Ten Questions With … Chandra Greer

Chandra Greer owns one of our favorite stationery stores in the land, GREER Chicago. Chandra’s belief, “Civility is not a sign of weakness,” is a mission statement that extends well beyond the paper in her store and permeates everything she does in her life: from businesswoman, to wife, and mother to her two young daughters, Maya (age 8) and Eva (11).  She answered our ten questions thoughtfully, and with grace, humor, and, of course, civility. You can follow her on Twitter: @GreerChicago

1. Can you tell us a little bit about how/why you started GREER? What were (and continue to be) your goals for the business? 

I started Greer after a lifetime of having my proverbial ladder leaned against the wrong building.  I started my educational career as a student in University of Michigan's Inteflex program.  At the time it was one of a handful of 6-year medical school programs in the country, 8 years of undergraduate and medical school work combined into six. Having absolutely no passion for becoming a doctor, I ended up completing a business degree and then, an MBA at The University of Chicago.  

After seven years working in big advertising and with the maturity to realize that I could create the career I wanted if I was willing to take a risk and do the work I decided to do quit my job and set off on a quest for what that "thing I love" really was.  I knew it would be so personal to me that I would have to create it rather than find it working for someone other than myself. I actually wrote down in a notebook what I most wanted in my work life and amazingly was able to distill it down to just three things — 1) I wanted to be surrounded by beauty 2) I wanted to make a positive difference in people's everyday lives 3) I wanted a business that was grounded in a personally meaningful mission.  

All of this led me to creating Greer. We are fiercely committed to providing stationery that facilitates personal communication in a beautiful, quality, and often-witty way.  Our overall goal from day one has been to promote civility in society, which we do through our products, the way we conduct ourselves and the messages we convey.  I think that if you're fortunate enough to have a business it can and should be used as a positive public platform.  My goals for the business are to build an even bigger brand so we can reach even more people with our particular message. I'm not interested in being a tycoon but I am interested in building a community of people who feel the same way we do about the increasing lack of civility in our society and who want to act, as individuals, to change that.

2. What advice would you give to parents who are looking to make a career change, but are afraid of how the change (in hours/time/finances, etc) might affect their family?

This is a tough one because obviously the security of the family is number 1 and you have to be aware of how a career change could affect that.  But I would say in doing a cost/benefit analysis remember that the benefits go beyond the financial.  When I was in advertising I was not in charge of my own schedule.  We didn't have children then but I saw executives choosing to miss a parent/teacher meeting or a school concert to work on a "hot" client presentation or fly off to a last minute meeting.   I say "choose" but I think in some professions and firms it's pretty well-understood that the company comes first.   Since we've had children, between the two of us my husband and I have never missed one second of any of our kids' events because of work.  One or both of us is there for every doctor's visit, soccer game, school event.  We can and do move anything around to be there for them when we need to be.  How do you put a price on that?

I would also say that if one spouse is going to make a change the other partner needs to be 110% supportive of it.  It's too difficult of a process without both partners being fully committed to it, unlike the dude in this card.

3. Do your girls help you out in the store? If so, what has been their favorite thing to do and what do you think they're learning from the experience?

My girls are very busy with school and extra-curricular activities – acting class, art class, soccer, and guitar lessons – but when possible I bring them to the store and when they’re there they are expected to help out.  It’s interesting; the younger one is an organizational whiz so I usually give her a little organizing task to take care of.  The older one is more interested in the sales aspect; she likes to be up front bagging and packaging purchases. During the summer and school holidays they also go to work with my husband, who’s an orthodontist. It’s not exactly the kind of job where a child can help out a lot, but he has them call patients from the waiting room and they get a huge kick out of that.  In general, having two parents who are business-owners, they definitely have deep entrepreneurial streaks and their notion of work is primarily one of self-employment.

 In the summer the girls set up a lemonade stand during the neighborhood’s annual Garden Walk which draws 1000s of people and will sit out there for 6 hours selling bottled water, lemonade, snacks and little trinkets they’ve made.  We take the cost of the merchandise out of their earnings and then they bank the rest.  They make some serious money and they love it! 

