Saskia Maas, Boom Chicago

Saskia Maas was an exchange student in the U.S. when one of her friends told her his brother is starting a comedy theatre in Amsterdam, “if he needs any help, he should give me a call” she said, and that’s when it all started. It was 26 years ago when Saskia Maas, Pep Rosenfeld and Andrew Moskos founded Boom Chicago in Amsterdam, a comedy theatre and a creative organization that creates comedy shows, television production, and personalized programs and videos for campaigns and events all over the world. Boom Chicago was the first to introduce improv comedy to the Dutch audience who loved it and couldn’t believe it was actually all made up from scratch. 

“There’s a misconception that improvisation is kind of winging it, but that’s not true at all. Improvisation is so much about the underlying strategies and techniques, and how you interact with your fellow performers.” Saskia said

Saskia is the CEO of Boom Chicago, running the business side of the company, while Pep and Andrew run the creative side. Saskia is also a mother of two wonderful boys, 15 and 18. Inspired by her youngest son, Saskia co-founded Inter-Acting, a foundation that teaches children and young adults with autism social skills and understandings through improvisation.

Saskia didn’t know much about improv comedy before meeting her co-founders, she did her postgraduate studies in text linguistics at the University of Tilburg, which didn’t have much to do with business or comedy. Yet her excitement about the idea and her skills in organizing and getting things done made this partnership work really well.

Whenever I’m at a university I’m so happy, I love being in classrooms and seeing groups of students hanging out and walking on campus. It just gets me so excited.” Saskia said

As the company started growing and the business started getting quite big, Saskia decided to go to Nyenrode Business School to study foundations of management to get a little bit more of a solid business foundation that would help her in running the business. Later on, Saskia wanted to challenge herself again, so she decided to follow a leadership program at the THNK School of Creative Leadership.Bottom of Form

“In all honesty, if I could study my entire life that would be great; I love studying and learning new things. I think you should never be done with learning, there will always be something new to learn and something that can help you grow and take you to the next level.” Saskia continued

Over the years, shows at Boom Chicago kept getting smarter and more creative in terms of how they are built, how improv is being used and what effect it can have. People at Boom Chicago have an innate drive to build and create new things all the time, and to apply improvisation to trending topics while looking at them from different angles.

“Our latest show about artificial intelligence started from the notion that comedians will probably be the last people to be replaced by robots, but is this really the case? can you teach a robot how to be funny? can you teach a robot how to improvise? So we developed, together with Nodes Agency in Amsterdam, an improvising robot that is part of our show.” Saskia added

Boom Chicago aims to change lives through laughter and comedy. It’s a place where talent grows and a safe space where people get on stage to have fun and be themselves without any judgement. It’s a place that’s full of positive energy and happy people, a place that boosts your energy the moment you enter the room, and a place where you can’t help but smile when you walk into. I would say, if happiness is contagious then Boom Chicago is the place to catch it, and as their slogan says: “Life is better when you laugh”.

Saskia Maas speaks to Women to Watch Media about challenges, accomplishment, proud moments, hopes, life and future plans…

Name something that guides both your personal and professional development, and helps you regain focus during challenging times.

At the core, it’s a deep-down optimism that helps me get through life and face the challenges that come my way. I also believe that everything eventually works out, this is something I say to my kids all the time. There’s always something to learn from the experiences we go through in life, even the bad ones. When you look back at something that happened in your past, you realize that it led you to where you are today, and that where you are today is better than had you not have this experience.

Improvisation helps with that too, because at the core of it, it’s all about “yes, and”, where even the stupidest craziest idea will always have a kernel which you can build on, and that’s the way we run our business. It’s not that we improvise and see what happens; it’s very much about following the basic notion that no matter what happens, there’s always a place to start from and something to build on.

A big shock in my life, for me and my husband, was that our youngest son is autistic. Before I had children I prayed to God that none of them would be autistic, because that seemed to me like the worst thing that can happen to me, besides having a child with cancer. I thought I would love my child so much but not have any connection with him, and that would be really hard. Then it happened to me and I realized it’s actually not the worst thing that can happen, it’s actually a learning experience and it has brought me to so many wonderful places, and my son is just great, he’s so amazing.

What’s your greatest personal challenge and how did you achieve success in spite of it?

