Meet the 20 Rising Brand Stars Changing the Landscape of Chicago

From streetwear titans to brand leaders

Getty Images

Getty Images

Chicago has long been a city known for its innovation. From food to sports to startups, the Windy City is constantly evolving.

With a growing tech community, thriving food scene and small businesses popping up on every corner, there's never been a better time to be a Chicagoan.

In the latest installment of Adweek's City Spotlight series, we visit Chicago to introduce you to 20 professionals who are shaking up the status quo in their respective industries.

Michelle Y. Bess, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Lead, Sprout Social

Michelle Bess

Before Michelle Y. Bess knew she wanted to connect Black and Latinx candidates to their dream opportunities, she knew she wanted to call Chicago home. Sprout Social’s diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) lead has had her heart set on the Windy City for more than a decade. “I’ve been in a love affair with the city of Chicago since 2007,” she proclaims.

“I fell in love with the city because it was one of the first times in my life where I felt affirmed in my identity as a black woman—and being black felt complex. I was so used to my success and intelligence being viewed as an exception to the rule, but in Chicago, I felt an incredible sense of belonging in the city and specifically the black community. You could be black and be a doctor, teacher, researcher or marketer and it felt like no one thought twice about it.”

Her love for the city brought her back after graduating from Whitworth University in Spokane, Wa., in 2009. After a fellowship with the Surge Institute, she made it a personal mission to connect people of color to opportunity and realized she could do that in any industry. She was drawn to Sprout because of how committed the organization was to diversity and inclusion despite the company’s small size at the time.

Now, Bess creates and leads initiatives with Sprout’s business leaders and employees to ensure they have an equitable company, enabling the organization to have both a diverse and inclusive team. Sprout leaders empowered Bess to build its DEI program from scratch, which is what she says she’s most proud of. She especially loves that she’s doing this work for a tech company, an industry that has received criticism for the lack of diversity and inclusion across the country. “Leading DEI at Sprout means I can share our learnings and best practices more broadly in the tech community through our products, close relationships and partnerships,” she says.

Bess’ commitment to this work doesn’t just stop when she leaves the office. Two years ago, she created a DEI Professionals Meetup in Chicago to serve as a resource for people around the city leading DEI efforts in their offices. The group meets monthly and is open to professionals across industries. Bess says she loves what she does and is able to continue this work outside of working hours because it merges what she’s good at with her passion.—Brittany King

Wayne Duan, VP of Ecommerce and Digital, Constellation Brands

Wayne Duan

Constellation Brands might not ring a bell outside of wine and spirits industry insiders, but it’s the company behind well-known alcoholic beverages including Corona, Modelo and Svedka Vodka. Wayne Duan, Constellation Brands' vice president of ecommerce and digital, is the man behind the company’s partnerships with online retailers.

After working at other established brands like Target, Banana Republic and Walgreens, Duan joined Constellation Brands in November 2017, where he now works with online retailers and guides the company through changes in the digital retail market. While managing these disparate, yet distinct alcoholic beverage brands, he, with the help of the branding team, tries to sell to consumers “without coming across as inauthentic,” he explains.

Moreover, he works to weave the company’s digital marketing and ecommerce operations within the fabric of its marketing, sales and other departments, rather than operating separately, he says.

One way he worked to do this was by building a “solid digital shelf ‘tree trunk’" of Constellation’s offerings. Essentially, if a tree doesn’t have a solid trunk, or foundation, it cannot support the branches, meaning brands, of the rest of the organization and its marketing ideas or initiatives, he says.

“By focusing on key digital shelf management and ‘share of search’ KPIs, Constellation Brands is not only outpacing the ecommerce beverage alcohol market growth, but we’re also now well-positioned to be able to easily scale exciting consumer-led digital marketing ideas and initiatives,” he says.

A River North resident, Duan came to Chicago to study economics and political science at the University of Chicago and earned his MBA at Northwestern University. The city’s “cosmopolitan vibrancy” as well as its job opportunities kept him here.

