic, inspiring — and yes, “magical” — insights into the power of creativity, community, and the human connection, Tina shared her journey founding and growing CreativeMornings. Follow along below to hear directly from Tina and see the beauty that transpires when people are invited to come together to learn, share, laugh, think, create, and dream.

    You look great today
    Photo by Tory Williams for CreativeMornings New York

    The seed of the idea of CreativeMornings was really planted when I moved to New York in 1999 for what was supposed to be a three-month internship. When I got a job offer almost immediately at the firm where I was interning, I decided that the universe was cheering me on, and I couldn’t ignore the signs. I had to stay.

    I remember I made $27,000. I could barely get by. I had to really budget, and I couldn't afford industry events. But I didn’t know anyone in the city, and I was so eager to meet my people. As I made friends who were creatives, I tagged along to parties and events — my friends who were photographers took me to photography events, a friend who was an information architect took me to IA events. I remember wondering, “Why are we all gathering in these silos? What are we doing? We're all creative humans.”

    Fast forward to 2008 when, having founded my own design firm, I had made a lot of connections, but I was still seeking my people. I thought, “There have to be other creatives out there like me who are running their own studios but crave community.” I also had a young daughter at the time and, as an extrovert, I wondered, “When am I going to socialize? When do I get my human creative conversation fix?”

    Not realizing how monumental it actually was, I responded to my own need by founding the first creative coworking community in Brooklyn — initially called StudioMates, now Friends Work Here. I built it completely from intuition.

    I decided that the universe was cheering me on, and I couldn’t ignore the signs.
    Tina Roth EisenbergPhoto by Catalina Kulczar

    It turns out there were plenty of creatives looking for the same type of community. I launched the coworking space, and what was a tiny studio grew to 65 people working together, including some of the top people in various creative fields in the city. To join the space, you had to be in a creative industry and you had to be a really kind person. We had photographers, illustrators, and developers. The New York Times wrote about us. It was then that the magic just exploded.

    We all started collaborating, tapping into one another’s talent and networks. Every day, our lunchtime conversations were like mini TED Talks — everyone was working on such amazing projects, and the energy and ideas were phenomenal. I knew we had created something really special.

    The coworking space was on the East River, looking at Manhattan, and I kept gazing out the window and thinking, there have to be so many more of us out there. I thought, “This is too good to keep to ourselves. I’m just going to invite people in, open the doors to other creatives.” So that’s what I did. We opened the doors and held the first CreativeMornings in September 2008 at the coworking space. It was free, and it was for everyone. My only agenda was to bring creative people together to meet one another.

    CreativeMornings event
    Photo by Sandy Swagger for CreativeMornings Richmond

    So many things went wrong that first day. The elevator was broken. The coffee was cold. The bagels were stale. But none of it mattered. We had around 50 people show up, and that was the beginning. That first event confirmed for me that people did want to meet up. But I also realized that adding a talk or presentation to the gathering would help ease the awkwardness that a networking event can have. So while it wasn’t the original goal to create a lecture series, I knew including a talk would create a more comfortable dynamic for people.

    From there — and this is the beauty of building this thing as a designer, with a prototyping mindset — we just kept trying things and chiseling away. We weren’t overthinking it or aiming to make it perfect.

    The thing I cared most about from the beginning was that people make friends and find collaborators. That's my currency. I tell my children over and over, “Life is about finding your people.” Once you find your people and you start talking about what you can build together, that's the magic. That’s what it all comes down to.


    Staying intentional about global growth

    I actually never planned on growing CreativeMornings beyond New York. For two years I scrappily organized these events by myself. I didn't even have a volunteer team. I just made it work. And then two years in, I took it to Zurich in the summer when I went home for my annual visit with family.

    I asked a local business, Freitag, if I could bring CreativeMornings to their factory and if they wanted to speak. We had 300 people show up at the factory, and it was magical. The next year, I did it again. After that, there was a group of people in Zurich who basically didn't let me go home until I told them they could bring CreativeMornings to Zurich. Then my friend took it to LA, and the fourth chapter launched in San Francisco.

