Paying it forward.
A day in the life of Frances Renk, 38, is enviable by any standard. The vivacious, model-gorgeous philanthropist sends her handsome husband, Chicago attorney Christopher Renk, off to work; spends quality time with her adorable toddler Sienna and 4-year-old dogs, Bandit and Mr. Wilson; lunches at some hotspot with friends that range from socialites to the business leaders she recruits for the good causes she embraces; takes meetings for her entrepreneurial efforts in the afternoon; dines with family or friends, depending on the night; and is always in bed by 9pm – unless she has a social engagement or benefit.
For now, her list of causes include board involvements at Design Industries Foundation Fighting AIDS (DIFFA), The Primo Center for Women and Children and – full disclosure – assisting the Today’s Chicago Woman Foundation (TCWF). But she’s no dilettante: at DIFFA she’s heading up the 2014 Gala, held annually in June; for The Primo Center she’s heavy in negotiations to snag a high-power exec for the board; and for TCWF she has single-handedly led an effort to raise enough money to fund several TCWF grants to organizations with budgets under $1 million serving area women and children.
What’s clear from this snapshot of her daily life is one thing: Ms. Renk has a will of iron, is relentless about raising money and is no stranger to rolling up her sleeves, getting down-and-dirty and working long hours for her causes.
She comes by this determination and work ethic thanks to her past, which is worlds away from the life she leads today. Though born in New York, “my parents lost track of the family wealth and sent me back to live with my grandparents in Seoul, South Korea, when I was 6,” she explains diplomatically. Her ne’er do well dad left the family, and she came back to the U.S. to live with her mother and sister in Chicago’s Albany Park at 12. “By the time I graduated eighth grade, I’d attended 12 different schools,” she notes with a laugh. But the experience made her “adaptable to anything,” she reasons, and gave her unmitigated drive. By the time she graduated high school, she admits, “I was determined to regain the things we used to have.”
Growing up in a first generation Korean household added another wrinkle to the fabric of Ms. Renk’s life: “My mother really pressured me to maintain a Korean identity when it came to my career and relationships,” she explains. “Yet she also gave me the confidence to do anything and she always believed in me.”
It was that strength of faith that started Ms. Renk on a path to fiscal success. With her mother’s approval and $50,000 from her grandparents, she bought a dry cleaning business when she graduated high school for $23,000 and put the rest into a two-bedroom Gold Coast condo for herself, her mother and younger sister Nancy. She was just 18 and already running the family’s business and finances, while also attending the University of Illinois at Chicago. But she put school on hold after a year when she realized she could put her earnings to work in other endeavors and opened Mitazi – a full-service nail salon in Lincoln Park.
At Mitazi, Ms. Renk developed a reputation for her style and quality of services, and a following that swelled to over 2,500 customers a month within a year. She soon started to cultivate her own community of enterprising women from her customer base. “I quickly realized that it’s not the networking that gets you ahead, it’s your credibility, loyalty, consistency and honor,” she says.
By 20, Ms. Renk had become a diehard entrepreneur and was looking for new opportunities – especially since she was supporting her mother and vowed to get her sister Nancy through college. She branched into coin laundries (which her mother operated), kept growing Mitazi and soon became aware of the real estate market. By 22, she began buying and selling properties and earned her broker’s license.
These experiences crystalized the mantra she’s maintained to this day: Whatever you put into the universe ends up coming back to you in the end. “It’s worked for me,” she points out, noting that the close friends she made at Mitazi and her subsequent endeavors are still her close friends today. Truth be told, “while Frances has met so many people through her businesses, she’s earned their support, admiration and loyalty with her fierce commitment to relationships, joie de vivre and generosity of spirit,” says TCW’s Sherren Leigh, who counts Ms. Renk among her close friends.
That joie de vivre attracted Christopher Renk when she met him at the now defunct Chicago restaurant Tsunami in 1998. He took her number, but then played phone tag with her for an entire year before they had their first date. It was fine by her: “I was really busy with work,” she says matter-of-factly. But once they did get together, Chris proudly points out that he never had to make another date. “She’s in total control and really good at it,” he boasts.
They married in 2001, and Ms. Renk’s trailblazing business reputation attracted the attention of her sister-in-laws, who suggested that she become involved in brand development and retail operations for Sequin, the family jewelry business they had just founded. She did that and ran Mitazi concurrently, selling the nail salon in 2003 and giving up her position at Sequin in 2012, when she had Sienna, because of all the travel the job required.
With no businesses to run for the past 18 months, Ms. Renk has been devoting her attention to building boards and more. “I have a publishing venture in the works,” she admits, but can’t say much more because of the NDA she signed with her partners. But one thing is certain: her enterprising days and ways are still nascent. “I have a lot more to put out into the universe,” she admits. And that means a lot more to get back for her projects and causes, we predict.
Hair and makeup by Frances Tsalas | John Reilly Photograph