“There is a nice equilibrium of working hard and life balance that is sincere to the Alpha-city qualities of Chicago while staying true to its humble Midwestern roots,” he explains. “There is [also] a fantastic talent pool that has allowed me to build high-performing teams. Part of being a successful leader is also being able to pull ideas, perspectives and opinions from the breadth of industries represented and [headquartered] in Chicago.”—Tatiana Walk- Morris

Laurie Blair, Senior Director, Brand Marketing, Walgreens

Laurie Blair

By the 1920s, Walgreens, which started as a single Chicago drugstore in 1901, had created the malted milkshake, expanded to 100 chain locations and gone public on the stock market. The pharmacy has been more than just a pharmacy for much of its history, but figuring out how to stay relevant to consumers as its offerings morph over time now falls in part onto the shoulders of Laurie Blair.

After starting out in advertising, Blair joined Walgreens as an associate marketing manager in 2011, eventually working her way up to director of brand marketing strategy and planning in June 2018. She primarily manages the company’s marketing strategy for personal care, beauty, seasonal and value products.

Blair’s role typically entails talking with the research team to hear customer feedback, working with agency partners to create customer communication strategies and working with the merchandising team to assess whether Walgreens’ offerings are in line with what consumers want and expect from the brand, she said.

To Blair, a Troy, Mich.-native who moved to the Windy City in 2003, Chicago is filled with trusted, legacy brands that—much like Walgreens—are purpose-driven and have a long history but are trying to stay relevant in an ever-evolving retail environment.

Part of that adaptation, Blair said, has come from listening to what attracts customers to Walgreens’ beauty department. Based on customer feedback, Walgreens shoppers prefer its beauty aisles because they’re less expensive and intimidating than competitors like Ulta or Sephora.

“What we heard from our customers is, [they] don’t want us to be Sephora,” Blair says. “At Walgreens, it’s a very comfortable shopping environment, but we can do better with the types of products we’re offering. We can clean up stores and make them look a little more elevated.”

Among the recent campaigns that she has rolled out, Blair said she was especially proud of the Walgreens partnership with the Skin Cancer Foundation, during which the retailer directed consumers toward optimal sunscreens and other protective skin products. As part of the campaign, Walgreens employees were trained to assist customers in finding the right products based on their skin concerns and dermatologists performed free skin checks. Walgreens pharmacists also answered skincare questions during a bus tour.

The partnership exemplified the brand’s commitment to its pharmacy’s original mission, which is making consumers feel like the company is working in their best interest, Blair says. The company declined to share success metrics associated with the campaign, but a spokesperson said that the company was “extremely pleased with the partnership and received positive consumer feedback.”

“We’re talking about it from [the perspective of] what’s going to work best, not what brand is giving you a bonus at this point to sell this product,” Blair says. “At the end of the day, we have our offering and we just want customers to find something that works.”—Tatiana Walk-Morris

Tiffany Walden and Morgan Elise Johnson, Co-Founders, The Triibe

Tiffany Walden and Morgan Elise Johnson

When Barack Obama ran for president, his hometown of Chicago received a great deal of negative press from political reporters hoping to discredit him. As a direct result, the Windy City became the poster child for gun violence and black-on-black crime almost overnight. And for Chicago-based creatives Tiffany Walden and Morgan Elise Johnson, this felt like a personal attack.

The city they knew from the inside out was very different than the political media’s illustration of it. So, being the diehard creatives they are, the two Northwestern alums set out to tell the kinds of stories about their Chicago that the mainstream press would never touch: ones of love, connection, hope and reconstruction within the black community.

“Chicago is having a cultural renaissance, which is why we need to reshape the narrative of black Chicago,” says Johnson. “The press is diluting the brilliance here.”

This deep passion for their community laid the foundation for their new media site, The Triibe. Its premiere project, Another Life, is a docuseries of eight intimate stories surrounding the aftermath of gun-related tragedies in the lives of the people closest to them. These raw accounts are so powerful that they won Walden, the writer, and Johnson, the filmmaker, a grant to continue their work.

“Black millennials needed a way to connect and black Chicago needed a media outlet to reflect,” explains Walden.

