Mar 16, 2020
In this special episode, we feature the keynote address that Maggie O'Neill '99 delivered to the audience at the 14th Annual Women in Business Conference in November, 2019.
Recorded November 2, 2019
I believe that this school, I believe that the education that you receive here allows you to navigate the world in a much different way. You may not realize that right now, but I promise you that if you remember what I'm telling you when those things hit, it's going to start to resonate. And the more you exercise your ability to navigate the interdisciplinary world, the more you will succeed, which is a relative term. It's really the more you're going to impact other people, and you're going to bring people along for the ride. And that's a really important thing to do because that's your legacy.
Welcome to Mission-Driven, where we speak with alumni who are leveraging their Holy Cross education to make a meaningful difference in the world around them. I'm your host Maura Sweeney from the class of 2007, director of alumni career development at Holy Cross. I'm delighted to welcome you to today's show. This episode takes us back to November 2019 when Maggie O'Neill from the class of 1999 delivered the keynote address for the 14th annual Women in Business Conference, artist, designer, mentor, and creative entrepreneur. Maggie believes in art that makes an impact and design that creates an experience. In this talk, she speaks about the twists and turns that formed her career into what it is today. After graduating with a degree in political science, she has found ways to merge her passions for art, politics, social justice, and plain old having a good time into a career that allows her to make an impact on the lives of others. Throughout the talk, she speaks about the lessons that she learned at Holy Cross and how her time on the hill helped her grow into such a successful and inspiring force for good.
I am Maggie O'Neill, I'm both an artist and I'm a designer, and I'm a Holy Cross grad. I was a political science major, which I'm sure does not make any sense to any of you, how did I end up becoming an interior designer and an artist? What got me there? So that I don't spend the entire time talking about what got me there, I'm going to give you a cliff note version of that and then I'm going to tell you some things that I think are very important and I'm sure other women in this room who have moved on in their careers in different ways would probably agree with some of the things that I want to share. But I'm going to share my experience, how I've dealt with these things, what I think could be extraordinary tools for you moving forward. And I hope that if you have any questions at the end of this, no question is a stupid question, no question is a crazy question. And I have a lot of crazy stories, so I expect that you will have some questions for me.
So upon leaving the hill in 1999, I was a poli sci major, but I also painted and I stayed in the studios here for probably just as much time as I was in class for political science. But I didn't think that there was any career for me in the arts. I didn't know anybody growing up that was an artist, a professional artist anyways. I didn't really have people in the creative world around me that I could've said, "That's a career path I want to take." So I wanted to be a lawyer, and I wanted to be the president of United States, and I still might, we'll wait. We'll wait and see. I occasionally say #artistforpresident. And living in DC right now is really interesting. I try really hard not to get arrested every day.
So I came out of Holy Cross and I actually went back to school through the University of Georgia for a master's program in fine arts, but I ended up studying in Italy. And there's a lot in between that, but in order to make a little money on the side and also to understand the community I was in in Italy, I spent some time working on restoration projects. And I was climbing up scaffolding and mixing my own plasters and all of that. And I quickly realized that there was this reverence in Europe for people who were working with their hands. And the renaissance in general was so eye opening to me about the way in which history, political science, sociology, and culture had been documented particularly in Europe in a visual format. And part of my classwork was that we'd be in the studio for two days and then the other two days we'd have to go to a museum, and you had to be ready.
You had to be ready when they walked up to a piece to say, tell me the history of this particular piece of artwork or this altarpiece or what have you? I got pretty good at memorizing and I got pretty good at compelling arguments and communicating here at Holy Cross. And I didn't realize how strong of a skillset I had developed here that my classmates really were lacking in. And it was this revelation that I was like, "God, I need to be an artist for sure." I knew that this is what I needed to do with my life, but how? And how was anything that was so romantic in the renaissance going to be something that I could take back and actually pursue as a career?
So I came back to DC and I started doing anything I could to make money. I painted dog portraits, I painted baby furniture. I probably had five or six jobs at once. And I have to tell you that when you come out of school, it was a really interesting time because everybody is going to crawl before they can walk. So all of your peers may look like on Instagram and Facebook, like they are crushing it their first or second or third year out of college. Well, they're not, nobody is. And it may not be now, but you have to crawl before you can walk. And I did. And so anything I could do to keep my hands busy and try to keep some money in my pocket was what I was doing. And I started O'Neill Studios not really knowing that I was starting a business. I was 23, I really didn't know what I was doing. I got an LLC set up, I started to learn the nuts and bolts of business and very quickly that business grew to decorative painting and murals.
At that time, I was like, "There's gotta be something more for me." But I knew that if I just kept going, I would give myself these little mile markers, like, well, if in a couple of weeks from now I haven't done this or in a year from now I haven't done this. And I kept meeting my goals, which was great. But nobody in my network had any idea what I was doing. Everybody kept saying, "Are you going to keep up this whole art thing? You really think you're just going to ... This is how you're going to go? You have a poli sci degree from Holy Cross, you're supposed to be a lawyer. What are you doing?" And I think about that time, and I was looking for pictures. It seems like so long ago, but at the same time, it was such a formidable time in my life.