    At that point I said, “That’s it. No more.” I designed a website to feature only four chapters. But the momentum just kept growing, and I realized we had to share the magic, that I had to trust the energy that was driving us forward. Today we have 224 chapters around the world. About 25,000 people gather each month. Every event remains free, and the entire effort is led by a host and a team of volunteers in each city.

    CM Amsterdam
    CM Bogota
    CM tehran
    Photos (clockwise) by Lisa Kunst, Juan Calcedo, and courtesy of CreativeMornings Tehran

    The growth is phenomenal, especially considering the application process we’ve implemented for city hosts. We make people jump through a lot of hoops. We only want people who are truly amazing hosts, who really understand who we are and what we do. The result is that applications are created with an incredible level of thoughtfulness, and hosts ultimately put so much effort into these volunteer positions.

    To hear from people who have attended an event for the first time in a new place is to hear the story of how committed and generous the hosts and volunteers are. My favorite email to receive is from someone who tells me, “I moved to this new city, and I didn't know where my people were. I started going to CreativeMornings, and I made friends and felt at home.” To me, that is the absolute best.

    Tina hugging a CM member
    CM hands in
    Photos by Paul Jun

    Generosity is our currency

    The fact that CreativeMornings is a free event, completely driven by a community of volunteers, throws some people off at first. Sometimes when people come to a CreativeMornings event for the first time, I can see that they have their guard up. Their body language says that they don’t quite trust the generosity and the empathy they see on display. I mean, I don't blame them — it’s pretty unique. They’re wondering, “Why is this thing free, and when is the pitch coming?”

    And then, an amazing thing happens: I see them literally relax into the fact that everyone is actually just super nice and someone is handing you free coffee. And when they stay for the talk or performance, they feel it even more.

    Even I didn’t really understand what made the events so unique at first. I knew what I felt and saw the impact they had on people, but I couldn't describe why or how. Then, one of the most magical humans I have ever met, Bill Urywho co-authored the famous negotiation book Getting to Yes, heard me speak about CreativeMornings at a conference. At lunch that day he asked me, “Do you mind if I tell you why what you do at CreativeMornings works? It’s because what you do is built on non-transactional giving.”

    Bill went on to explain the concept: When you buy a ticket for a concert, you pay money and you expect a performance of a certain length and a certain experience. It’s a transaction. If you don’t get that, you’re kind of bummed out, right? But what we offer at CreativeMornings isn’t a transaction; it’s an invitation. People are invited in to connect, to learn, to collaborate — and we don’t ask for anything. When you offer something that feels so good and so generous and there's no ask or pitch, people are amazed. What’s more, without ever being asked, they want to return over and over — to be involved and to give back.

    Work hard and be nice to people
    Photo courtesy of CreativeMornings London

    People come up to us after the events and say, “How can I do more? How can I tap into this? How can I help?” Over the years we've built a variety of outlets beyond the events to meet that request. We created a global job search directory, CreativeGuild, and we developed FieldTrips, which are peer-to-peer learning opportunities (some virtual and some in person). And we keep adding outlets into our ecosystem because people tell us that an event once a month is just never enough.

    Of course, one of the biggest ways people contribute is by serving as city hosts — bringing CreativeMornings to their cities and then developing their own volunteer teams to organize events. I am so incredibly appreciative of our hosts.

    At one point I was going on about how much I appreciate the volunteer effort, and my friend who launched CreativeMornings in LA said to me, “Tina, stop. You don't understand what this has opened up for me as a host. Yes, I'm volunteering 40 hours a month, but do you understand the opportunities this has created for me? Do you understand what it has opened up in my life?” It was an important moment for me to recognize that people see their participation as a real currency.

    But we do truly, deeply appreciate these folks, and we make sure they feel our love. Every two years we rent a summer camp and invite all of our volunteers from all over the world for a two-day summit. It's the most magical, heart-opening thing to see hosts pour in from all over the world. It’s just a magical type of human who believes in gathering community in that very open-hearted way, and we love them.