Building a business with my best friends was a challenge; it’s nice when it goes well but it’s certainly challenging when it doesn’t. But it’s still fantastic to be able to do this with the people I love the most. I’m super happy that we have maintained this strong friendship throughout the 26 years. I mean I’m married to one of my best friends and I consider the other one my brother, the three of us are still super tight.

We have managed to sail through the ups, the downs and the financial stress which can kill friendships in a second. Not being ego driven, we kept our eyes on the goals and focused on our vision and where we want to take our business.

The beauty of improv is that there’s not one star on stage, or one person who’s better than the others; it’s always about building scenes together. This can be applied to business and life, but for this to work you have to trust each other and let go of things that don’t matter. Things can get annoying sometimes, but this can also happen with the people you love the most, you just need to let some things slide if they’re not really important, otherwise you’ll be bothered by stuff all day long. Just focus on what is really important and let the trivial things go.

Photo Credit Jelle Draper

How do you manage fear and anxiety?

It can be quite lonely at the top and that’s an honest truth. Nobody knows what it’s like to be in a position where you’re the driving force of an organization and the person who has to make certain decisions, unless they’re in that position themselves. Personally, I don’t have a whole lot of people in my life who have been or are in that position, but I have two amazing coaches who help me get through. Having coaches who act as a sounding board in my professional and personal life helps me see things in a different way. This has been tremendously helpful.

Photo Credit Jelle Draper

What’s your greatest professional accomplishment, and why it means so much to you?

What I love the most is that Boom Chicago is a place where talent grows. It doesn’t matter to me whether it’s Seth Meyers, Jill Benjamin or whoever, it’s not about being famous on TV, it’s about the opportunity they were all given here to be who they wanted to be and to grow from there. So for me, being able to give all these people this opportunity is a great accomplishment.

Last year we had our 25th anniversary, which took place at The Royal Theatre Carré in Amsterdam, and we had about 70 alumni coming back to be part of the celebration. They all have such a strong sense of connection to Boom Chicago, because this is the place where they grew as performers and met people who they still do projects with; a lot of the alumni still collaborate in America, which is great. Usually in a performance one of the actors steps on stage first, then calls out the rest of the cast, and normally it’s t 3 or 4 more people coming out. But on that day, the stage was flanked with so many people jumping up and down. This gave me a great sense of pride, sitting there with my 18 years old son, seeing this happening right in front of me and having him there to share this moment with.

We also started the “Boom Academy” which is a continuation of giving people the opportunity to learn improv comedy, and ‘Inter-Acting’ where we give young teenagers with autism a chance to be who they are and to grow their talent. So often these young people get to hear from counselors and people who are working with them that they will never do this or that. At Boom Chicago, they can climb on stage and do whatever they want. So, knowing that we are a place where talent can grow makes me super happy.

Photo Credit Jelle Draper

How do you see Boom Chicago in the future?

The ‘Boom Academy’ has just started, so I’m very excited about the fact that there will be students forming their own theater groups after giving them a place to learn and grow their talents. I also really love the challenging assignments we get through what we call ‘’Boom for Business”. Our motto is “Life is better when you laugh” and when we apply it to the business world we say “Humor makes business better”, by opening closed doors, making sure all ideas are heard, talking and laughing about new projects or changes while still having a serious tone when it comes to moving forward with the business. This actually helps create a team that is inspired and an environment that is more inclusive.

I see us growing our business network even more in the next five years. We are doing a lot of great assignments already, hosting events and facilitating really interesting projects and I think there’s still a lot of growth potential in this area. So I see us playing a key role in making people’s lives better.

What do you believe is at the core of women’s hesitation to step out and pursue leadership positions?

Women are not so ego driven, which I think is positive, that’s why they don’t necessarily have to be in the front in order to contribute. But I always wonder if it maybe has to do with their reluctance to take risks and to embrace failure, which is at the core of wanting to take the lead, and also maybe not having enough trust and confidence that it’s fine whether they fail or not. I think that men are more driven by their egos and status to be in the front, they are also less concerned about failing.

So I think that the more women are comfortable with trying things again and again, learning from what didn’t go right and being okay with the fact that some things don’t work, while they keep going and keep looking for other ways, and they have the opportunity to do so, then we will have more strong women at the top.