I slowly realized that when I started to work with other artists and when I started to meet clients who had these different backgrounds, there was this enormous realization in my life that we are all made different for a reason. And we know this, right? There's this faith based on understanding that we have here that you are born different for a reason, and you probably have a very specific reason that you're here. But it doesn't necessarily, it's not always that clear to you. I have a whole philosophy that is about color, and it really transcends everything, but it's both religious in some ways and it also will filter into all of my business and my business interactions. And I hope this makes sense to you guys in some ways.
But it was during this time in my life that this idea of color theory and this idea of I am here for a very particular reason, I have to figure out what it is. But I was seeing that the impact of my work, no matter how small, whether I had painted somebody's bathroom or I had given them a portrait of their child or I was able to paint a mural on the side of a building for somebody, there were these little moments where somebody was so happy when I was done. And the joy that I was able to bring somebody was intoxicating. It was like a drug, I wanted to do more of that. And to be in the residential arena or to just paint one painting felt so small. I was like, "How do I get more of this on a larger level?" As my business grew, I started to collaborate with other artists and other experts in their field. I'm jumping ahead a little bit right now.
The ultimate artist statement for me was that I was born to be different as you are, and I was designed to contribute something very, very particular to the universe and my immediate community. And that became very real to me. To be an artist really can take very many forms. You don't just have to be a visual artist to really understand that. So now what, now what? Let me rewind here for a second actually because I want to just throw this out. My parents are here, my dad's a Holy Cross grad. I think he might've been maybe my first mentor in the arts, I don't know. But I just want to thank you guys, I kind of blew past that. And during that time where I was painting baby furniture or dog portraits or painting people's bathrooms, I'm sure they were completely freaked out, scared to death that I wasn't going to be able to make a living, scared to death that this education, this robust education that I had just received at this school was being wasted.
And it really wasn't, it really wasn't being wasted at all. So I just wanted to say thank you to them for that. There's a lot of risk taking that's involved in not actually understanding what your next step is. And I remember having a conversation with my mom one evening where she says, "You just have to put one foot in front of the other. And if it's a mistake, then you just make another step, and you just have to keep moving forward. But to stay paralyzed by fear is the worst thing you can do for yourself." And that made no sense at that particular time in my life, and now it makes perfect sense to me now. So nonetheless, I started this O'Neill Studios. O'Neill Studios then became SWATCHROOM, which is what you just heard about, which is the restaurant, nightclub, hotel, design business.
I'm going to talk about some of the projects that we've done and get into that in a little bit. When I came back to DC, there was also this thing that there's not a lot of creatives in DC or at least that's what I thought, there weren't a lot of creatives in DC. And particularly 20 years ago, there wasn't a wealth of career paths for artists or creatives. And now the creative capital and the creative community in Washington is exceptional. And I encourage you to move there for various reasons, but it's really an exciting place to be as an artist and as a creative professional. I believe that I have a lot to do with that, I think that I've tried very hard to make sure that Washington understands the value of creativity and particularly the interdisciplinary nature of just letting your creative flag fly.
So no matter what lane you decide to go into to enrich that particular part of your brain and to continue to stay inspired is really critical. And I have a couple recipes for that. I'm rolling it back again, I'm kind of giving you a little bit of context because this is where I am right now. I'm 42 years old, and I could not be more proud of the business that I've been able to build, but it didn't just happen overnight. When Provost Freije says you have to work hard, you have to work hard in order to build anything. And you have to work hard to build anything that is really exceptional. And now to be competitive and to stay innovative, you have to try really a lot of different things. And you're going to fail along the way, and that's going to be okay because there's a lot of beauty in failure, which I'm also going to share with you.
So I probably have, I don't know, thousands of pictures of my early days painting people's bathrooms and being on scaffolding in rich people's houses, painting their ceilings, ridiculous stuff. So my practical work was the design work because that's what people could understand, "Oh, we'll pay you to do this." That makes sense. But public artwork was what I wanted to be doing. I wanted to be doing massive murals on the sides of buildings. And I reached out to all of the public artists I could find nationally, I wanted to apprentice. No one would take me because I was poli sci major, no one would take me. I go back to school, I do this restoration work. I come back to DC, and there's a call to artists to the Dc Commission on Arts and Humanities, and we had the pandas, but there was also the elephants and the donkeys, these big fiberglass sculptures that are everywhere that the city said.
Well, these were pandas. And I threw a couple proposals in. Well, Pandela Anderson was one of my proposal. And they said, so how do you propose that you will make Pandela Anderson? Because everybody else who had been selected had pretty reasonable designs. And then this one was a little offensive, it was a little strange. Pamela Anderson was really hot at the time, and how was I going to actually make her nose and her hair and her breasts and all of these things. I mean, I had to explain to them I had never done sculpture before, like zero sculpture. This is all fiberglass. And I fake it till you make it. Don't lie, but fake it till you make it. Well, I'll figure it out. And I did, I figured it out, but my mom ended up helping me with this.
