Leanne Schmidt and Christopher Lobay are the co-founders of Secret Handshake -- a monthly mixer for creative professionals who want to "get out of (their) shells... share ideas, collaborate, drink a beer, and return home to continue tweeting @ each other as per usual."
Two Januarys ago, Secret Handshake members were scheduled to hook up at the bar formerly known as Lo Pub. But on the night in question, it looked like the sole attendee was going to be Old Man Winter.
"There was so much snow that day that I couldn't even get to my car," says Schmidt, an interactive copywriter who runs her own company, Four Letter Word. "I ended up walking to Lo Pub in this crazy blizzard but I wasn't in too big of a hurry, because I didn't expect anybody else to show up."
To Schmidt's amazement, more than 70 people beat her there. And by the end of the evening, Secret Handshake had enjoyed one of its best nights ever, attendance-wise.
"To be honest, I wasn't all that surprised," says Lobay, a web designer for Shopify, an e-commerce company that has offices in Toronto, Ottawa and Winnipeg. "A lot of people regard Secret Handshake as their 'thing.' They might not do too much the rest of the month, especially during the winter, but when Secret Handshake night rolls around, they're there, no matter what."
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Three years ago next month, Schmidt and Lobay were collaborating on an iPhone app called "Video Edit." One afternoon, Schmidt told Lobay that she'd been thinking about something unrelated to their task-at-hand.
"Back then, I was a freelancer who worked at home in my own little bubble," Schmidt says. "I mentioned that one of the gripes I had about my job was that I kept hearing about awesome people in similar professions but, because of my situation, I never had the opportunity to meet any of them."
Lobay told Schmidt that, funnily enough, he'd been contemplating the same thing.
For the next couple of weeks, the duo set aside time each day to brainstorm about how to get Winnipeg's creative community in the same room, at the same time. They also laid down a few ground rules.
"We definitely wanted it to be relaxed, with no formal itinerary," Lobay says. "And right from the get-go, 'networking' became a dirty word. There were already a number of traditional, networking-type events in Winnipeg that were geared towards entrepreneurs and small business owners.
"I'm not saying there's anything wrong with that sort of thing, but it wasn't the feel we wanted to propagate. We wanted Secret Handshake to be a social function, first and foremost." (Some people still haven't gotten the memo: when newbies show up at Secret Handshake, resumé in hand, Schmidt or Lobay tells them to "chill" and grab something from the bar.)
Schmidt and Lobay turned to social media to get the word out about their inaugural meeting, which was set for March 12, 2010 at the King's Head Pub. A few minutes before people were due to arrive, Lobay placed tent-cards reading "Secret Handshake: The Winnipeg Creative Society" on all of the tables.
"OK... a table," Lobay says with a laugh. "Only nine people showed up, counting me and Leanne. But we were pumped there was that many. And it turned out to be a really great time -- everybody who came stayed until almost one."
Secret Handshake currently has 694 members. Attendance at individual events now ranges between 75 and 150. There is no cost involved; all Secret Handshake expenses are covered through a partnership with New Media Manitoba. Get-togethers usually run from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m., and have been staged at a variety of downtown and Exchange District locales.
"Our demographic is all over the map -- from Red River College students to people in their 70s," Schmidt says. "When we first came up with the idea we thought it would appeal mainly to tech-types. But we get writers, photographers, 3-D illustrators... at the last Secret Handshake I met a guy who makes custom, electronic prosthetics. I had no idea that was even a job."
On event night, Lobay, 26, and Schmidt, 27, take on the role of party hosts, pointing out other guests and letting people know what looks good on the menu. For the first couple of years, the pair went out of their way to spend as much time as possible with first-timers.
"I'd ask them what their background was, and then try to introduce them to people who I thought they'd get along with," Schmidt says. "But the regulars -- the ones who are here like clockwork, every month -- have since taken on that role. They help make it a really welcoming atmosphere."
Richel Davies attended her first Secret Handshake in November, at Arkadash Bistro on Portage Avenue.
Davies, whose creative field is dance, heard about the group through a friend at the Manitoba Craft Council, where she does volunteer work.
"She told me she had a really good time at the one she went to, and that it would probably be a good fit for me," says Davies, who moved to Winnipeg from Vancouver five years ago.
After spending 45 minutes chatting with others in the long, narrow room, Davies had already formed an opinion of what Secret Handshake meant to her.
"I get that the target audience is people who work in creative fields like the film industry. But you have to remember that there are an awful lot of people who have boring 9-to-5 jobs, but who are very creative outside of work," says Davies.
"So what appeals to me about something like Secret Handshake is that it can also be a great avenue for closet musicians or artists who are looking for a chance to talk about their creative side, away from their stiff job."
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When Schmidt isn't planning the next Secret Handshake or running her own business, she is a marketing consultant for GenNext, a youth-oriented division of the United Way. A couple of months ago, Schmidt was talking to someone involved with one of the United Way's partner agencies.
"She told me she did some work for a refugee women's support group and mentioned that the group needed a logo and some business cards, but didn't have a big enough budget to hire anyone," Schmidt says.
Schmidt immediately recalled scores of conversations she'd had with Secret Handshake members -- ones that usually began, "If you ever need me to do anything creative for you..."
Next month, Secret Handshake will partner with the United Way for a one-day event called Goodwork. The goings-on will work something like a task on The Apprentice. On Feb. 19, Secret Handshake volunteers will gather in one room, where they will use their various skill sets to perform whatever is asked of them, for 16 non-profit organizations.
"It might be video-work. Maybe write a commercial. But all in all, it's going to be a really awesome day and if all goes well, we'll do it again, next year, and the year after that," Schmidt says.
Secret Handshake's next get-together is Jan. 24 at Arkadash Bistro & Lounge, 268 Portage Ave. For more information, visit www.meetup.com/secrethandshake