The two entrepreneurial creatives founded The Triibe in 2017 on a shoestring budget, growing their audience by actively engaging in the community though events, screenings and meaningful discussions about the site’s most thought-provoking content. Today, The Triibe receives over 45,000 unique monthly visitors and continues to grow each month.

“We are following in the footsteps of the Chicago Defender,” says Walden. “We will make sure our story is written in history.”—Molly St. Louis

Katlin Smith, Founder and CEO, Simple Mills

Katlin Smith

Being hyper-aware of obesity is a side effect of living in America, where most food options are packed with too much sugar, too many additives and way too many ingredients you can’t pronounce.

And staying in shape isn’t the only challenge presented by poor consumption.

As a slim high schooler, Katlin Smith experienced debilitating joint pain until a friend suggested that her diet may have something to do with it. Smith’s quest to better her health led to a life-changing personal discovery: the food she was eating was, in fact, contributing to her pain.

Smith cleaned up her diet and her joint pain disappeared. And her newfound feeling of well-being was the catalyst for the founding of Simple Mills, a natural food company that offers baked goods with real ingredients.

“I wanted to make it easier and more attractive for people to eat real food,” says Smith, who created the recipes out of whole ingredients, such as coconut oil and almond flour. Each baked good is designed to have a similar taste and texture to full-fat and sugar snacks that the American public craves.

After founding the company in Atlanta, Smith was accepted to an MBA program at Chicago Booth and when she moved to go to school, the company moved with her. Though she never finished her program, she says that growing the company in Chicago was one of the best decisions she ever made.

In five short years, Simple Mills not only received major distribution in stores like Kroger, Safeway and Target, but has also been rated as having both the No. 1 Natural Baking Mix and the No. 1 Natural Cracker in the United States. Having conquered these categories, Smith is now turning her focus to new categories, building brand awareness and increasing Simple Mills’ distribution.

“My personal mission is to change the way the country is eating,” she explains. “Our products have caused our competitors to think more about their products and have been used in innovation meetings. I love to hear that. It means people will learn better ways to lower sugar and make food more nutritious.”

Smith hopes this ripple effect will continue to grow larger and challenge the historical way in which Americans consume food. The result, she hopes, is improved health and a better quality of life for more people. —Molly St. Louis

Joe Freshgoods, Co-Founder, Fat Tiger

Joe Freshgoods

Joe Freshgoods built his streetwear empire, Fat Tiger, from humble beginnings. He grew up on the West Side of Chicago and started selling his T-shirts as a student at Lane Tech High School, and learned more about the business by working at Chicago-based streetwear staple Leaders.

These days, brands are lining up to work with him. In May, Freshgoods partnered with McDonald’s to create a line of streetwear merchandise to promote its Mix by Sprite Tropic Berry soft drink. He has also collaborated with Adidas on brand activations and with Nike on pop-up shops and football jerseys. Early in his career, he says he would have said yes to almost everything, but these days, he’s more selective.

“I’ve realized my power,” he says. “I don't want to fill some quota for the black designer. Now, I evaluate every collaboration: What am I getting out of it? How are we giving back? Is it going to be good for my portfolio? I don’t care if you’re a billion-dollar company, you aligning yourself to me is a good look. I want to make sure everything’s organic, because I don’t want the brand to sell out.”

Freshgoods has two “life changing” collaborations lined up for 2019, and he plans to keep traveling the world, selling his lines and collaborations in pop-up stores, while continuing to give back to Chicago.

“It's all about using my platform to do good,” he says. “When I’m in a pop-up shop shaking everybody’s hand, that inspires me. In my 20s, it was about me trying to build a name for myself. In my 30s, I know my purpose. I’m setting up the stage underneath me for people who are coming up and doing their thing.” —Christine Birkner

Katy Lynch and Craig Ulliott, Co-Founder and CMO and CEO, Codeverse

Katy Lynch

Little ones are doing big things at the Codeverse studio in Chicago’s Lakeview neighborhood.