And what is the benefit of having more women at the top?

Well I think it will lead to a more inclusive workplace. There is more attention and awareness now that for businesses to thrive, we need to have a more inclusive environment, where it doesn’t matter which background you come from, whether you’re a migrant, a refugee or someone with autism, we need everybody to be part of the workplace.

What role should men play in creating more diversity?

I would love for them to be more outspoken; to be louder about the value of diversity. Organizations started from people speaking up and I think we need men to say that they enjoy an environment that’s diverse. Also, to talk more about the women that inspire them, because once this is accepted, more people will speak up.

What inspires you?

I have an admiration for people who overcome struggles. I also have an admiration for successful people, not necessarily financially, but especially in the realm of sports. I am a huge sports fan, especially soccer and baseball, and I’m inspired by the emotions and the drive in it to achieve something. I also love people who build things from scratch and succeed. My own kids and family also inspire me.

Photo Credit Jelle Draper

What does life mean to you?

I’m very conscious about the fact that I’ve been fortunate to have a very good life. The challenge of having an autistic child is not the easiest thing to experience but it’s been wonderful. So life to me is just a good thing, it’s something that you can make and build yourself, just make sure you don’t let yourself be pushed to the negative side.

What’s your favorite book?

One of my favorite books about improv is Keith Sawyer’s “Groups Genius”, which talks about how all inventions were not really the work of one person, but has always been a group process. He describes the way the mountain bike was built by a bunch of guys in California who kept biking on weekends in the rough terrain, collaborating and adding different pieces to their bikes, discussing what works and what doesn’t until they came up with the complete design. To me that’s very inspiring because I strongly believe that it’s always a group process and not a single person’s work.

If you are to write the book, what would it be about?

There are two topics that I feel strongly about, so one book would be about the inclusive workplace and how improvisation can help with building a more inclusive environment, and the other, which I would write with my husband, would be about the creative ways we discovered to work with our autistic son and to deal with the challenges that life brings our way.

Did you have a role model growing up?

My dad is my hero; I was injured quite badly in an accident when I was 9 and he supported me through this rough patch. He used to talk to me and help me get through every day. I still talk to my dad when I have challenges at work, he’s such a great listener, and I learned how to listen quite well from him. I think listening is one of the most important skills someone should have in life. Yet, people are often focused on their own contribution to a conversation that they miss on things that were said because they don’t really listen.

Do you have a morning ritual or routine that helps you face the day with a more positive attitude?

Well I just need to take my time in the morning; I love getting up early and being home for at least an hour before I leave, I don’t like rushing out.

I also really like to walk to work, because walking is just wonderful; it puts you in a different mindset, it clears your mind and helps you think about the day and what you want to do. You don’t get to work all hot and bothered, but rather relaxed and fresh. I also plan in my agenda, on a regular basis, to go for a walk on the beach to clear my head.

What are you grateful for today?

I’m grateful that I enjoy my work and I’m happy that my son came to the office with me today, he’s hanging out with our cat. My other son who’s 18, has left to America yesterday for five months, it was a teary goodbye but he arrived okay and he’s going to have an amazing time, I’ll miss him tremendously but I’m grateful for him having this opportunity. I’m also grateful for my health and that I could take a yoga class this morning.

What was the best advice you’ve ever been given?

My dad always said: “you can’t change the other person; you can only change yourself or the way you perceive what’s happening”. I think this can be quite helpful when you come across something or someone that drives you crazy.

Also, one of the best advices I’ve gotten in terms of public speaking was when I was giving a TED Talk, and one of our coaches Michael Diederich said to me: “Saskia stand like a lady not a cowboy”, which means keep your feet together and stand still, this makes you look more calm and confident.

What advice would you give to women around the world?

I have my own motto which is “sell first, solve later”. It often happens that when you come up with an idea or a plan, you start thinking of all the barriers that you might face, which can stop you from even taking the first step. I always say don’t think about barriers you might face, keep going until roadblocks appear then find ways to overcome them, because you can and you will. I’m not saying create a mess and fix it later, but rather have a drive to move forward, without letting the possible barriers on the road hold you back or prevent you from getting to where you want to go. Think of hurdles as interesting problems that you will definitely solve.

Written by Yasmeen Smadi

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