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The LAist Interview: Karen Allen and Mara Schwartz, Ladies Who Brunch

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Like it or not, Los Angeles is all about networking. Who, what, why and how people know each other can create smaller social associations that make big cities more tolerable and humane. Whether inclusive or exclusive, they're part of what makes urban living so dynamic.

Plus in a town like LA, with its collection of special and creative folks, crafting social networks can be both fun and practical. Mara Schwartz and Karen Allen had these objectives in mind when they began Ladies Who Brunch in January 2003. Simply put in their words, LWB is an informal professional women's networking group. LWB has expanded beyond its initial focus of upwardly mobile women in the music industry (in fact, Karen now designs a line of kid rocker gear) to include events and bring in speakers who focus on everything from current events to dating. In short, myriad topics geared to what might interest the modern LA woman.

Through this forum and its email list, the 670 women who count themselves as members (recruitment is entirely by word of mouth) have created a growing professional and personal support network that harnesses LA's essentially unlimited resources. They plan to have many, many brunches and lunches in this town again.

Age and Occupation:

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Karen Allen, owner and designer of Renegade Babe, a line of rock 'n' roll-inspired baby accessories; Co-Founder of Ladies Who Brunch.

Mara Schwartz, 38, Director of Film, Television and New Media at Bug Music; Co-Founder of Ladies Who Brunch.

How long have you lived in Los Angeles, and which neighborhood do you live in?

K: I've been in Los Angeles for 12 years and just moved to Ladera Heights from the Fairfax District.

M: I've lived in Los Angeles since coming here for college in 1985, and I now live in Silver Lake.

Where are you from?

K: I grew up in Arizona, though I think of Los Angeles as my true home. I always wanted to move to California. Phoenix is a soulless city of tract housing and malls, and Tucson was fun but too small.

M: Orange County.

How did Ladies Who Brunch come about, and what's the goal?

K: At the time, Mara and I were going to a lot of new technology networking gatherings and we noticed we were almost the only women there. We decided to organize a women's brunch and each invited about 15 people. It was a great success, so we did it the next month as well. Our intent was to do the events as long as enough people came and found them to be enjoyable and useful. Two years and over 670 women later, here we are. The events draw between 50-100 women, so even with a group this big you don't get too lost in the crowd.

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I believe a key to our success is that recruitment is entirely by word of mouth - a current member has to recommend a new member in. We are not exclusionary; we just believe that this process ensures that our members will be active participants and respect the other women in the group. In other words, Ladies Who Brunch works because its members want it to.

The events have branched out from just brunch to occasional evening cocktail parties with speakers on topics such as career counseling, financial planning, self defense, wine tasting and online dating. We like to plan events that the modern LA woman would find interesting. We get bored of brunch and suppose the members do, too.

In what ways is a decentralized city like Los Angeles harder to network in, or how might it be easier?

K: Networking requires effort no matter what city you live in. If anything, being in Los Angeles makes networking easier, especially if you are in the entertainment industries where screenings, record release parties and concerts occur on a regular basis. I think it would be much harder to network in a city with no dominant industry to unite people.

M: I don't know if it makes much of a difference any more, with the Internet, faxes, home offices, etc. We not only organize networking events, but we have an email discussion list for members to meet and talk about various topics. There are women who've never come to an event because they're busy with family or other commitments, but they still feel linked in thanks to the list.

What kind of balance do you try to find among members?

K: Our only requirements for joining the group are that you be a woman living in the Los Angeles area and be referred in, so we make no official attempt to balance the membership based on occupation or interests. Coming from the music and new technology industries, that's where Mara and I invited the original members. When I launched Renegade Babe, I started inviting women I was meeting in fashion because that is where I needed to network. It really blossomed and has been very helpful to me.

While most of our members are in entertainment, publishing and fashion, we also have a strong contingent of artists, designers, small business owners, personal and professional service providers and even teachers. I'm continually impressed with the variety of women who join our group.

How has the group benefited its members?

K: The e-mail discussion group has become the bloodline of the group - a place for women to connect outside of the events. Through it, our members have found jobs, apartments, gynecologists, accountants, lawyers, home improvement contractors, realtors, roommates, concert tickets, travel advice, career advice and much more. Our members have even worked together to create events for tsunami relief.

The discussion group has become the ultimate LA referral network. Our members feel like they are online with their friends, so they are very open to helping each other. Referrals made to the group are seen as coming from a trusted source. It's like a crib sheet for life in LA.

What are some of your favorite gathering places in LA, either for Ladies Who Brunch or for other purposes.

K: Organizing a brunch on a weekend in Los Angeles for more than 20 people is no easy task. Many restaurants wanted nothing to do with us. Rita Flora was an early favorite before we outgrew it. M Bar has been a wonderful location for our evening events. The staff is accommodating and they have dinner for ladies just getting off work. We are continually on the lookout for new locations.

Personally, I'll always be a sucker for the Good Luck Bar in Silverlake, Bar Marmont at the Chateau Marmont and the El Rey Theatre, where tons of great bands play.