Tablets in hand, kids use code to take control of the lighting, the 20-foot video wall, speakers and robotic arms around the space.

The programming taught to first- to eighth-graders there is beyond the standard repeatable coding education, games and toys aimed at youngsters.

It’s the latest contribution to the culture from Chicago tech power couple Katy Lynch and Craig Ulliott.

She, the founder of social media marketing agency SocialKaty (with clients like AAA, Beanie Babies, ServiceMaster and Firestone Tires) before becoming CEO of the Techweek traveling technology festival, was spurred to launch the venture after seeing a documentary about the underrepresentation of women and minorities in STEM fields. He, her partner at SocialKaty, founder of the social travel app Where I’ve Been and a co-founder of the Belly shopping rewards program, was on board immediately.

“We both knew that we wanted to have a legacy company in the future; a social impact company that has a forward mission that we'd run for the next 20 to 30 years of our lives,” Lynch says. “I was really passionate about education and Craig is unbelievably passionate about coding and a believer that every child should have that skill.”

Codeverse opened in 2017 with a mission to teach 1 billion children to code—despite their economic means. Ulliott, the CEO, and a staffer developed the kid-friendly programming language KidScript, which Codeverse plans to license.

Craig Ulliott

“A [problem with] the approach that other companies are using is they underestimate kids. They spoon-feed them information and they focus too much around playing games. We believe kids could actually build and create their own games if you gave them the right tools,” Ulliott says. “Kids who are 6 and 7 years old are building their own games in their first session; an hour in and they’re creating things.”

Two suburban (Naperville and Wilmette) studios will open in the coming months, with the employee count rising by 60 to about 100.

To ensure broader access to the classes and camps—weeklong camps cost $800; monthly memberships that include a 75-minute class each week are $225 with a discount for a four-month commitment—Codeverse is partnering with various entities, including nonprofits and some funders providing scholarships for more economically-challenged communities.

Lynch, a Scotland native, has been in Chicago for about 11 years; her husband, also Scottish, about a year longer. Both are involved in investing in and mentoring other startups.

“It’s been so fascinating over the past decade to see how the tech scene has evolved and just the amount of resources and incubators and awards shows and venture capitalists that now exists,” Lynch says. “Now is such an interesting time to be a female founder or just an entrepreneur in general in Chicago. It's a good place to start a business. We’re a world-class city that has world-class resources.” —Cheryl V. Jackson


Juan-Elias Riesco, Founder, Chicago Native and Owner, Nini's Deli

Juan-Elias Riesco

Juan-Elias Riesco has built a successful streetwear brand, Chicago Native, through Instagram and connections made while running his family’s popular empanada shop, Nini’s Deli. His father grew up in Cuba, and his mother moved to Chicago from Mexico, to the West Side neighborhood where Nini’s Deli is now. For him, everything is personal: he’s inspired creatively by art history, his family's roots and streetwear history.

"I grew up loving graffiti art, but I didn’t want to vandalize buildings,” Riesco says. “A T-shirt is a blank canvas, and a way to tell a story. From a really young age, I had an interest in creating things, and my parents were always really supportive. So, I like taking elements of streetwear history and my family history, and merging those."

The Chicago Native line now has a large fan following, and has been a part of collaborations with brands like Adidas Originals. Riesco is also using his brand and the community he built at Nini’s Deli to inspire the next generation of Chicago artists and give back to his hometown.

"What stands out to me about Chicago is how hard my parents' generation were willing to work,” he says. “That's really beautiful, and if young people can learn to be inspired by their parents' work ethic, and use critical thinking, they can make it anywhere, and succeed in any city. Chicago breeds a driven individual. When I go to the coasts, all I hear from people in creative industries is how driven and focused Chicagoans are.” —Christine Birkner

Diane Sayler, Associate Director, Kellogg Company

Diane Sayler

As associate director for brand PR at the Kellogg Company, Diane Sayler works with some pretty well-known foods and snacks—think Cheez-It, Eggo, Morningstar Farms—supporting their integrated marketing and communications teams. And part of the joy in the job has been giving such legacy brands a bit of oomph.