    CreativeMornings stroll in Lexington, Kentucky
    Photo by Ryan K. Morris for CreativeMornings Lexington

    Everyone is creative. Everyone is welcome. 

    I tell my kids, “Don’t wait for the community you want to exist. You can start it yourself. It doesn't take much. Sometimes all you have to do is be the first; raise your hand. Put down the first stepping stone. You just have to be the one to show up.”

    CreativeMornings is truly a community for everyone — not just for people in creative careers. I always say to people that to live is to be creative. We are all creative. Some of us may express that in explicitly artistic ways, but everyday life decisions are creative, too: What you choose to eat, where you choose to live, how you design your life. All of those are creative acts.

    Inherently, to live means being creative. Your life is your biggest design project.

    I think we all need the opportunity to be in community with one another — to live in a nourishing way together, with empathy. We need to go beyond caring for ourselves. We need to have our antennas out and tune into the feelings of the people around us. Is this person in front of me doing well? What do they need right now?

    CreativeMornings events reflect the fact that we’re guided by a desire to bring people together, to meet them where they are, and offer empathy alongside creativity. We take you as you are. If you come and you're just not in a good mood or you're sad, that's OK. Sit. Be there. Be quiet. Maybe you feel a bit better for having shown up. And if you want to talk to people, that's great, too. Share your enthusiasm, express your love.

    We're just trying to be nurturing and empathetic and kind to folks no matter how they show up or what they’re living through that day. We want everyone to feel comfortable. Everyone should feel included. I don't think there's enough of that these days.

    Connection grid 1
    Connection grid 2
    Connection grid 3
    Photo (left) by Tory Williams; others are courtesy of CreativeMornings San Diego

    We’ve developed a lot of elements of the CreativeMornings experience around that ethos. For instance, we know that many of the people who show up are introverts, so we keep those folks in mind. We have volunteers assigned to roam the event, and their only role is to notice if somebody is standing alone. If they see someone on their own, they start talking to them and then introduce them to someone else. Seems simple, right? But those things can make such a difference in how someone feels embraced by and included in the community.

    We also created icebreaker name tags which, instead of saying Hello, my name is ask a question like What can you teach me? It creates an entry point to a conversation. In all this intentional planning, we’re always asking, “How can we make it really safe and easy for people to talk to one another?”


    A sacred space: Like church for creativity

    In a world that is so sarcastic and so scary and so fear driven, something like CreativeMornings — which feels innocent and pure and safe — can remind us as a society that it is still possible to find a place where you can let your guard down. It's a place where you can relax and just be human. At CreativeMornings, you're just you, and we’re welcoming you with curiosity. People show up with a sense of giving and not taking. That’s rare today.

    NYC
    Omaha
    Photos by Paul Jun and Eric Francis

    When I ask people why they come to CreativeMornings, they’ll often say, “My life is so stressful. I'm so isolated. But I know that once a month I can come to CreativeMornings and exhale. I can take things in and be curious. I get a glimpse of hope that there are nice people out there and realize that I can make friends.”

    It’s pretty striking to me when people describe the impact in that way — to understand how directly our events can affect a person’s mental health. People come to our events and they see that the world doesn't have to be a battle at all times.

    I love seeing this in real time. I see super-together, professional people who are probably just about to go back into their cubicles after the event — and they're standing there looking for words to express what the experience has been for them. They almost always have their hand on their heart, and they’ll say something like, “I honestly do not understand what has happened in the last hour and a half, but I feel really good. And this has really touched me. How can I get involved? How can I tap into this more? Because I truly believe in what has just happened here.”

    Church for creativity
    Photo by Paul Jun for CreativeMornings New York

    My friend Casper ter Kuile, who wrote The Power of Ritual, thinks a lot about community and where people go who don't feel called to join a church. We became friends during the pandemic and would go for long walks together. I will never forget a moment when we were walking in Fort Greene park in Brooklyn, and he asked, “So how many people are gathering for CreativeMornings every month?” When I said it was 25,000 people, he spewed his coffee out. He said, “Tina, that's a megachurch.”