But this was one of the most ridiculous things I've ever done. And she went for the most money in the city by $10,000, it was amazing. We sat in that auction, I couldn't stop laughing. I got paid nothing to do this, it was my entire summer. And then I sat outside of the restaurant where they put her and just watched people interact with her. And it gave me so much joy. I had no money, but I had a lot of joy. But in this particular moment in time, I met probably 75 new artists. That was a huge turning point for me because I met people that were doing things that I couldn't even conceive were possible. And I opened up my network, and I opened up my brain a little bit, and it was a game changer for me.
Maybe not financially, but psychologically. I mean, she ended up on CNN, it was hilarious. Pamela Anderson got like ... It was ridiculous. So back to color theory. So I meet 75 artists, I also meet the mayor. I meet all of these news people. I mean, it was this funny fiberglass sculpture just introduced all these weird people to me. Not just weird, but important people in Washington DC, and the people from DC Commission on Arts and Humanities. And because she was so outstandingly strange, I was outstandingly strange. I am outstandingly strange. And it was a huge networking opportunity for me. So back to the color theory thing. So the idea behind color theory abbreviated is that no two colors next to themselves or next to each other are ever the same.
So the color in the middle here is the exact same. But next to this orange, it looks very different. And next to the blue, it looks very different. Now, color is about chemistry and about light and about a whole host of things. But people are the exact same way. So everybody in this room has a palette. You're not just one color, you're a series of colors. And I think of it like fan deck and paint chips. And when you are next to somebody, you are never the same. They provoke something in you, they inspire something in you. It's positive or negative, but it's never ever the same. And that's a beautiful thing, and that is by design, God is the best artists that exists. There was a real thought to that. And so if you think about how that translates to your professional life, your personal life, there's beauty in that, which means you should take advantage of everybody that's sitting to your right or to your left at all times.
You never know what that person is going to do or how they're going to bring out the best in you or a particular thing that you didn't even know existed in your brain, in your heart, and in your skillset. And so just that whole philosophy for me became very real and is really how I navigate life frankly. It's how I've navigated almost all of my relationships. And when someone provokes something in you, good or bad, pay attention to that because it's something that you can do something with later, but it also should teach you how to deal with them and how to navigate your life. So if it's in a professional setting, I think that what it often does is you can start to understand why they're original, why they're unique, and what their value is not only your value, but their value.
I think what ends up happening is you can go into a situation where you may understand the person a little bit differently. And what then starts to happen is that you can have a lot of empathy. Empathy in business is one of the most important tools you can have. It doesn't mean sympathy, it means empathy. Everyone's coming to the table probably doing the best that they can do. But it's interesting that in business now there's this adversarial nature when you go into negotiation. In construction, I sit down ... By the way, I take people to the atrium of the National Portrait Gallery in DC. It's the most peaceful, beautiful room I can think of in Washington. It's calming, and that's an important place to have a tough conversation for me. You never know where you're going to be for conversations like that in business, but there's the assumption that you have to be aggressive, there's an assumption that you have to be well standoffish. You don't want to show your cards.
And I can tell you that the thing that completely takes the oxygen out of a room is when you're empathetic and you lead a conversation with love. And you lead a conversation where you understand the landscape of the other person and the other person's palette, so to speak. And I think that that philosophically for me has been a really important tool and something that I just wanted to make sure that you guys understand as I take you through all of this. The climate that you can create with forgiveness and empathy and love is like nothing else in business. It seems like an incredibly rare thing to hear in some ways, but color theory for me has taught me that.
These are pictures of my team, which I think are pretty hilarious. And I wanted to share these with you because ... This is a project called Morris, it's a cocktail bar in DC. It's like Wes Anderson and Alison Wonderland had a baby. And it's so charming, but we would do these photo shoots after the projects are over. And this is called Karma. It's an Indian restaurant, a modern Indian restaurant. And this is this really beautiful, it's in the private dining room. We took a rug and deconstructed it, and it comes over and it's this light fixture where the light filters down over you. I'm showing you these pictures because ... And this is a restaurant called Teddy & The Bully Bar, but this was the team of people that helped with that.
I built a business, and I've met people along the way where I was like, "You're different, and you're different, and you're different. And that's how we're actually going to succeed is if we can work together and we can be experts because you are an expert in your particular thing, I'm an expert in my particular thing, and get the ego out of it." Celebrate the fact that the differences that you bring to the table actually makes you stronger, and it makes you much more competitive, especially as a team or as a business. And that again goes back to color theory. So I have compiled a team of people that are brilliant, you guys, but none of us have the same backgrounds, and that's on purpose. So conversations can go longer. But if the giant game of what if.
And in the design industry, particularly right now, how you shock somebody, how you provoke somebody, how you create an environment that can calm somebody down or turn someone on, you name the emotion. But I have to figure out what it is that a client wants you to feel when you leave the room in order to design those things. And that could be done through lighting, it could be done through sound, it could be done through material choices. But in order to figure that out, I can't do that alone. Of course, I have very strong opinions, but I have to do that with a collection of people that have really, really different backgrounds.