“As a marketer, it’s rewarding to get to work on brands that are heritage brands, whether that be modernizing the brand or communication in a different way,” Sayer says.

She’s already experienced that in major ways since joining the company in August 2017.

Sayler was on the team for the Pringles 2018 Super Bowl spot—the brand’s first ever—that had Saturday Night Live alum Bill Hader introduce the concept of flavor stacking, layering different flavors of chips for a new creation.

And she worked on the August back-to-school campaign for Kellogg’s Rice Krispies Treats that expanded the writable wrappers feature, allowing families to send encouraging messages to their children through their lunches to the visually impaired by providing heart-shaped Braille stickers and recordable audio boxes that play 10-second messages.

“That was definitely a first in terms of an application to a product that made a package of ours more accessible,” she says.

The Chicago native splits her time between Kellogg’s Battle Creek, Mich., headquarters and its office at the behemoth Merchandise Mart building that has become central in Chicago’s innovation ecosystem.

“I find that Chicago is a work hard-play hard city,” says Sayler, who was at Mike’s Hard Lemonade for more than five years, leaving the company as director of brand experience. “I find the friendly and collegial [vibe] makes coming to work fun. It feels like you’re all in it together. It feels like togetherness and teamwork really comes through here."—Cheryl V. Jackson

Charlie Hart, Director of Masterbrand, RXBAR

Charlie Hart

Charlie Hart is the quintessential millennial marketer.

For starters, the 27-year-old director of masterbrand of RXBAR began working for the fast-growing protein bar company in the most millennial of ways: As its 10th employee, when it was in startup mode three years ago.

The Portland, Ore., native found his way to RXBAR from Hyatt Hotels, where he won a job as part of a competition as a college student at DePaul University. Today he leads marketing for the millennialist of millennial products: a clean-label protein bar aimed at active, health-conscious millennials like him. And even though he hawks a simple protein bar, his ambitions are much bigger—and more complicated: to play a role in changing ... culture.

"Look, yes we're just a simple protein bar made from egg whites, dates and nuts, but I'm always thinking of how we can try to impact the culture," he says. "My goal is to build a platform bigger than just the RXBAR. We're leaning into this whole premise of 'No B.S.' We're taking out all the shit, taking out all the gimmicks and labeling things for what they really are."

In other words, he wants to throw out the entire playbook big CPG companies developed decades ago in favor of a minimalist message that eschews making big, romantic claims and simply tells consumers the truth. It's no coincidence then that the message he's trying to drive home—and the marketing campaign he's behind—is, literally, "No B.S."

RXBAR started five years ago in founder Peter Rahal's kitchen. After growing sales north of $120 million, cereal giant Kellogg Co. swooped in and scooped it up for $600 million. Since the deal was announced, Kellogg's deep pockets have helped RXBAR more than double its employees. They also helped upgrade the company’s offices, deciding to keep them in Chicago.

“As a disruptive food company, there’s no better place to be than in the heartland of big CPG,” Hart says. “We’re like a little kid disrupter brand in a massive CPG world, and Chicago is the epicenter for innovation and disruptive thinking.”

Another area Kellogg has left largely alone: Hart's marketing department, which this summer launched its biggest ever campaign that features rapper and actor Ice-T. In one spot, his only line is, "Hi, I'm famous, and this is a commercial."

That’s the pull-no-punches approach today’s savvy, connected consumers demand, says Hart, who leads RXBAR’s creative and brand development departments as well as its media and social media teams. It's also an approach with the full support of his CEO. "Charlie brings new meaning to the word creative," Rahal says. "Not only does he think outside the box, he knows all the right rules to break. He keeps our brand fresh, challenging conventional thinking in a way that cuts through the clutter."

No B.S. —Peter Frost

Boyede Sobitan and Fola Dada, Co-Founders, OjaExpress

Boyede Sobitan and Fola Dada

Food has the power to evoke a multitude of emotions and so often represents memories of family traditions or everyday meals spent with loved ones. Recreating a relative’s signature recipe can transport a person back homeno matter how far away they are.

