Babysitting, Opera-singing Entrepreneur

By , July 22, 2009 8:00 am

Gensmilin'Genevieve Thiers has a head full of ideas and a voice to match. Gen moved to Chicago seven years ago to attend Northwestern University’s prestigious School of Music. At the same time, she was busy launching the country’s premier caregiving website, Sittercity.com. Since settling in Chicago, Genevieve has built Sittercity from the ground up and started an opera company on the side for good measure. In her spare time, Gen sleeps, reads, and explores Chicago…

F: You are a native of Philadelphia, and you attended college in Boston. What made you decide to base your business here in Chicago?

A few things: I love Chicago’s location—the center of the country. You can get anywhere without having to face a 7-hour flight. And it’s a gorgeous city! So clean, with lots of tall buildings. Second, my husband is from this area and wanted to get reacquainted as an adult. But the final reason is that – in addition to being a CEO – I am also a trained opera singer. I wanted to attend Northwestern University’s School of Opera night program from 2002-2004. Of all the opera schools I considered, it was the best choice.

F: Sittercity has markets in cities across the country: what characterizes Chicago in the care-taking industry?

Chicago was not different from other markets in that it desperately needed Sittercity! What was different was how the locals approached care. More families tended to hire family members: it’s a Midwestern trait. But I think when they saw Sittercity was literally safer than hiring the girl-next-door, that quickly changed. In fact I’ve seen grandparents in this area on our site to find a sitter, so that they do not have to be the primary caregiver!

F: In your opinion, what are the most kid-friendly neighborhoods in Chicago?

I think that Glencoe, Wilmette, Skokie, and Highland Park are lovely. There’s also some great areas downtown: Southport in Wrigleyville is a great place to raise kids. The great thing about Chicago is that it’s tough to find a not-so-nice place to live.

F: Babysitting – full-time or on the side – is a long-standing and respected line of work. How do you recommend parents and sitters use babysitting as a way to supplement their lifestyle?

I think babysitting and nannying should be considered full-time careers in the United States, and right now, that is not the case. In the UK it’s perfectly normal to have a career as a nanny: there are even degrees that support it. Here, it’s considered something you do on the side – a means to an end. I’d like to change that…  I know a lot of care providers who would like to feel that their work counts as a full-time career.

F: Did you ever think childcare might become your career?

No… but, thinking back, I am not too surprised it became mine! I am the oldest of seven kids and have clocked over 2500 babysitting jobs in my life. I used to reassure 2-3 moms a day that they should go out and have fun—at the age of 16! So it’s very natural that this would end up being my career. And I even sing! I’ve played both Mary Poppins and Maria in The Sound of Music.

F: What was your funniest babysitting experience as a kid or as a sitter?

M brother, sister, and I were once all booked for the same job. The mom was nervous none of us would come and so triple-booked it to be sure!

F: You’ve also opened up the Chicago opera industry by starting Operamoda, an opera company featuring innovative operas and young performers. How receptive have Chicagoans been to a revamped opera company, since opera is such a selective taste in the first place?

OperaModa’s mission is to support young emerging opera singers and American opera. Chicago seems to love the combination. We just finished a show with the Elgin Opera, actually—Menotti’s The Telephone. It was so delightful – I loved every minute of it! The Telephone was also performed by Daniel Peretto—a hyper-talented young Chicago baritone—and directed by Amy Hutchison from the Lyric Opera. I love that I’m able to sing in a great opera company in Chicago without having to travel the globe.

F: What is your favorite modern opera?

I adore Menotti’s The Telephone, but I’ve also loved playing Dorine in Kirke Mechem’s Tartuffe and Beth in Mark Adamo’s Little Women.

F: What are your favorite performance venues around Chicago?

The Athenaeum is lovely, but also rather expensive. The Harris Center here is phenomenal. It’s my dream to perform there, and also at some point on the stage of Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier. They do stunning work.

F: Was it always opera? When did opera enter the scene?

I’ve sung since the age of 11; my twin sister played piano. We were a bit like the Von Trapp family—many of us are musical. I went abroad my junior year of college to Oxford University, and it was there that I fell in love with opera. Before that, I had mostly done musicals: The Secret Garden, The Sound of Music, Mary Poppins, Fiddler on the Roof… But then I sang in a production of Carmen, and it was never the same. There’s something so sophisticated and complex about the opera sound. It’s like tasting fine wine after drinking wine coolers: there’s no going back.

F: What was it like going back to school in a new city? And music school, no less?

Wonderful! I was ready for a change. I launched Sittercity.com in Boston at the start of the Internet boom. It was very exciting to see how fast it caught on. But I wanted to sing opera too, so Chicago seemed like the perfect place—centrally-located with a great music school and, as a bonus, my husband Dan knew it well and was able to tour me around. It was love at first sight! The funny thing really was juggling my opera schedule with my business career. One time I had a situation where I sang Act 1 of an opera (in a nun costume, no less), changed into a suit to go downtown for a meeting, and dashed back in time to sing Act 3. It was hilarious.

F: What would you say Evanston is like relative to Chicago?

Quieter…I attended opera school there, and so drove back and forth for two years between Sittercity’s office downtown and Evanston. I think Evanston is lovely, but I’m a city girl. You can’t beat tall buildings, bright lights and a beach.

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