To solve the world's problems, you can't have a bunch of people that have the exact same view on things. You really do have to get people together that have this interdisciplinary way of which that they actually creatively problem solve. And I felt like that was a really important thing for you guys to hear because I don't know that I recognized how much that this place taught me that. And when I have met with other designers or I meet with people in construction and I deal with commercial real estate, it is amazing how many people came out of one lane and they have stayed in that lane, and it's not doing them a service. It does not make them a stronger professional.
And I believe that this school, I believe that the education that you receive here allows you to navigate the world in a much different way. And you may not realize that right now, but I promise you that if you remember what I'm telling you when those things hit it, it's going to start to resonate. And the more you exercise your ability to navigate the interdisciplinary world, the more you will succeed, which is a relative term. It's really the more you're going to impact other people, and you're going to bring people along for the ride. And that's a really important thing to do because that's your legacy. Your legacy is bringing other women with you particularly, but also the rest of the world with you. If you have the brain that I know that all of you have in order to be here and you probably have a spirit to match that.
That's just something I want to make sure that you guys know. This is my design business, but this really translates to many, many other businesses. And the people that I see that are at the top of their game, vibrating on the highest level, they surround themselves with people who have completely different viewpoints, completely different backgrounds. And that's a common denominator I've seen across the board. So I think that's something that I hope you take away from at least what I'm sharing with you. Ego is not your amigo. So after I just told you you're so smart and you have so much to offer the world, it doesn't mean that you should ever forget this. I think as an artist and as somebody who is a personal brand to the extent that I have to be very careful about recognizing where I have weaknesses and making sure that I have people around me to support those weaknesses.
So DC is filled with egos, filled. Everybody wants to look over your shoulder, they can't wait to get to the next person, who's going to do what for me? It's really obnoxious. So this became something that as I'm trying to build my business, everyone's like, "Your name, your name, your name." But my name, which was O'Neill Studios, and it still is O'Neill. I was like, "I gotta take my name out of my business because if I didn't show up, they didn't want to talk to the people that were on my team." So that's when we moved into SWATCHROOM. And I have nine people on my team right now, brilliant, brilliant. Also, by the way, almost all women. And when they show up, it's really important that, I've said this to them too, you need to have confidence, but you also need to check your ego at the door when you are entering into some of these conversations with equally brilliant people, equally powerful people.
It's really something careful to keep in mind. And so I put it on the side of our building. So this was the beginning of SWATCHROOM. It was an old hair salon, and then we renovated it. And this is no longer our office, but this was our office for eight years. And 13,000 people I think drive by Ninth Street in DC and actually would see ego is not your amigo on the side of the building. And that gave me so much joy thinking all these people are going ... I mean, I'm blocks from the White House. Now, this is good. And so I want to throw that out there because what happens also as you grow and as you succeed and as you move up, it's really important to keep that in check and to help keep the people around you in check.
That's a gentle dance which we'll get to in a minute. So the dance, the dance of doing your homework and pivoting at the same time. So learning as much as you can, working as hard as you can, trying to find out as much information before you entered the space that you're about to go into. But then also keeping in mind that you most likely don't know it all, and you most likely will need to pivot at some point because the plan that you had, God had another plan or the room had another plan for you. And that has probably been the thing that I have had to learn the most, but also in a way where I enjoy it.
First of all, I love to dance. But if you think of it that way where the pivot is a beautiful thing, if you have to change courses or lanes or you have to figure out a different way to explain something to somebody, really lean into that, enjoy the fact that you're actually exercising your brain in a different way. It is inevitable that you will fail in this process. And I think that you got to remember that opportunity is created through pivots and through failures as well, which I'm sure you guys know and you've heard and you can see it on the Pinterest quote and all this other stuff, but it is true. The minute you are at rock bottom, the minute someone tells you no, the minute your idea fails, you have to bounce back and you have to realize that there's a lot of beauty in that. And the movement through coming up with the next idea or going back to the table to ask again for second and third and fourth time is really a beautiful part of your growth.
And so do not be discouraged. You can be disappointed for a little bit, but get over it and get back in because there's a lot of beauty on the other side, especially when you're able to get to the other side. You're going to learn a lot about the disappointment unfortunately that exists when you realize that the rest of the world is not like Holy Cross. The rest of the world is not going to be so willing to help you. This is my feet on a penny floor. So I did a restaurant called Lincoln. Lincoln is now eight years old, and we put a million million pennies on the floor as well as a lot of other awesome, awesome stuff that I'll get to in a minute. But there was only one other place in the world, anyways, the Standard Hotel in Manhattan has a penny floor, it's 500 square feet.
And when I pitched this design idea, they said, "Well, how are you going to do this?" And again, it's kind of like Pandela. I'm like, "I don't actually know how we're going to do this, but it's going to be amazing." I just kept saying, "It's going to be amazing. I'll figure out how we're ... It's going to be amazing." The general contractor on this project would not take liability, would not take responsibility for the penny floor because no one could figure out what the mastic was that the pennies needed to actually sit in to be on the floor. So I called the design firm that did Standard Hotel. I said, "I'm about to design a restaurant in Washington DC, could somebody please tell me what the material is that binds to copper? How did you get the pennies to stay down?" Click and call back. "Hi, I'm not your competition, I'm just this designer in DC trying to do this scene." Click.