This sentiment is very keenly felt among immigrants.

For those building a new life far away from their home country and culture, food preparation can create a sense of normalcy and familiarity. When their everyday ingredients are nowhere to be found, it creates an aching void.

No one understands this better than Chicago-based entrepreneurs, Boyede Sobitan and Fola Dada, who founded OjaExpressan ethnic grocery delivery platform.

Both Sobitan and Dada are African immigrants, who migrated to Chicago only to find a lack of their own cultural groceries. This fact was not at all reflective of the Chicago demographic, which is rich in culture and religiously diverse.

Following in the footsteps of Chicago-born household names like GrubHub and PeaPod, Sobitan and Dada set out to address a wildly untapped potential in the ethnic food market, starting with African and Caribbean products. The scrappy entrepreneurs bootstrapped their entire business, using their savings and money from their respective 401Ks, and began defining their product offering by surveying the community about which beloved food items are the hardest to find.

The initial feedback from customers was emotional.

“We had a customer that just moved to Chicago from another city, and she didn’t know where to go to find groceries from her home country,” recalls Sobitan. “Upon receiving her order, the lady cried because she hadn’t been able to find these grocery items and didn’t have a car. She wanted to make a dish her grandmother taught her to commemorate the recent passing of her grandmother.”

Both Dada and Sobitan are passionate about bringing an increased sense of inclusiveness to Chicago. After they tackle their initial cultural focuses, they plan to expand and offer foods of other cultures and religions to make immigrants feel welcome and accepted, as well as help them adhere to the dietary guidelines of their religions.

“We are growing fast and constantly and our current customer base has been fantastic about spreading the word about us,” says Sobitan. “We are also getting a lot of requests from cities outside of Chicago and are planning to service those metro areas very soon.”

Cultural diversity is what makes America great; entrepreneurs building inclusive companies like OjaExpress make America even greater. —Molly St. Louis

Andres Araya, Founder, 5 Rabbit Brewery

Andres Araya

While most Chicago drivers spend their mornings inching their way through traffic, Andrés Araya is still at his Lakeview home, answering emails and waiting for morning rush hour to end before heading to 5 Rabbit Brewery, the Bedford Park, Ill.-based brewery and taproom. Araya, along with his wife, opened 5 Rabbit Brewery in 2011.

The brewery, which proclaims to be the first U.S.-based, Latin American-inspired brewery, draws from its Latin American culture to stand out amongst a sea of more than 200 craft beer companies in Chicago and the nearby suburbs. The company, according to its website, derives its name from the Aztec legend of the 400 rabbits who were children of Mayahuel, the goddess of maguey, and Patecatl, the god of fermentation.

Thanks to his Purdue University friends who frequented Chicago, Araya, a native of Peru, says he got to know the city well. Eventually, opening the brewery in Chicago made more sense than setting up shop in Latin America, because there weren’t that many craft breweries in the city at that time, let alone Latin American-style craft breweries.

“The large Mexican, Hispanic population in Chicago, how Chicago is very much a maker town, a city that appreciates all things that are handmade … it just made it a good fit for what we were doing,” Araya says.

Compared to other craft beers like Revolution and its signature Anti-Hero IPA, for example, 5 Rabbit doesn’t have one flagship beer and doesn’t invest in big ad campaigns, Araya says. The company has instead opted to take a “building block” approach to tell the story of Latin America through each beer, inviting its customers to try new beers at the taproom as it goes. Only the beers which garner positive customer feedback and can cost-effectively be mass produced will make the cut for broader distribution.

Within the next few months, 5 Rabbit is rolling out its Licuados beer, a fruity, smoothie-meets-milkshake-like beer with dry hops that’s only available in the taproom. The brewery relies on word of mouth to attract newcomers.

“You see someone that’s a regular bring a friend and that friend saying, ‘Oh, this is a cool place. I like the vibe,” Araya says. “For me, that gives it a sense of legitimacy … In the Latino community, if you’re bringing your grandmother to this Latin place, you’ve probably vetted it first.”