4. What's one of your favorite daily rituals with your children?

My hands down favorite daily ritual with the girls is the good night kiss because it goes on forever.  First I receive what’s known as the head hug, which would last indefinitely if I didn’t remind, them I need to breathe.  Then there’s several kisses followed by “Good night, Mommy, I love you.”   When they were smaller after we tucked them in I used to play what we called the Face Game where I would touch various parts of their faces and say good night to it…Good night, hair, good night eyes, good night nose, good night cheeks, etc.  My oldest one got wise early on and would start adding obscure facial parts.  “Mommy, what about the eyebrows?  What about my dimples?  What about my eyelids? What about this thing (her philtrum”) That kid’s always been a smart one.

5. Can you talk a little bit about adopting your daughters and the process by which they came into your life?

My husband and I met and fell in love when we were very young, we were both 22.  One of the first decisions we made about our future is that we would adopt.  We both felt strongly that there are always children coming into this world who need a family and we wanted to provide that.  It’s a bit odd because both of us came from a traditional family structure.  But I think we’re both extremely open-minded and the idea of creating a family in this way was very appealing to us.  Because of this decision, we never attempted to have biological children.  We started our family late because we wanted to be at a place where we could devote as much of our lives as possible to our kids without a lot of career or scheduling pressures.  Since we’re interested in other countries the idea of an international adoption was very comfortable for us.  We did a lot of research about which country to adopt from and chose Guatemala because the children live in foster homes prior to adoption, rather than orphanages, because there wasn’t a requirement to be in the country for an extended period prior to adoption and because we’d been there and loved the people.  The application/documentation process was extremely long and labor-intensive. The agency we worked with required extensive vetting of adoptive parents which is actually one of the reasons we chose them, we wanted to work with an organization that took its responsibility that seriously.  Our oldest daughter’s adoption took a year and a half and our youngest’s ten months.  We brought them home at eight months and six months respectively.  Our oldest’s daughter’s birth mother was 26 and had six other children; our youngest’s was 22 and had two other children.  Both mothers were living in deep poverty.  Someday we will take the girls to Guatemala to look for them and to thank them for giving us the greatest gifts of our lives.

6. If we were to film a reality show of your family, what would the camera catch in a typical day?

Well, each episode would include the line “And then hilarity ensued.”  There’s the obvious, getting the girls off to school, snacks and homework when they return — their school assigns a lot of homework and that can take 2-4 hours. But during their free time we all read a lot, the girls craft, paint draw, watch movies.  Their taste in movies ranges from Toy Story to Harry Potter to Ben Hur. For some reason they are fascinated by Charlton Heston, we have several of his movies on DVD, They also like to play this crazy game with their wonderful babysitter, Ashley, called the carpet game where they run from one end of the house to the other.  If they get to the carpet in the living room without being tagged that’s the “safe zone.” Hence the name. One thing we don’t do is watch a lot of TV.

They like to create little skits with these weird accents. The little one does an uncanny Sammy Davis Jr. In general, we try not to take anything too seriously in our house so my husband and I spend a lot of time laughing at their antics and the things they say. Kids can be a riot even when they’re not trying to be. Yesterday, they told my husband someone at school was talking about sex and they did not like it.  They then proceeded to repeat verbatim what was said which was eerily clinical, if graphic, including some pretty wild hand gestures. My husband said it took all his will not to burst out laughing because they were so descriptive and dead serious. They did not feel it was appropriate and they were ready to take some corrective action! Actually, I think it says a lot about my husband they felt comfortable going to him instead of me; he’s a phenomenal father. 

