Originally posted on 7×7
By Cari Guittard
In small, intimate settings, often in private homes throughout San Francisco, groups of people are turning off their digital devices to listen to speakers and join in spirited conversation. Welcome to the rebirth of the salon.
One such group is Parlay House, founded a year and half ago by Anne Devereux-Mills, a New York transplant and advertising veteran. “I’ve felt passionately for a long time that women need to bring other women forward in any way they can and find creative ways to authentically connect,” she says. The monthly Parlay House, which is occasionally hosted at Devereux-Mills’ SF home, has grown to include more than 500 members—all women.
Another local gathering is Blue Stockings Salon, named after the French salons of the 18th century and spearheaded by salonnière Norene Sheehan. Like Devereux-Mills, Sheehan is a force of nature, and her passion for authentic conversation and learning is infectious. Launched in 2013, Blue Stockings has grown organically—its invitation-only events are open to both men and women with a focus on engaging directly with featured speakers and like-minded members. Sheehan pairs timely and unique topics with intriguing speakers such as oenology with wine and champagne experts, entrepreneurship with Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper, and maximizing your brain power featuring Alzheimer’s expert Dr. Elizabeth Edgerly. Sheehan explains that debates and in-depth conversations were a regular part of growing up in Ireland. An art form that is drowned out by present day technology and one that she hopes to re-ignite by, “connecting people in the most incredible ways with great speakers, resulting in a rich, enlightening evening filled with stimulating conversation, potential new perspectives, and paradigm shifts.”
But, you don’t have to have a branded affair to participate in a salon. I’ve joined in or personally led several ad hoc salons in friend’s and colleague’s homes where conversations varied from debating geopolitical trends and foreign policy to brainstorming new funding opportunities for local entrepreneurs. In every case a general theme is set and backgrounders provided as well as key questions for participants to prepare and consider prior to gathering. And even though we start with one direction in mind, invariably the exchange of ideas and debate often lead to new directions and insights we might never have conceived going solo.
One of my first salon experiences here in San Francisco involved a Parlay House gathering featuring an evening of conversation with Victoria Tsai, founder of the groundbreaking local skincare line, TATCHA, and Leslie Blodgett, creator and Executive Chairman of beauty powerhouse bareMinerals. To have two such accomplished women, at different points in their careers and lives, candidly sharing their personal journeys and challenges in such an intimate environment was, frankly, remarkable. Both are pioneers who embody the entrepreneurial spirit of the Bay Area. Our collective conversation that evening wasn’t centered on business, but rather on service and empowering the next generation. Tsai shared her work with Room to Read, an extraordinary local non-profit whose aim is to educate children around the globe. I could have never imagined that an evening initially focused on business and beauty would evolve into a deeper discussion on education initiatives here in San Francisco that are having a global impact. But that is the power and promise of a salon environment.
When you attend a salon you get the feeling that you are part of something special, something worthwhile, important and substantial. You’re being there matters. No one just fades into the background; all are active participants in the conversation.
More and more of us throughout the Bay Area, of every age and profession, are choosing the salon to connect, grow and be entertained. In many ways, by attending or hosting a salon, we’re honoring the traditional (but not yet lost) art of conversation that has shaped discourse and history for generations.