Ellie Forman Takes the Reins of the Joffrey Women’s Board
As she begins her term, Mesirow’s VP of Corporate Responsibility leverages a new energy of the Women’s Board in a post-COVID world
The performance that stands out for Ellie Forman, new President of the Joffrey Women’s Board, ended up turning into a mild obsession. The piece was Episode 31, an absurdist ballet by Swedish choreographer Alexander Ekman, which made its Joffrey premiere in 2016. In it, dancers move rhythmically to an ever-changing backdrop of sets and costumes, a flood of energy and stamina that ostensibly asks: What is entertainment?
The wit and humor were charming, the verve captivating and enigmatic, the creativity breathtaking. “It transcends gender,” Forman says, adding that it was matched only by the Joffrey’s production of Ekman’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in 2018. “It’s masculine and feminine. The vibe is very ‘music video.’ The fact that ballet can look like that is what makes the Joffrey’s choices special. I went home wanting to tell everyone that I had just witnessed something incredible.”
The exceptional nature of the arts and visionaries like Ekman have always intrigued Forman, even as a child growing up in a relatively quiet suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. Her parents — both former marketing executives — had an affinity for arts and culture, passions that carried over to Forman and her older sister. The arts and communication, in some shape or form, “were always part of my young zeitgeist,” she recalls, whether it was documenting her Barbie dolls with a disposable camera, writing “community newsletters” for her neighbors, or taking on any number of roles in high school musicals. She also remembers nights at the symphony with her family — “the itchy wool tights, crinkly candy wrappers among the quiet patrons, getting home late from the theater and falling asleep in the back of my parents’ Volvo.”
The thing for Forman as she kicks off the first year of her two-year term as leader of the Joffrey Women’s Board is: “How do we get more people that didn’t necessarily grow up the way I did to experience something like an Ekman piece?”
The answer seems rooted in the qualities that set Forman on a path to professional success. A formidable influence in Chicago’s corporate philanthropy sector, she studied communications at Miami University (Ohio), and, after graduating, found her niche consulting at the Chicago public affairs firm Jasculca Terman for stalwart nonprofits like After School Matters and Navy Pier. Later, she joined Mesirow in a new role intended to boost the company’s philanthropic footprint and DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) initiatives in and around Chicago.
With a talent for messaging and stewardship, Forman eventually caught the attention of the Joffrey Women’s Board and received an invitation to join in 2014. She immediately put ideas into action, first as a co-chair of the inaugural Women’s Board Luncheon, which raises upwards of $100,000 annually for the Joffrey’s artistic and production fund, as well as community engagement programming.
If there’s a secret to Forman’s approach, it’s one she’s more than willing to share.
“Professionally, partnerships and collaboration are key to my role,” says Forman, who has been recognized as a leader in corporate and philanthropic support by Crain’s Chicago Business. “And partnerships and collaboration are just as important on the Women’s Board. We see it in the close work we do with the Joffrey staff, our committees and events, and the work we do in Chicago Public Schools and throughout the city. What’s particularly unique about our Women’s Board are the genuine friendships that hold our nearly 120-member Board together; and at its core, our love for the Joffrey connects us to each other and our mission.”
As the Joffrey begins its second year as resident dance company at Lyric Opera House, Forman is ready to expand on the achievements of her predecessor, Sandi Hartstein, and do the Ekman equivalent of outside-the-box. Committee chairs and their members are challenging the status quo for the 20-year-old Women’s Board and focusing on what needs to be done to meet The Joffrey where it is: spring boarding to new heights (with the introduction of the Contemporary Ballet Trainee Program, for example). Fundraising is also top of mind, and Forman is looking at boosting engagement in areas like social media and content creation to excite prospective audiences, funders, and Women’s Board members.
“The Women’s Board is made up of the city and suburbs’ most influential women in business and in our communities, who are doing incredible things, and as such, our networks are made up of these same types of boundary-breakers,” Forman says of prospective members working in tech, finance, medicine or making a difference in their home communities. “The more we expand our reach, the more potential there is to diversify the Joffrey audience and get more people to the theater. We need that. The performing arts needs that.”
And of course, Forman adds that she looks forward to “more Ekman, too.”