 One of the things I think is most unusual about our family is that we’ve fit our kids into our world rather than the other way around. We take them everywhere without regard to whether it’s considered traditionally kid-friendly or not. While, of course, we’ve taken them to Disney on Ice and the circus and Cirque de Soleil and baseball/basketball/hockey games and the Harlem Globetrotters, etc, etc, we also take them places where often they’re the only children there. We’ve gone to plays, including Shakespeare, to art exhibits, to pretty sophisticated museums, to nice restaurants, etc. It always amazes me that they’re not bored; they seem to be able to find something interesting in everything we do.

We’ve also traveled the world with them. The oldest has been to 42 countries the youngest to 33. We’ve taken them to Australia, Japan, Singapore, Argentina, Peru, Bali, almost every country in Europe, Iceland, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, and Turkey. We started traveling with them when they were very young and they’ve grown up with it. Our oldest daughter celebrated her second birthday in Switzerland the day before 9/11. We’ve never worried about the length of the flight or any of that business. We just make sure we pack what we need to keep them busy during the flight and with the exception of one unfortunate meltdown returning from Bermuda, it’s all been good.  I think it helps that we traveled a lot before we had them so there wasn’t as much a fear of the unknown traveling with them. They both have a resilience, tolerance, open-mindedness and acceptance of people I am convinced is informed in great part by their travels. Both of them will go to the same elementary/middle school for 8 years, both of them will have lived in only one home by the time they’re 18. Traveling is a way to take them out of their comfort zone for an extended period and it’s been very, very good for them.

7. As civility and manners are very important to you, how do you convey/pass that message down to your daughters? 

Yes, we are big on thank you notes and on saying please and thank you and on being respectful and appropriate. Beyond that, we expect them to make eye contact, to order their own food in restaurants, to take one piece of candy and not the whole bag. When they were younger we absolutely would not let them get out of their seats in restaurants. We taught them early on there’s a time and a place to run around…home, playground, school, fine, restaurant, museum, not fine. Of course, especially when they were younger we made sure they had things to do, books, crayons, little toys, etc. We also talk to them rather than just with each other, when we go out with them it’s always a four-way conversation. Many, many times when they were really small we would all walk into a nice restaurant, sensing trepidation from other diners only to have those same people approach our table on the way out of the restaurant to compliment us on how well-behaved our children were. 

I think there are four main keys to raising polite, respectful, well-mannered children. The first is to treat them as though they’re up to the challenge of behaving well. I think a lot of times, children will rise to what’s expected of them, achievable expectations but expectations nonetheless. The second is consequences for not behaving politely. And the third is consistency. We see ourselves as our daughters’ life coaches and it’s our job to constantly teach and reinforce and that’s what we do whether it’s a pain or not. Finally, you have to make sure you give them some positive reinforcement when they’re behaving well.

One thing I’ve noticed about our kids is how much they appreciate even the littlest things. You can give them the tiniest trinket and they’ll love it as much as anything else. They’ve even written thank you notes to my husband and I for things we’ve done for them. I think this ability to appreciate things both great and small contributes to their happiness.  

8. Are there any traditions you and your husband have taken from your respective childhoods and have now passed on to your children?

Actually, for the most part my husband and I have focused on building our own family traditions. For example, on Christmas Eve we go to Logan Square here in Chicago, to see a house that is so loaded with lights and Christmas decorations it makes your eyes pop out of your head. Then we head to dinner at a nice restaurant where we exchange a few gifts. We follow that up with a trip to the Nativity scene at Daley Plaza. The evening’s capped off with a leisurely drive up Michigan Avenue to see the lights.

On Easter Day we always have an egg-hunt in the house. Several times we’ve been on vacation so we pack some chocolate eggs and hide them around the hotel room. My husband and I are great hiders and the girls are not the best seekers so it can be pretty entertaining.

9. If your daughters had to pick their favorite kid-friendly place in Chicago, where would it be?

They LOVE this place called “Glazed Expressions where they can paint their own pottery which the store then fires with the finished piece available in a week or so. Their rooms are filled with lions, pots, gnomes and what not from that place.

10. Lastly, if you could tell your younger self one thing you know now, what would it be?

I would tell my younger self everything works out in the end and to stop procrastinating – time is running out.

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