    So, even though I didn’t grow up going to church and I don’t know what that feels like, I’m just beginning to be comfortable with the idea that for some people, CreativeMornings is like a church for creativity. It can be a sacred space.


    Scrappy from the start: A business model built on (and for) connection

    I never meant to make money with this thing. I wanted to keep it pure and simple. And then, in 2010, an investor approached me and offered a tiny initial investment. I made the seed investment last for years by hiring fresh college grads who worked part time, and I didn’t pay myself a dime for the first six years of the organization. We didn’t have more than four employees for years. I know how to be scrappy. In fact, I believe there is opportunity and beauty in being scrappy.

    What was — and remains — the most significant investment that has allowed us to grow the business is the support we have received from our first and longest-running corporate partner (and all around champion of everything CreativeMornings), Mailchimp. When we were just four months old, Mailchimp co-founder Ben Chestnut sent me an email saying he loved what I was doing (at the time one chapter) and that he and his team (at the time 13 employees) would love to support CreativeMornings. I remember thinking “Maybe they could sponsor breakfast,” which they did, beginning in 2009. They became our first global sponsor in 2011 and have been supporting us ever since.

    We’ve existed through that partnership model (other global partners have come and gone throughout the years, while Mailchimp has remained constant). In 2018, we expanded the model by launching the CreativeGuild, a subscription-based directory of creative companies and individuals in our ecosystem. It’s the beginning of what I hope will one day be a soulful version of LinkedIn for the creative world. It includes a job board, and has become a substantial revenue generator for us, which we want to focus on more in the near future.


    Creating an environment where people can thrive

    We talked about the values we wanted to instill in the business pretty early on. Once we were a team of four, we went through a “discover your why” process. It was extremely powerful to do that work of discovering our values and our motivation with a tiny team. Everyone was so aligned around the purpose. I think that was when I really knew that even though I wasn't full-time CEO at that point, I wanted to take this seriously.

    I just knew in my heart of hearts that while I can run a design studio and I can sell tattoos, what was really going to matter to me in the long run would be to look back at some point and say, “I had a positive impact on people's lives. People have gained opportunities. They've met friends. They’ve been inspired creatively.” There's nothing more powerful to me personally than that. That's how I define success.

    Grid omaha
    Grid toronto
    Grid Melbourne
    Photos (clockwise) by Eric Francis, Laura Crowell, and Mark Lobo

    I have a very unique way of building companies. With each company I’ve built, I’ve gone about it in a very intentional, very community-minded, trusting way. I'm a big believer that when you create a company, you create an environment where people can thrive. For me, that means hiring extremely trusting, outgoing, driven, self-motivated people. These are the sort of people who run their own side projects. I run the company the way I would want to be treated. I don’t want to breathe down anyone's neck.

    I want to be able to say, “Hey, our goal is to get people together and inspire them. What can we do?” And let people bring their own ideas to the table. It's the same way we operate with the hosts. There are a few non-negotiables they have to accept, and then we say: "We trust you. Tell us what you're experimenting with. Let us know how it works.”

    This way of leading creates an ever-breathing ecosystem; a living organism. We're constantly changing how we do things. People dare to take risks in that environment — and sometimes ideas fail, but there’s always a lesson or an idea that comes through as a result.

    When I think about how CreativeMornings has grown and about my approach to growth, I’m aware of how that story reflects both my Swiss heritage and my experience in America. I love living in America; I love the can-do attitude. I love the speed with which Americans operate. But I also love the beautiful patience of the Swiss — the way they have of just sticking with things. I feel the two cultures colliding all the time in my approach.

    I'm in it for the long game. This year marks our fourteenth year, and I'm just now, for the first time, the full-time CEO of CreativeMornings.

    Creative Mornings Balloons
    Photo by Tim Harris for CreativeMornings Louisville

    Related reading

    Build where you are: An inside look at Folk Detroit
    Read

    Build where you are: An inside look at Folk Detroit

    Written, recorded, and designed by doers & makers © 2022 In the Works