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Where Casualties of the Dot-Com Crash Go to Recover

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It was only 7 PM, and already Kustom nightclub was packed with people milling about, drinks in hand, talking loudly to be heard over the music. But on this recent Wednesday, clubgoers weren't discussing how the Bears fared in the draft or working up the courage to ask for a date. These people were looking for work.

The club, on Clybourn at Armitage, was closed to the public for the third in a monthly series of PinkSlip*Parties, the brainchild of three Chicago women--all dot-com casualties--who are on a mission to teach laid-off techies that networking is the way to return to the ranks of the employed. About 200 job seekers and roughly the same number of hiring professionals were roaming this party, giving the lie to the conventional wisdom that all the good jobs have gone up in smoke. These employers seemed to be saying the jobs are out there.

"Some companies can't find people fast enough, but you have to know where to look," said Steven Austin, the president of Zacks Investment Research, who last month hired someone his company found at a PinkSlip*Party. "People are creatures of habit. You're laid off from a dot-com, you look for work at another dot-com. That won't work anymore."

Charles Sharpe was looking to link up with people like Austin. Tall and stocky, bearded, wearing khakis and a short-sleeved dress shirt, Sharpe hoped to make a contact that would lead to a job in his highly specialized field: database support administration using Lucent 5ESS switches.

Lucent Technologies moved Sharpe, his wife, and their two small children from Nashville to Chicago ten months ago. The world was different then. "I was working for BellSouth and I put my resumé on a job board," Sharpe recalled. "Within two weeks a contracting company had arranged for me to move to Chicago, and if I hadn't taken that job, there were plenty of others I could choose from."

That was about the time the high-tech business world ground to a stop on its axis and began rotating in the other direction. "My contract was canceled in February. The contracting company is helping me look, my resumé is on every job board, and I'm doing everything I can to find a job in my field so I can support my family. My wife and I used to have a list of states we wouldn't move to. Now that list has gone away."

The PinkSlip organizers don't necessarily expect anyone to walk out of one of their parties with a job. What they do expect is that every would-be employee will leave with a fistful of business cards from potential employers. The partygoers--whose $15 admission included one drink, unlimited chicken drummies, pizza, and veggies and dip, and full-immersion networking--seemed to understand that.

"I'm in marketing, which is very competitive," said Janine Davis of Homewood, who has been out of work for four months. "There are so many very well qualified people out there that if your resumé doesn't match up with every qualification in the initial screening, you don't make it through."

Rien Heald lost his job as a high-level technical manager at a dot-com two months ago. He was a little skeptical about his prospects of finding a job at his level at a PinkSlip*Party, but he drove in from Naperville and ponied up his 15 bucks banking that he'd at least meet some of the right people. "I'm looking for a shot," he said, "and it's easier to get that if you meet people face-to-face."

At 4 PM, about an hour before the line would start forming, Shannon Bausch was racing along the tables set up at the entrance to Kustom, enlisting help from anybody who happened to pass by: to clip name tags to color-coded lanyards, stuff bags with supplies, organize the cash box. Every five minutes or so her cell phone rang.

Her partners, Jennifer Filipowski and Julia Stamberger, arrived bearing a bagful of Wendy's and supplies from Kinko's. Things have changed since six months ago, when they were hitting up investors for millions of dollars and dreaming of retiring in their 30s.

Bausch and Filipowski--whose father, Flip, was the force behind the Internet company Divine Interventures--met at Colorado State University. They started a Vail-based event-planning company in 1999, and later that year they moved to Chicago to start MeetHead.com, an on-line clearinghouse for event planners across the country. If you were planning a corporate meeting in, say, Cleveland, and you needed a catered Thai lunch with puce tablecloths and napkins, you could log on to MeetHead.com to find suppliers for the job. Bausch and Filipowski rounded up $2.5 million from 14 investors--enough to hire staff, get the site up and running, and keep the company going for a year and a half. But they needed that much again to actually amass the content that would make the site work. While their angel investors came through, the venture capitalists did not, and MeetHead died from a lack of funds before it was ever born. Last November they began the agonizing task of laying off their 16 employees and liquidating their computers and office furniture.

