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Networking, Salon-Style

Every month, Kevin Smith hosts a party at his Lincoln Park home—but he doesn't recognize half the people who show up.

Mr. Smith, 28, one of three founders of Fluxus, a recurring dinner party that seeks to bring together like-minded, successful young Chicago professionals, says he is creating a new form of networking that is more authentic, less frantic and ultimately more successful than any business breakfast or happy hour.

“We believe in the idea that it's not what you do but how well you do it that defines you,” Mr. Smith says. “And we wanted to reach out and create this dinner where we bring together the best and the brightest who are willing to share with each other.”

The rules: Each founder invites two or three people he's met over the past month who combine professional success with creative vision. The event's name is derived from the Latin word for flow or flux, a nod to the constantly changing guest list.

Recent attendees have included Sarah Elizabeth Ippel, 31, who founded the Academy for Global Citizenship charter school on the Southwest Side; Yuri Malina, a 22-year-old Northwestern University grad who co-created a hand sanitation startup to address hospital infections; and Joshua Hanna, 39, a partner at law firm Kirkland & Ellis LLP.

From left, sous chef Rick Paniagua, chef Charles Webb, mixologist Benjamin Newby and co-hosts Tommy Choi, Amir Syed and Kevin Smith

Of course, dinners that pay homage to the salons hosted by French intellectuals during the Enlightenment have been trendy in urban America for generations. Influential Hollywood agent Sue Mengers brought together the biggest Los Angeles names for Saturday-night dinners in the 1970s; Sally Quinn, a Washington Post columnist and wife of former Post Editor Ben Bradlee, did the same for political and media power players through the '90s. More recently, Silicon Valley has buzzed about dinners held in executives' homes that attract Yahoo Inc. CEO Marissa Mayer and Apple Inc. designer Jony Ive.

Mr. Smith and his co-hosts, Amir Syed and Tommy Choi, don't operate in those rarified worlds. Mr. Smith owns a State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co. agency in Logan Square; Mr. Syed is a mortgage banker at Perl Mortgage on the North Side; and Mr. Choi is co-owner of Weinberg Choi Realty in River North, which focuses on residential deals.

SEASONED NETWORKERS

“What drew us to each other is that we're all in such very boring industries and we all have this very negative stigma attached to what we do,” Mr. Syed says, laughing. “When we actually met each other, we were like, 'Wow, you're so different than a typical insurance agent or a traditional real estate broker.' 

Mixologist Benjamin Newby and Kevin Smith

Mr. Smith, who wears plain T-shirts and flat-brimmed baseball caps, offers yoga and meditation classes at his office and holds “live with intention” meetings with his employees. He's passionate about music, about an event he founded called Chi-Ami, which brings Miami's social set and DJs to Chicago for a weekend each year, and about his unabashed ambition to create what he calls “the largest personal network in the world.”

 

Messrs. Choi and Syed, both 32, look more traditional in tailored suits. Mr. Choi grew up helping out at his family's chain of dry cleaners on the North Side. He launched his real estate company in the middle of the recession and grew by taking on young clients searching for rentals in addition to those looking to buy. Mr. Syed, similarly, cultivated his mortgage business through the crash by focusing on a young clientele.

They're all seasoned networkers who sit on local charity and professional boards. But they wanted something that felt a bit more unexpected—but still maintained the exacting standards of successful 20- and 30-somethings who frequent Brendan Sodikoff- and Boka Group-owned restaurants.

The hosts tapped Charles Webb, a private chef who had worked at Prosecco in River North and on private yachts in the Mediterranean, to create a four-course dinner. Benjamin Newby, a former partner and mixologist at the Underground and Drumbar, concocts custom cocktails that accompany each plate. The chef and mixologist donate their services (which would run around $2,400), hoping, no doubt, to garner referrals; the hosts split the cost of food and drink (about $450 per event).

All five men say they value—and spend a lot of time talking about—success as defined by genuine friendships and strong connections. If the connections lead to shared professional success, all the better. But it's not the point, they're quick to add.

“We've all been to those events where it's rapid-fire business cards and you can't really gauge the people,” Mr. Newby says. “I hate it when someone looks over your shoulder looking for the more important person.”

Over, say, burrata and grilled peaches and thyme-dusted chicken breast, each guest details a recent personal or professional challenge, from a new father's effort to make more family time to a freelance designer's struggle to manage her schedule while working from home. The frank discussions have led to “a few business connections and at least one romantic one,” Mr. Choi says.

'I LOVE YOU, BRO'

The Fluxus dinners also mirror a larger trend Mr. Webb has witnessed. He says Chicagoans are warming to the idea of bringing a chef into their house. “The experience is so much more intimate and rewarding for everyone involved,” he says. At Fluxus, for example, he participates in the dinner, chatting casually with guests about where he sources his ingredients.

The dinner concludes with a performance by local singer-songwriter Jonathan Guerra.

“Every detail is carefully planned to open people up and get them talking, and then at the end, boom—we hit you with this amazing music,” Mr. Smith says. “By the end, all these people who didn't know each other are like, 'God, I love you, bro.' “