They would not give it to us. Fine, I'll figure it out. I couldn't believe that they would prevent another creative from being able to execute something so glorious just because they didn't want to hand over that information. And in academia, this happens. In business, this happens. People want to hold the information to themselves. Well, you're going to find it if you want to find it by the way, which I found. And we did the floor, and I took responsibility for it, which was the dumbest thing I could've ever done, but I did it. And this got a tremendous amount of press because of that. And it was beautiful. It's no longer there, we had to take it up after five years. But it was absolutely stunning.
But I got a lot of nos during this project because this was probably the most innovative restaurant in Washington at the time as far as design goes. But at the same time, it was done by artists. I had 15 artists who helped me create this. There wasn't anything in there that wasn't made by hand, and you could feel it. You walked in and you could just feel the spirit of that many people touching this project and very proud of that. But it did not come without a lot of ridiculousness and a lot of nos, and a lot of challenges. But this was a very pivotal project for me because I got to hand Obama a portrait in this particular restaurant. And it was probably one of the craziest moments of my life because as a poli sci major, I realized that ...
This is Lincoln by the way, Lincoln who's one of my favorite presidents. And the whole place is covered in narrative, it was just really a special project. I think about this when I'm designing spaces, like what's going to happen in this room? Is somebody going to get proposed to in this room, will an amazing deal go down? What kind of negotiation will happen in this space? And then I think about how I want someone to feel in that moment, right? Never in a million years did I think that I would have the opportunity to give Obama this portrait. And I had this whole thing I was going to say to him, this whole narrative, I was a political science major ...
Now, I had given him a whole tour of the restaurant, and I was pretty composed during that time. And then they're like, "Maggie, go get ... The secret service agent, he goes, "Go get the portrait now." So I go to get the portrait and I just start balling, like uncontrollably balling. And I was like, "Get it together Maggie O'Neill, this is ridiculous. You have to get it together." And all I said was, "I made this for you," and it was awful. I was like, "I can't believe I just said this to him." And he hugs me. The most ridiculous interaction I could've ever had. And I was really a fail, big fail in that moment. I know now that it is in his home in Kalorama, which is awesome. But this was this amazing moment.
I'm bringing up this story because what you have to understand is prior to this project, so here's this beautiful moment that got me on the other side. We have this penny floor, we have all this press, it's fantastic. The first week of the project. So rewind a year or two, first week of the project, I meet with the GC. And it's me and 10 dudes, which by the way is pretty standard for a lot of these projects. And I am eight or nine years younger than I am now. And the GC says to me, actually he says to the whole group, "I don't work with vaginas." And I was like, "What did this man just say to me? Did anybody else catch that? Did anybody else catch that?" And he said it so flippantly, everyone starts laughing. You guys, this was such an important project for me on so many levels. Little did I know this was in my future, I was really upset.
I was appalled by not just what was being said and the laughter that was taking place after, but what do I do now? Because you're then in an arranged marriage basically for another year in construction. So I called my mother, she doesn't remember this conversation, which is really amazing to me. But I was like, "What do I do? This man says he doesn't work with vaginas, I don't even understand. How do I even respond to something so offensive and so disgusting?" And she says, "Well, it's a fact. You have a vagina, so present it as a fact. This isn't about how you feel right now, this isn't about the personal attack essentially or comment that was just made. This is a fact. So bring it up like any other fact that you would have." So I have the entire investor group and the construction team and the ownership in my studio and I print out an agenda.
And agenda item number one is the drywall, and agenda item number two is my vagina, and agenda item number three was all of the FF&E, the furniture and stuff that we had to purchase. And they were blown away. They were like, "Maggie, come on." And I was like, "Well, listen, I didn't say it, be said it. By the way, it's a fact. And if he doesn't work with vaginas, and I have a vagina, how are we going to get through the project?" And I made it their problem and made it their problem to solve. And a couple of them were I think really taken aback. The GC was appalled and really upset that he was called out. And 10 years later, I'm still friends with this GC, by the way. But we got the project back on track, and it was really one of the very first times in my career where I took something that was so upsetting and the biggest no basically that I could have been given in that moment and then tried a different way to approach it.
Because what I would have done was jump up and down, scream and yell and probably make a larger scene than needed. But to put it in an agenda and present it in a way where there's this factual conversation about what he had said to me was the best way I could have handled it. I feel like the pivot there was not only critical for me at that moment, but it also all of a sudden just kicked open this whole door of compelling, I had this compelling need, you guys to just continue down this path. So I was like, "What am I going to do? What are you going to do, Maggie O'Neill?" This is real, and this is everywhere by the way. The amount of ridiculous statements that I've heard over the course of the last 10 years in construction, particularly in commercial real estate, if that's of interest to you, it's very male dominated and it is the wild, wild West.
It has gotten a lot better, but it is a really tricky place to navigate. So the tools I have are art, art and environmental design. So I started to make a lot more artwork about this particular topic, and anywhere I could. Anywhere I could place messaging, anywhere I could place frankly commentary, social commentary. So this is in the bathroom actually of Teddy & The Bully Bar, but it's a flag that says I pledge allegiance to the badass women of America, but it's backwards. So you can only read it when you're standing in the mirror and you see it behind your head. And this was some woman on Instagram. This was right after Trump was elected, and I hadn't been back in the restaurant.