For the brews that make it out of the taproom, the company will partner with bars and restaurants to host public events like “beer dinners,” during which customers can pick from a menu of custom beer and food pairings, Araya says, adding that they’re time-consuming to prepare but ultimately generate interest in the brewery. The company also meets with partner restaurants to go over how servers should explain 5 Rabbit to customers, he says.

In presenting its beers to consumers, the company made a conscious choice to avoid using symbols like piñatas or sombreros, which other breweries have used with their Hispanic-inspired beers but can come off as “mildly racist” or “stereotypical,” he says. Opting for a more low-key approach, consumers will notice the rabbit logo on its beers as well as a mix of English and Spanish on its social media pages.

“We steer clear of anything that’s gimmicky or overused,” Araya explains. “We try to be more subtle … It’s that approach of doing our thing and people ultimately realizing that we are the real deal.”—Tatiana Walk-Morris

Jake Stewart, Head of Ecommerce Sales, The Kraft Heinz Company

Jake Stewart

To some, Jake Stewart’s background as a chemical engineer seems like a far cry from what he’s doing today at the Kraft Heinz Company. However, Stewart says the work he did as a chemical engineer and the work he does now as the head of U.S. ecommerce sales is actually pretty similar. “I've always been drawn towards solving big, complex problems,” he explains. “Whether it's launching airplanes as part of a logistics project, or finding new and unique ways to anticipate customer needs in online grocery.”

As a newcomer to his role at Kraft Heinz, Stewart is focused on creating a solid team and a grocery landscape that saves families time so they can spend less time waiting in line at the grocery store and more time breaking bread with one another at the dinner table. For him and the ecommerce sales team, that means forging partnerships that allow them to leverage technology to develop time-saving solutions for the American family.

“If we can save every family in the country one hour a week to do dinner together, we have done something truly transformative for our end consumer,” he says. “I love how personal that mission is and it's a goal that inspires me to continue to chase down every opportunity to surprise and delight the consumer.”

And if you think groceries have come a long way from when you were young, Stewart says the best is yet to come. He believes the future of grocery will be less about replenishment and more about anticipation thanks to machine learning and artificial intelligence.

“I envision a future where grocery shopping is planned for me,” he says. “No more angst over finding new recipes. No more inventory management of a fridge or pantry. What an awesome opportunity that I have to help bring that vision to life!”—Brittany King

Linda Bartman, COO, Trunk Club

Linda Bartman literally marketed her way into a bigger job.

When the Chicago native took over as CMO at Trunk Club two years ago, she invested almost all of her initial effort into building what she calls her customer acquisition engine.

One could argue she did too well.

Not long after she unburdened the Chicago-based personalized styling service’s stylists from marketing their own services and instead put that responsibility in the hands of a dedicated marketing team, a surfeit of new customers began funneling into the business. The only problem: There weren’t enough stylists available to service them.

“Very simply, we didn’t have the ability to take all of them in and serve them quickly and effectively,” Bartman says. “We need our marketing teams, our technology and operations team to align. We had to marry lead generation to when stylists are active and present.”

Just a year into her tenure came a significant promotion. Not only would she oversee marketing at Trunk Club, she’d be in charge of the day-to-day operation of the business as its COO. Now all of the stylists, operations team and training team report to her, along with the marketing department.

Now things are running much smoother. In 2017, the company’s “trunk” businessits virtual styling option in which a personal stylist sends a package of clothing to a customer’s home on a regular intervalgrew 78 percent, making it the fastest-growing business within parent company Nordstrom, Bartman says.

The company, which also has six “clubhouses,” or brick-and-mortar retail operations, estimates it will generate $500 million in revenue by 2021.

Trunk Club president Terry Boyle credits Bartman for helping lead the turnaround. “Linda did an amazing job of driving the transformation of Trunk Club from a men's only brand to one that also appealed to women,” he says. She also set in motion “operational and cultural changes that fundamentally shifted how Trunk Club interacted with customers.”

Bartman, who also served as CMO for Chicago-area companies and auto technology company CDK Global, has spent her career in the city, calling it a “great place for diverse talent.”

