Creative Mornings: Saya Hillman

To be a successful pioneer/business owner/person, “all you need is passion,” proclaimed Saya Hillman at the beginning of her October Creative Mornings presentation at Savage Smyth. Saya Hillman Headshot

Then, revealing her acute sense of humor, she went on to detail a great many other things — namely, character-shaping experiences — that you also need, phrasing all her advice in the second person.

Hillman knows a thing or two about pioneering and the success that can come from forging your own path. She is the founder, CEO and Head Cheese-It of her company, Mac & Cheese Productions, a lifestyle business that creates experiences encouraging people to embrace a “Life of Yes” — essentially, a life of positivity and passion, unhindered by fear.

If anyone can teach you how to embrace such a life, Hillman is that person. Onstage, she exuded energy and humor, but most of all, a powerful self-awareness. Plus, the kind of confidence that makes a person not care one bit about what anyone else thinks.

Perhaps this confidence began during Hillman’s childhood, which she detailed in her talk. She was raised by a single, entrepreneurial mother in Evanston, IL. A mother who held many roles in order to make ends meet and provide her daughter with a great education, including typist, carpenter, flower arranger and gardener.

Hillman went on to attend Boston College where she majored in English and sociology and like any good college student, experienced some failure.

“Experience intense rejection,” she recommended to the Creative Mornings audience. “Experience getting up, dusting off and moving on from rejection.”

After BC, Hillman worked as a program manager at a nonprofit in Chicago, teaching under-served children to read. Next, she was an associate producer at a non-profit making social issue documentaries.

It was from this organization that Hillman was fired in 2004 — a fact now proudly displayed on her website. This turning point in her life compelled her to make a list of things she wished she could be paid to do (an exercise she advised the audience to do as well).

From this list, she realized something. What she most wanted to do was address the issues of adulthood that were supposed to be easy, but were weirdly difficult — finding friends, finding love, finding confidence and your own path.

As she put it, once more in the second person, “your desire to solve these frustrations becomes your passion.”

So she started Mac & Cheese Productions, and her first curated experience was an adult summer camp. A weekend retreat of habit-, value- and courage-development activities for adults, all of whom are strangers.

After putting on her first one, Hillman was “doused with thank-you notes and homemade jam and flowers.”

From there, she started putting on more adult summer camps and expanded her offerings to include experiences and services like Idea Potluck, Accountability Buddy, and Field Trips & Recess. She had found meaning, independence and was able to create her own quality of life, comprising those things most important to her.

“That is a powerful, fueling, soul-filling truth,” she proclaimed.

From single-mothered, only-childhood to Boston College to CEO-dom, Hillman pioneered and persevered. And despite her presentation’s ironically prescribed formula for forging your own path, she acknowledged that there is no one-size-fits-all route. Sometimes, she reasoned, you just have to jump.

“You could be a pioneer by just pioneering,” she said. “Stop with the excuses and choose to move.”

It worked for Hillman who shared that, as her own boss, she gets perks like yoga class or trips to Trader Joe’s at 10 am on a Tuesday, waking up to the sun rather than an alarm, taking spontaneous trips, and most days, not having to wear pants.

Of course, she still has things on her professional bucket list. Namely, writing a best-selling memoir and figuring out some sort of partnership with Subaru in which she would receive a free, new car.

In the last moments of Hillman’s talk, the audience asked her a flurry of questions, which she met with a flurry of advice:

  • “Ignore the naysayers.”
  • “Do it for the experience, not the results.”
  • “Take stock of what you already possess.” (skills, capital, connections)
  • “Charge good money for your gifts.”
  • “Sleep in the good sheets every day. Don’t save them for the guests.”
  • “You being you resonates.”
  • “If you have light, shine for others.”
  • “Are you living your résumé or your eulogy?”

All of this may seem scary, Hillman admitted. There will always be excuses, comfortable-but-soul-sucking jobs, inertia. But none of that stops a pioneer.

“Stop waiting for the perfect time,” she said, “to take that trip, quit your job, move to another city, ask that cute barista out. There will always be excuses not to jump. Just jump. Nike the bejeezus out of life and just do it. Whatever it is. You can always change your course. You can always come back.”