I'm going to read this to you guys because for me it's like this is when you know that you're actually starting to move the needle. And she says, "As a woman, an immigrant, and a Jew, I'm scared. But tonight, while on a business trip to our nation's capital, I found hope and inspiration in a work of art hanging in the ladies' restroom." That part, it's this small little moment, I pledge allegiance to all the badass women of America and to the society of ball busters for which it stands, one gender under no one indivisible with liberty and equality for all. This was on Pantsuit Nation, by the way, in case anybody followed that after the election. That was this aha moment for me that I could actually make a difference even just with one small painting. So there are a number of ways that I started to connect dots both in my immediate community in DC through arts and connecting with other women artists and starting to figure out how our work could actually make a difference.
I also started to travel, this is a charity in Morocco where the goal is to just keep these young girls in school. Unfortunately if they have their period, they usually do not go back to school and end up married at 13. And the cycle sort of starts again. But it's proven if these girls stay in school your GDP is higher as a country. I mean, the endless, endless proof that women staying in school, it's endless, you guys. And this was a product of me going to Morocco to go work on a hotel, literally go work on a hotel and ended up finding this community of women and working with them. And I was on the board for a little while, but I went back three times. And these young women, this is now a physical space that they can come and play and learn. It's a really remarkable organization that I'm very proud of, but it wasn't just that it had to be in my own backyard, there's so many ways that I could actually affect change by just being an artist and being a designer
Connecting dots is something that is really important for me also to make sure that you understand because they're not always so obvious. This again goes back to the interdisciplinary importance of being able to say, "Okay, well what's going on over here in commercial real estate, what's going on over here in our tech industry, and what's going on over here in the arts can all be fused together." It's a very important thing to think about yourself as a dot connector. In the arts, here I am, I'm chugging along as a female artist in DC, chugging along as a female designer and not knowing really anything about the industry of art, which I was a little embarrassed about. And I come to find out this particular time that less than 5%, this is accurate, but it's all major collections in the world. It's not just in the United States.
So less than 5% of all the artwork and major collections around the world is made by women, which is stunning if you think about that, stunning. It would be like taking half of the books out of a library, how is that even possible? Right now, this is still the statistic. And in Washington, we have the National Museum of Women in the Arts. It's the only museum in the world dedicated to women artists or women in the arts, which is also kind of remarkable if you think about it. So here I am, I'm growing in my career. I'm watching some really ridiculous behavior in my professional life as a designer. And then as an artist, I'm realizing that, well, I can get to this place where I'm an emerging artist. I'm sure you all know tons of female artists or see female artists on Instagram and so on and so forth.
But what happens when we get to a certain price point in our work, we drop off, we completely drop off. And there's lots of reasons why that might be the case. But I was like, "If I want to be the next Andy Warhol," which I fully intend to be, "what is happening? What is the barrier to entry here, and why does it seem so challenging for this to be solved?" Similar to the Lincoln story that I just told you about with he general contractor. I had a mentor that I was complaining and saying, "I can't believe, I absolutely cannot believe that this is the case. Well, how is it that less than 5%? This is crazy." I was just pissed about it. I was complaining.
And he looks at me and he goes, "That's an opportunity, it's an opportunity. If there is that big of a disparity, you have an opportunity in front of you. So why don't you go seize it, connect the dots, figure out how to solve it. You may not get it right the first time, but somebody has to try. And if no one's trying, there is no clear path to success." Which by the way translates to absolutely everything you're going to do. If it hasn't been done before, if you don't necessarily know that there's a linear path from A to B, you have to connect the dots yourself and you just have to figure it out and keep asking.
So I started to call female artists across the nation who had made it, who were selling their artwork for over 50, 60, $70,000. These are people who are living artists who have, for all intents and purposes, made it. I was expecting a lot of these women to ... I said I want to create something where if you could pick up the phone, if I could pick up the phone and call the Andy Warhol of our time and say, "How did you do it? How did you get from A to B?"Because the arts is not a linear career path, you guys. And now with Instagram and a way that you can access people, it's like the wild, wild West, and that's a beautiful thing.
It just means it's going to feel a little uncomfortable for you. It means that the person to your left or the person to your right, they may be doing one thing and you're doing it a different way, and it doesn't make it a wrong way. And that actually probably applies across the board. So I don't know if anybody is familiar with the woman in the center here, her name is Ashley Longshore. If you're not familiar with her, you should get familiar with her and follow her because you'll thank me later. She's probably one of the funniest people you'll ever meet, but she is truly the Andy Warhol of our time.
Her work has just completely exploded. She has taken over Bergdorf Goodman, she's been on every late night talk show you can think about. She's a remarkable person. I called, I don't know, two dozen artists, women who had made it. Most of those women told me, "I'm good, thanks. Let me know when you get it off the ground, sounds like a great idea." But if I had to figure it out, they'll figure it out. And I was like, "I can't believe," it's kind of like the penny floor, "I can't believe that somebody would not even just want to participate in helping. If somebody could have helped 22 year old Maggie, why couldn't you help 22 year old version of yourself especially in a career path that is much more challenging?" As an artist, you're on an Island. It is your own work.