Seattle-based Nordstrom must think so as well; it opted to keep Trunk Club’s headquarters in Chicago after its 2014 acquisition. It reaffirmed its commitment this year, pouring millions into revamping its 74,000 square-foot headquarters building and Chicago Clubhouse. Both opened in October.—Peter Frost

Joe Piaskowy and Jamie Cara Kennedy Kennedy, Social Media Manager, Senior Manager of Social Engagement, McDonald's

Jamie Cara Kennedy

Jamie Cara Kennedy and Joe Piaskowy have conversations with millions of customers, fans and detractors across the globe each week.

As stewards of McDonald’s digital media efforts, including its social media channels, the duo is responsible for shaping the way the global fast-food chain communicates with the online world.

Broadly, Piaskowy crafts the messages McDonald’s broadcasts on digital channels in the U.S. Kennedy, meanwhile, handles the deluge of rants and raves that flood the company’s various global inboxes each day.

Piaskowy, the company’s U.S. social engagement manager, is responsible for the McDonald’s “Brand Newsroom,” the internal outfit that guides how it interacts with influential people who are talking about the brand online. That includes managing its relationships with agencies and paid influencers.

Joe Piaskowy

Kennedy, senior manager of social engagement and customer experience, is in charge of how Big Mac talks to customers one-on-one across its digital footprint. She works with an external team of 20 to handle a wide range of customer service issuesanything from responding to customers having trouble setting up the McDonald’s app on iTunes or Google Play to making sure Pete in Pittsburgh gets an apology for his soggy fries.

“Any time you receive more than 4 million mentions across social, volume-wise the numbers are daunting,” Kennedy says. “You have to understand you cannot tackle absolutely everything, but we can create systems to help our teams sort through and handle them.”

Kennedy is responsible for overhauling the company’s approach to digital customer care and experience. Since joining the company two years ago from the PR firm Burson-Marsteller, she's helped get McDonald’s communicating directly with some 20,000 customers per week on social channels and review sites, more than triple the amount prior.

For a brand with the global reach of McDonald’s, keeping up with the countless online conversations seems a Sisyphean task. But Kennedy and Piaskowy describe the McDonald’s digital teams as small but mighty.

“We wear a lot of different hats and get to collaborate across most of our departments, so in a lot of ways it feels like working in a startup environment,” Piaskowy says.

—Peter Frost

Christy Kazlo, Data Strategy & Activation, Conagra Brands

Christy Kazlo

Christy Kazlo was in graduate school at Loyola University when the advertising industry first piqued her interest. Specifically, she was drawn to consumer behavior and the insights that could be gleaned from data. Her goal was to specialize in Media and help brands grow. Fast forward a few years, she does exactly that as the director of marketing technology and data activation for Conagra Foods.

Kazlo and her team use consumer insights to fuel advertising strategy and drive value of the company’s portfolio of emerging and iconic food brands, like Healthy Choice, Reddi-wip, Duke's and Angie's BOOMCHICKAPOP.

“Consumer packaged goods companies have a lot of opportunity to optimize the way they mine and use data to deliver products consumers want, and that’s part of why I love my job at Conagra,” she says. “Finding alternative data solutions and using datasets in potentially new and diverse ways to impact our business is exciting to me.”

Through the support of her team and the company, Kazlo has been able to turn her ideas into impact. “I created a data strategy for activation that helps the company to start migrating from using standard, off-the-shelf third-party segmentation to more first and second party data,” she explains. Kazlo’s creation will allow the brands Conagra represents to receive more specific data on exactly who is purchasing their products.

She continues, “Not only will this enable our marketing efforts to find the audiences we’re looking to reach, but [it will allow us to] customize marketing messaging to increase business impact far beyond just a standalone campaign.”

And on the days where mining over data doesn’t give Kazlo a jolt of energy, she says Conagra’s office location in Chicago’s Merchandise Mart doesn’t hurt. “Our office energizes our teams and enables collaboration among us,” she says.—Brittany King