Stamberger, meanwhile, was on her own track. Two years ago she quit her job as a strategy consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers--one of the Big 5 firms, whose name on a resumé automatically shoots it to the top of the pile--to pursue her own Internet dream. She wanted to launch WorldSpider, a new kind of on-line travel guidebook that would receive its content not from hired writers but from people who lived in the destination cities. The data would be vetted by high-tech software in the WorldSpider offices and put out to a world hungry for accurate travel information. It was a great idea, but she couldn't convince investors.

The three women commiserated with each other. They were saddened that so many of their friends and colleagues were in the same boat, and they wondered what they could do to make things better.

"It was very depressing, horrible," remembers Bausch. "Jen and I had the best team, just the greatest people. We started thinking about what we could do to help these employees who were now unemployed. We thought, wouldn't it be great if we had an event that could introduce all the out-of-work people we knew to all the employers we knew?"

As they talked, the idea grew, to the point where it became a full-time job for each of them (though not yet a job that can pay a salary). "Entrepreneurial companies were not going forward in Chicago, and good people were starting to leave town. Everybody was getting laid off, and it was becoming a bigger and bigger problem," says Stamberger. "Something was missing. People starting businesses didn't have the type of information they really needed to know, the stuff that you can only learn from talking to other entrepreneurs."

They came up with Turn-About*Inc., a nonprofit company designed to teach people how to network (and the first example of their fascination with asterisks). TurnAbout's main product? PinkSlip*Parties.

"Networking is something you don't realize is important until it works for you," says Stamberger. "I hated the idea of networking until I started my own company. It seemed self-serving, like I was using people. But I learned that people were willing to help me, and eventually I was able to repay them in some way. It wasn't self-serving at all."

Given the bang-up attendance at the first three PinkSlip*Parties, the idea seems to be taking hold. It may even go national; Stamberger, Filipowski, and Bausch are discussing sponsorship with a national recruiting firm to create PinkSlip*Parties in other cities.

Stamberger was acting as gatekeeper at Kustom, making sure she had a few words of encouragement and instruction with each partygoer. "Nobody gets past here without talking to me," she explained. She was quite proud this night of her vintage pink Italian wool suit. All three organizers wear pink to all the parties.

Keeping in mind people's natural aversion to asking complete strangers for help, the PinkSlip*Party relied on gimmicky activities to goad attendees into talking to one another. It wasn't unlike a high school mixer, where boys and girls have to pass apples to one another without using their hands.

The party's centerpiece was the Power of 10 circle. As the name implies, groups of ten people--some looking for work, others looking for employees--gathered, and with the help of a facilitator the job seekers gave their "elevator pitches." That's a term you hear a lot at these parties; it means a spiel outlining the speaker's skills and career goals that's short enough to be delivered within the span of an elevator ride. After each person took a turn, the facilitator asked for help for that person: Another member of the group might know somebody who is hiring for that particular job. Or someone looking for the same thing might suggest they get together later to swap tips. Or two people might find common ground and simply become friends.

Another PinkSlip parlor game was to give each hiring professional a bunch of stickers and each job seeker a card with space for five stickers. Anybody who filled all five spots was eligible for door prizes. Job seekers (identified by the yellow lanyards around their necks) wanting to win the prizes would have to approach hiring managers (pink or blue lanyards) to ask for stickers. Conversation would ensue, and contacts would be made.

"I'm a big believer in networking," said Krista Mooradian, vice president of FastRecord, an Internet company that's still in business. "If you believe in the value of networking, you do it in a very altruistic and trusting way. You don't expect to get something in return right away, but you eventually get something back. By the time we're done with ten people in the circle, people who didn't understand that now know what we're talking about."

Harvey Daniels, recruiting manager for the American Medical Association and president of the Technical Recruiting Network, has been to every PinkSlip*Party. "This is very enlightened," he said. "This is much more effective than a career fair--those are very specific, very targeted, very formal. I'm very grateful for this. It's low cost, low risk, and it's hardly a chore."

And given the fact that nearly 200 people were at Kustom looking for workers to hire, there certainly seemed to be more work around than one would think hearing about the latest Motorola layoffs on the evening news. "We're trying to dispel the myth that there are no jobs open," said Filipowski. "There are companies that are doing quite well. The biggest thing is that they are in a position to be more selective. And people tend to hire people they like and have something in common with. You're just not going to find that out sitting across a desk."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.

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