It is not like you go to the office every day and you get to commiserate with other people. By the way, the studio environment, while it is a beautiful thing in school, that does not exist when you are out of school. It's an incubated, beautiful thing, but you really are quite alone. So when I called these women and I was shocked when some of them said, "No, I'm okay. I don't have any desire to help in this endeavor," I was incredibly, well, upset. But then the women that I thought would say no to me said yes to me. So we all got together and we started this organization together. And right now we have secured funding to actually be able to take this thing on the road the way we wanted to in a professional, respectable way. I don't want it to be scrappy because artists are professionals just like any other profession.
And that's something that if you can change one person's career, you can change an entire family. You could change an entire community. And there's a lot that we can do together. And I'm incredibly excited about the future of this, but it was by picking up the phone and calling people and asking and seeing whether or not they would get on board and they would help. These are two pieces, you guys. This is my Hillary portrait, and this is a Michelle portrait, but both of them are about six feet tall. And I had created both of these pieces for the first exhibit of SUPERFIERCE. But this is a series of work that I'm working on right now called social currency.
Judy Chicago, is anybody familiar with Judy Chicago? First of all, look up Judy Chicago too when we're done. She's a remarkable living female artist who did something called the dinner party in the late 70's. And it was incredibly shocking for everybody. And now she's got this whole resurgence because she's quite the feminist, but she's also this really tremendous artist. I set my sights upon becoming the kind of artist who would make a contribution to art history. And she speaks to me in many ways. But the minute I really set my sights on trying to do things that would affect my community, it's like the universe picks you up and it moves with you, especially when you're doing what it is that you're supposed to be doing. And this is what I'm supposed to be doing, and it feels right.
So here I am, this is at the National Museum of Women in the Arts. And I did this installation where it looked like paint is dripping on everybody. This is my assistant, she's been with me for seven years. She got in it and allowed me to paint her, and it was great. But that's Judy Chicago sitting in my installation in the chair there. And that was one of those full circle moments where she walked into, I almost fell over. First of all, she had on a rainbow sequence dress. And I was like, "Listen, I was thinking I might borrow your address at some point in time." She sat down, and we had this amazing conversation. And I said, "I'm starting this thing, and I really would love for you to help. Would you help aspiring female artists, emerging female artists?"
"Of course, I would, honey, you just talk to my person and let me know where I need to be." It was just this amazing moment. But it was also, I think God works in really mysterious ways. The fact that she had just sat down in this installation was remarkable. And now I have a direct line to Judy Chicago, which is amazing. This piece, which I'm sure you all are familiar with, fearless girl. So this commission was something that's very special for various reasons. I have 32 prints on my website and 20% of the proceeds of each of those prints goes to a charity. And this particular one goes to an organization called N Street Village in Washington, which is the longest running organization who helps women in crisis. So women come to the door. And when you buy this, you can buy five meals for women who are coming in in their first week, which I have chills just thinking about that right now.
If I had millions of dollars, I would dole it out organizations. But you have time, you have treasure or you have talent, and that is how you can give back. And this is how I'm able to give back. But this is a very important piece to me, and it's just sort of snowballed. So I did this installation in my old studio space where you could stand in front of the bowl and then you became fearless girl. All the little girls that stood there and little boys, it was amazing, but that's me in front of it. But the impact that one can make in just a small way is quite remarkable, and this is how I can make an impact. So I'm just sharing my own way.
This is the Women's March, you guys. There was eight female artists that were commissioned to do these 25 foot parachutes that we walked through. I don't know, did anybody go down to the Women's March in DC? It was wild. This is one of those moments where this says protect your mother, and it's a giant image of the globe. But the opportunity that that was given to me was only because I was completely active and contributing to the community. And I think that that is the other way in which you can actually grow your career. There is the professional way, and then there is the social justice part of what I believe we're put on this planet to do, and I think Holy Cross instills in all of us is that there's always another way that you can give back even if it doesn't seem that obvious to you.
And I'm going to end with this because I think I have gone on longer than I should at this point. I was given an opportunity to do a mural, a 50 foot by 50 foot mural on Pennsylvania Avenue. And the LIFT and Tishman Speyer came to me and said, "We want to do a mural for Women's History Month, and we'd like it to symbolize that women owned businesses in Washington are moving the city forward." And I was like, "That's a mouthful, I'm not entirely sure I know how I'm supposed to illustrate that." But I had lunch on top of my skyscraper in my dorm room at Holy Cross, and it was the men sitting on top of the girders over Rockefeller Center, which I did not know that they were building Rockefeller Center in this image.
Well, Rockefeller Center is where Tishman Speyer is headquartered, I did not know that either. So I did this literally very quickly because they needed this done very quickly, sharpie. And they said, "That's great, how did you know? This is amazing." This is the DC flag, the three stars on top of the two bars. And they said, "That's fantastic. I can't believe you knew that, you're so brilliant. How did you know?" "I don't know what you're talking about." "Oh, well. Tishman Speyer's headquarters are in Rockefeller Center." "Okay, well, I didn't know that. That's the universe throwing me a softball." And I wasn't going to lie about it, but it was just, again, there's this synergy that took place. This is the mural, it is 50 feet by 50 feet. You can see for scale, this is somebody standing underneath it, but it'll be up for the next year.
