Erika Gilchrist

Tierra Houston, a graduate coordinator for the Women's Gender & Sexuality Center, hosted "Moving Forward Fearlessly" a part of a series centering power-based personal violence on March 20. 

The presenter, Erika Gilchrist, talked with audience members about her experience with sexual and domestic abuse and how she found the strength and resiliency to move forward. For #StocktonVoices, Gilchrist delves deeper into how and why she created the Women Thriving Fearlessly Expo, the largest expo exclusive to women in business in Chicago in an entry she has titled "From Anger to Affirmation." 

As a professional speaker, I am charged with delivering content that is expected to influence the choices of those who are present in the audience. That is a responsibility that I take very seriously. Hence, I am constantly seeking new ways to make that happen.

Not only do I love being center stage, but I also thoroughly enjoy being a student. I am truly a lifelong learner with no end in sight. It’s this passion for seeking new content that brought me to a women’s conference in the spring of 2016. They advertised camaraderie, community, and personal growth – right up my alley!

I arrived excited about the new relationships I was going to develop, the products and services designed to promote personal growth, and the feeling of optimism about the future of women. But after being there for twenty minutes, I realized that something wasn’t quite right.

There were rows upon rows of vendors pushing their products, which wasn’t the problem. When you’re in business, you’re supposed to promote your merchandise. The problem was the vast number of vendors pushing external enhancements versus the minute number of vendors promoting services that spark deeper conversations about who we are as women and what we can contribute to the world.

Erika Gilchrist
Gilchrist at the first WTF Expo in 2018. Photo by Jordan Cart, submitted by Gilchrist.

Imagine walking up and down the aisles of 500 booths with vendors offering you makeup, haircare, waist trainers, clothes, skincare, jewelry, diet pills, fat cream, and nail care. After getting bombarded with, “You’re just okay, but if you had this…” for two straight hours, I became incensed. 

Don’t get me wrong, I think external enhancers are great – I use them every day. But when an event primarily targets the insecurities of women, it has created a den of deceit and false hope. One woman actually said to me, “You have very bad skin and this exfoliator will help get rid of those ugly pimples.” I have struggled with cystic acne since I was 12 years old, and I still have a lot of scaring. I’m grateful that I have worked through that challenge. If I wasn’t self-aware, I would have felt worse about myself when leaving the women’s expo than when I came in!

Now, I’m not a complainer for complaining’s sake. I made a decision that day that forever changed the trajectory of not only my life, but the lives of countless other women. In addition to writing a scathing email to the producers of that event, I created my own expo.

I used the anger and frustration from that event to catapult me into solution mode. “What do women really need right now? Can they get access to it? If not, how can I make that happen?” I focused on how I wanted women to feel when leaving my event – empowered, optimistic, proud, self-accepting, contributory, assertive, and badass. Then I was charged with the specific audience I would cater to. That one came easy to me – women in business.

As an entrepreneur who started out with absolutely nothing, it took me decades to build the networks, financial resources, and confidence to be “The Unstoppable Woman.” I decided that I would be the resource I wish I had when building my own business. Create a pool of resources all in one place so she can build relationships with the right people in a single day. 

Erika Gilchrist
Gilchrist speaking during the first WTF Expo in 2018. Photo by Jordan Cart, submitted by Gilchrist.

I made a decision that day that forever changed the trajectory of not only my life, but the lives of countless other women. In addition to writing a scathing email to the producers of that event, I created my own expo.

There are many moving parts to running a profitable business: marketing, accounting, sales, operations, staff, training…etc. All these things are extremely important and there’s no shortage of videos available to teach you about them. But the one piece that has always been missing when teaching people about business ownership is the personal development side of things.

How can you be consistent when marketing your business if your heart is broken? How can you train your staff when your confidence level is shot? How do you make money when you don’t feel worthy of wealth? I’ve experienced all these things and then some, and I wanted to make sure we hyper-focused on healing the woman first, so she can then heal the world.

With a clear vision and joyful heart, I set out to create my expo. Planning and execution is my jam! Until that point, I had already produced dozens of events, so I was in my personal genius. I know myself pretty well, and if I don’t set a date, it won’t get done. So, I set a date for the event and secured a location.

I’ve been in business long enough to know that you should surround yourself with people who know things [and people] you don’t. I knew that I would not be able to pull this event off impactfully alone. Then I tapped into my network and partnered with women who shared my passion and we cross-promoted our respective events.

I needed to bring women to my stage who were just as passionate about heart-healing as I was, and I found them. Women from companies like Yelp, Chicago Sky, WGN,, Chicago Cubs, and Emmy™ Award-Winning Producers showed up joyfully and offered raw, candid advice to the women I serve.

The first event, appropriately called, “W.T.F. – Women Thriving Fearlessly Expo,” debuted on Saturday, April 28th 2018. We attracted more than 700 people for the first event! To say that I was floored by the outpouring of love and support would be a gross understatement. To date, my expo has been named the largest expo exclusively for women in business in Chicago. It focuses on all the moving parts of running a business and how to be whole while doing it.

I am very grateful for that other women’s event because without it, I would not have created a platform for so many women to thrive in their businesses. All bad experiences are not bad experiences [read that again]. Until we speak again, thrive fearlessly!

Erika Gilchrist and a panel of women
Gilchrist and the panel of women that started the WTF Expo in 2018. Photo by Jordan Cart, submitted by Gilchrist.