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The Art of the Unconventional

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Foster ATX’s intimate pop-up events are redefining what it means to network. 

By Nicholas Barancyk, Featured photo by Bailey Toksoz

Photo by Sydney Gawlik

There are places we remember for the way they make us feel: anxious and intrigued, jubilant or grateful. It’s in these spaces some unexpected connection occurs, weaving that moment forever into our memories. Suddenly, that place feels important and that experience, special. Recreating that feeling is a struggle, for its elusiveness is part of what makes it worthwhile. How do you capture spontaneity and plan the unplanned? This was the challenge the three women behind Foster ATX shouldered when they landed in Austin. If they shrank the number of guests and elevated the intimacy, they figured human connection would follow. Since then, it’s been their mission to nurture these serendipitous moments through pop-up events held throughout the city.

It is intentional

The inspiration for Foster ATX stems from Stephanie Gutierrez, Shelby Goodwin and Sara Barge’s European travels. In Belgium, they discovered the power of musical immersion at an underground jazz club. In Portugal, their chance conversation with a chef taught them the importance of impromptu connection. It was these encounters that would go on to shape what Foster ATX would become.

Photo by Erica Tello

But when they returned stateside, their marketing jobs lacked the luster and sense of discovery they so deeply cherished while abroad. They wanted to bring everything invigorating about travel back home.

“A lot of traveling is just new experiences, so everything feels really exciting,” Goodwin says. “So, we’re trying to bring that to our community…because I think there are so many opportunities to experience ‘new’ here.”

Each month, the women challenge themselves to concoct new and captivating experiences. These events are packaged into a series of occasions during a single weekend and typically include one dinner and one or two concerts. And at the nucleus of each pop-up event is this initial seed of intention, something Gutierrez describes as “finding meaning in each little detail and each conversation, and diving wholeheartedly into that.”

Personal space

Each Foster ATX series takes place within a single venue, so a natural connection with the environment is established during the weekend. Goodwin says this element is crucial for formulating their monthly theme.

“The space is typically where we start off in creating these experiences,” she says, “feeling what that space invokes, and from there, pairing it.”

One of the recent Foster ATX gatherings, entitled Wood, set guests amid a century- old pecan grove at Tillery Place. After the site was chosen, undertones of warmth and fire were brought into every aspect of the event, from the cigar lounge and grilled focaccia bread to the bluegrass folk tunes of the Troll Smashers.

Photo by Sydney Gawlik

Gutierrez says much of the women’s work involves simply figuring out how all the pieces of an event tie together. However, they all say each new dinner or show isn’t about topping the last. Rather, it’s about finding something completely unique and “diving into the stories of our core elements,” as Goodwin puts it. For them, each month is a new opportunity to bring people together and watch the Foster ATX family tree grow.

Intimate buildings

As vital as it is to an event, the setting is just a tool serving a higher purpose. The women “set the space where [guests]can walk in completely vulnerable,” Gutierrez says. “[That] allows for these connections to happen. I think that begins the second that someone walks through the door.”

However, this “door” is open to interpretation. It could be a flower-laden pergola or a loading-bay garage. In choosing unconventional spaces and transforming them into something unexpected, the women of Foster ATX spark an immediate sense of wonder that breaks down social inhibitions.

“Right when you walk into the event, it’s so crazy and unusual, you’ve already broken the ice,” says Brandon Roye, a pop-up event attendee.

Underlying everything, though, is this substring of intimacy, this sense of mutual vulnerability and interconnection with one another.

“Intimacy is so much about that feeling of belonging and being cared for,” Gutierrez says.

The women achieve this through consistently challenging their guests to step beyond their comfort zones and be bold. Chefs, artists and musicians are encouraged to share their stories and passions, which the Foster ATX founders hope will, in turn, inspire audiences to follow theirs.

Goodwin says this physical connection with others is more important now than ever. She explains that in the age of social media, there can be the illusion of feeling connected, yet that connection lacks the physical intimacy necessary in true friendship.

“I think people are craving it,” she says. “And maybe they don’t realize it, but they are.”

During the last two years of hosting pop-up events, the trio has learned an audience of 150 can be just as intimate as an audience of 20.

The women say it’s common to see people who walk in as complete strangers hugging by the end of the night and staying long after they’re supposed to leave.

“I’ve been to an embarrassing amount of networking events, and this never happens anywhere else,” Roye says.

These fast-tracked friendships are a testament to how principle a role ambience plays in our social lives and Foster ATX’s finesse at bringing the two together.

Photo by Rui Nakata

Finger food to flamethrowers

It wasn’t until their flight to Austin in 2016 that the idea of Foster ATX began taking shape in the founders’ minds. Leaving their marketing jobs in Atlanta behind, the trio stepped off the plane with a purpose. They networked. They planned. For their first event, they passed out invitations in blank envelopes to strangers on Sixth Street.

“We came in very hot,” Goodwin says.

And they had to. With almost no connections in the city and a website still in development, guerilla marketing and organized lists of who’s texting whom were all these three 24-year-olds had. This initial fire still fuels them.

“That relentless spirit that we had,” Goodwin says, “we’re constantly trying to bring it back because that’s when we were so alive and eager.”

Twenty-five people attended the women’s first concert, a backyard affair with mellow lighting and guests sitting cross-legged on the grass.

“That intention was set that we weren’t going to be on our phones, and we weren’t going to be trying to compete with all this noise,” Gutierrez says. “Just sitting there and listening…was so special.”

She says Foster ATX has changed dramatically in the past two years, but each event still has that same intimate feel as that first one.

As their overall production increases, so do the number of incorporated elements. At the last event, called Charcoal, 80 guests gathered at Delta Millworks for mezcal cocktails, soulful jazz, a multicourse Indian dinner and a workshop dedicated to shou sugi ban—a traditional Japanese method of preserving wood through burning it—complete with a flamethrower. But despite the growing spectacle, Gutierrez says each element is carefully chosen for its beauty, simplicity and subtle capacity to linger.

Now the Foster ATX trio is expanding with a sister company, Well Chosen. It is built as more of a traditional event-planning agency, so organizations will be able to engage the trio’s services for private events with a Foster ATX feel.

“We’re always looking for new ways to evolve,” Goodwin says, “and keep connecting people together.”

Photo by Rui Nakata

A Beginner’s Guide to Magic Moments

It’s not always easy to mix and mingle. To liven up your own shindig, the women behind Foster ATX share some of their tips and tricks to add an extra layer of intimacy to any party.

Matching wristbands When paired with random guests, matching wristbands can help break the ice. Encourage your guests to find their wristband mate and strike up a conversation.

Mix-and-match seating Assigned seating bestows a feeling of personal care for your guests. To encourage new connections, sit a guest’s plus-one either opposite or diagonal from her. Stephanie Gutierrez says the natural human instinct is to turn to the most familiar person in the room and lock everyone else out. By mixing up the seating, you encourage fewer turned backs and more open-table discussion.

Cutting to the quick Use comment cards with questions that jet past the small talk. Doing so inspires more interesting conversations for those involved. Instead of conversation starters like, “How long have you lived in Austin?” opt for questions along the lines of, “What was your last now-or-never moment?”

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