Now, this piece also has a charitable component to it, which is an organization called DASH. And they basically help people who are in housing crises. But this is one of my favorite projects to date because the amount of people that this has touched and the amount of women who have reached out to me, particularly in the construction design industry has been, well, again, it's intoxicating. And it gives me life, and it feeds me to want to do more work like this. And I'm really proud of it for various reasons.
It may not seem to you guys that a political science major who then went back to art who then designs restaurants, how is this all happening? And it's about saying yes and it's also about finding doors that people haven't necessarily knocked on. It is not that people have handed me these things left and right. It is truly through hard work and communication and figuring out how I can connect dots that I'm able to live in color, but I'm also able to bring other people with me. I'm very proud of that, but I also know that that's why I was put on this planet. But I also was put on this planet to bring joy and color and a good time. No, I don't think it's a coincidence that I ended up in the restaurants, night clubs, and hotels because I love seeing people have a good time. I love it when people are toasting each other. I love it when there's this great energy in the room.
So now if you say, "What's next, Maggie?" We've got three restaurants opening in the next month and a half, and SUPERFIERCE is going to be taking off. But I will be starting to do more environmental exhibitions where it's like an experience. It's not just that the artwork is up, but there's this whole immersive experience that you enter into. And that just by buying a ticket to it, it's like having your own piece of artwork. And I won't be doing those just in DC, I will be traveling and I have talks of doing something in Boston. So I will keep everybody informed. Where just the mere act of showing up is like being in the artwork itself. And I just did this in July, you guys, and this is just by asking a couple of questions, but there's a building in DC called Union Market, it's like Faneuil Hall kind of.
And they put the castles, which is our tennis team. They put a temporary tennis court on top of it, and they spent an obscene amount of money putting this tennis court up. And I asked whether or not I could have an event up there from the CEO, but I was able to paint the tennis court into a massive bingo board. And I had life-size human bingo on the top of this tennis stadium, it was amazing. And I got to have my own game show, which is basically what I've wanted to do for a very long time, which is why this might be ... You get a car, and you get a car, it would be amazing. But this is just built out of joy. I just wanted people to have a good time, and I have a whole body of work that's built off of bingo sheets.
I know that sounds very strange, but this is the direction that I'm moving in, which is exhibitions. All my artwork is in the back there on the stands, but people became part of the game. It was so fun for everyone, but it was also this out of body experience, and we raised money for Children's National. So anytime you buy anything from me that has a bingo, whether it's leggings or a towel, 20% of that goes back to Children's National Hospital. And that is because I went and played bingo with the kids there. They play bingo every Thursday from their beds. It's just a little heartbreaking and also very inspiring.
So I wanted to end with that, you guys, because it is a serious job being a smart person in this world. And you should take it seriously, but it's also a serious job being a joyful person in this world because it is really, really tricky to keep your head above water when you get disappointed and you get disheartened by those of your colleagues or your friends or your partner potentially who may disappoint you in ways or tell you no or tell you that it's an impossible thing to do. And I can promise you that if you just keep that joy and hold onto it as much as possible, it's like gasoline. It's gasoline on the smart part of you.
Your intelligence will only take you so far, but your spirit is going to take you much further. And all I can tell you is you have to take care of your spirit. So do whatever you can to do that. And when you recognize in somebody else their color and what they do to your spirit, keep those people tight. Keep those people around you and make sure that you recognize that you won't know what else you're capable of until you ask, until you introduce yourself, until you get a little bit more vulnerable. Because if you don't reveal who you are, no one's ever going to be able to take advantage of.
And I don't mean it in a bad way, no one's ever going to be able to hand you that opportunity. So reveal yourself to people. I think that's where the human experience is really important. And as an artist, I get to exercise that quite a bit, but I recognize another career path that's not always the case. So I hope that you all live in color and you all remember that you are coming out of this place with such an incredible skillset, an incredible toolbox of genius. But you are also coming out of it with the knowledge that you're put here for a reason, and it's because you're special, and it's because you're able to give back. And you are probably gonna... people... You're going to be the ones that actually change, I think, change the course of things for us. However, I can help, I would love to. I don't know what that is, but don't ever hesitate to reach out and let's make some magic together. Let's have a game show together.
That's our show. I hope you enjoyed hearing about just one of the many ways that Holy Cross alumni have been inspired by the mission to be men and women for and with others. A special thanks to today's guests and everyone at Holy Cross who has contributed to making this podcast a reality.
If you or someone you know would like to be featured on this podcast, please send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you like what you hear, then please leave us a review.
This podcast is brought to you by the office of alumni relations at the College of the Holy Cross. You can subscribe for future episodes wherever you find your podcasts.
I'm your host, Maura Sweeney, and this is Mission-Driven. In the words of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, now go forth and set the world on fire.
Theme music composed by Scott Holmes, courtesy of freemusicarchive.org.