M: I see live music constantly, both for work and because I'm an obsessive music fan. Right now I really like Tuesday nights at Cinespace, Monday nights at Spaceland, and any night there's a good show at the Echo. The Well is great for happy hour. You can show up at 6:30 pm on a Wednesday, and it feels like Saturday night at midnight. I've also been doing yoga for eight years, and find Silver Lake Yoga to be a source of community that I didn't expect when I started.

Los Angeles is often stereotyped as a hard place to find personal connections and make friends. Do you agree with that assessment? Do find it challenging to make new friends here?

K: That's just people playa-hatin' on LA. I've met almost all of my friends through professional networking. I have many acquaintances, but I choose my friends carefully and make an effort to have them in my life.

M: I have so many friends that I feel bad not having more time to spend with each of them. To be honest, I don't see why it would be hard to make friends anywhere if you're engaged in your career and other activities. But maybe that's just me. I'm pretty busy.

Is there something about the particular culture of sexism in LA that necessitates these types of networking opportunities for women?

K: We didn't start this group as a political statement. Ladies Who Brunch is not so much about excluding men as it is about creating a forum for women to meet and help other women. There's a different energy in the air when men are not present. I think that women let their guard down and feel a sense of camaraderie. That's rare in a town this competitive.

M: I don't see it as Los Angeles specific, but I've seen a lot of boys'-clubbiness in the entertainment industry throughout my career. At some of my previous jobs at record labels, the guys had access to informal networks of information -- going out to lunch or golfing or strip clubs together -- that the women weren't invited to. This is just one of many networks that our members are likely to be part of, and it hopefully helps fill in some of those blanks if they're experiencing something similar. It also is easier for many women to walk up to a group of other women and begin a conversation than it would be in a mixed-gender setting.

What are your favorite LA-based movie(s) or TV show(s)?

K: I used to love "LA Law" as a kid, but think most of the shows overtly based on LA now tend to exaggerate the stereotypical views of our city. I was hoping "It's Like, You Know" would have been more dead-on funny, but it fell flat. "Joey" does a good job of keeping LA in the background enough to let LA-esque stories develop. I think his naïveté serves the show well. "Curb Your Enthusiasm" is fantastic when it's not creating an unbelievable scenario.

M: "Six Feet Under" is the most realistic fictional depiction of Los Angeles that I've ever seen. It shows Los Angeles as a vibrant, real city populated by interesting and thoughtful people from all walks of life and occupations. It doesn't portray us as a bunch of vapid, bubble-headed actor wannabes obsessed with our cars. I also really like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?

Best LA-themed book(s)?

K: I love the historical books about LA's seedy underbelly.

M: Play It As It Lays, Permanent Midnight

What's the best place to walk in LA?

K: In my neighborhood with the Komondor dog my husband and I just adopted. He gets a walk every day. Each time, he is so excited and wants to smell and pee on everything, like it's his first time there. You can't help but be in a good mood when he looks up at you with that big smile.

M: I love walking around my Silver Lake neighborhood and visiting all the cool clothing shops and restaurants.

It's 9:30 pm on Thursday. Where are you coming from and where are you going?

K: I'm either sewing an order for Renegade Babe or on my way out to a concert or Hollywood party.

M: I'm almost certainly heading out to see live music somewhere. Or to the monthly Hunnypot Film and TV Music Mixers, which is a networking event for my industry where I sometimes spin records.

If you could live in LA during any era, when would it be?

K: I'd love to have been here when downtown was alive with theaters and the houses had a lot of land around them. I'd buy lots of property on the west side and make a fortune when I retired.

M: I like it here now, actually.

What is the "center" of LA to you?

K: I lived in the Fairfax District for 10 years, so that will always be ground zero for me. You're about 20-30 minutes from either end of town and it's full of restaurants, boutiques and darling houses. I even liked The Grove.

M: My LA skews east a bit, but I love Sunset and Vine because of the Hollywood Farmer's Market and Amoeba Records.

If you could live in any neighborhood or specific house in LA, where/which would you choose?

K: I love the glamorous old 1920s mansions in Los Feliz. I'd be happy in an art deco or Craftsman style house that my husband and I could restore.

M: The Ennis-Brown House.

What is the city's greatest secret?

K: Descanso Gardens, though it's technically in La Canada. I got married there and it was like being hundreds of miles away from the city, when it was really only 30 minutes from my apartment. Just beauty everywhere you looked.

M: Our subway is one of the cleanest I've ever seen and a really convenient way to get downtown without having to deal with parking.

Describe your best LA dining experience.

K: This will sound so cloying, but my husband is a phenomenal cook. We recently went to a place we considered the ultimate steak house in town and I turned to him and said, "Yours is better." He bought an outdoor grill the day we moved into our house and it's brought us many, many fantastic meals.

M: My favorite restaurant is Atch-Katch, a Japanese restaurant in a mini-mall on Fountain and Vine. It's really nondescript from the outside -- you'd never look at it and think that it's somewhere you'd want to eat -- but they've got phenomenal bento boxes, noodle bowls, sashimi, etc. You can order from the menu, but it's better to order the specials written on the board, and best to be a regular and totally order off the menu.

Where do you want to be when the Big One hits?

K: Here, though I prefer the epicenter to be on the other side of town. Like way on the other side. I think it's a healthy reminder of how fragile the land is, and how quickly your life can change in a matter of seconds.

M: Somewhere where it's not going to hit me!