Erin Amico Drawing Inspiration from Nature and Family

    Erin Amico’s career flight path has been more that of a butterfly than a jet; more here and there than straight ahead. And, appropriately enough, it has brought her to a leadership role at a beloved Chicago institution perhaps best known for its butterfly sanctuary.

    Recently named one of the city’s “40 Under 40” leaders by Crain’s Chicago Business, Amico is president and CEO at the Chicago Academy of Sciences/Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. She was selected based on her “passion for the mission, a deep love of Chicago and the area, and also the skills and the leadership ability to take the institution into its next chapter,” museum trustee Susan Whiting told Crain’s.

    The first Black person to hold the position in the organization’s 165-year history, Amico took on the new role last summer, from a varied marketing background in everything from luxury goods to the nonprofit world. Her unorthodox journey offers inspiration and encouragement to others who may not have a direct career route in mind.

    Amico’s arrival at the nature museum also marked something of a homecoming, for she was a regular visitor when she was young. “I wasn’t a big reader at the time, but I read this book, Dr. Doolittle, and I was really into animals”—primatologist Jane Goodall (of Gorillas in the Mist fame) was a childhood hero—“so I wanted to be a zoologist when I was really little,” she says.

    However, by the time she got to high school, “I don’t think I had any idea [what I wanted to do], even going way back when I was maybe in grammar school.” It was the same in college: “I just followed my heart. I followed my gut and I did what was interesting to me. Whenever I see people that have kind of this linear, perfect career path, that was not me.”

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    Graduating from Middlebury College with a bachelor’s in international studies and later earning two MBAs, Amico worked in media for jeweler Tiffany and, before her Notebaert move, in the tech field. “The one person that crazy career path kind of had to make sense to was myself,” she tells WayMaker Journal. “And for me, it was always that I like taking on big problems. I like brands. I like growing something with an existing base or interesting equity that just needed that extra nudge… my career path has been all over.”

    She may have zigged and zagged, but there have been connective threads through all she has done: determination, dedication and a little bit of daring. For example, though she was always a good student, pretty much straight As, she was not a good standardized test taker. “I would do horribly on the SATs, the GMAT,” she says. “I’m a big believer in tutors and things like that, because I always knew I was bright. I knew I was smart; my grades reflected that, but I think it was probably a little bit of some sort of learning disability. I just probably had a touch of dyslexia.”

    From Chicago’s independent private Latin School, Amico went to college in Middlebury, Vermont. “The middle of nowhere,” she says with a smile, “talk about being in nature. The city girl out there with the cows. I knew I was in a remote place because the closest McDonald’s was 40 minutes away.”

    I just followed my heart. I followed my gut and I did what was interesting to me.

    Creating my own path
    Located in Chicago’s Lincoln Park district, the nature museum has a long history as an oasis in the city. Founded by the Chicago Academy of Science as the first private scientific museum in the city, it later became the city’s first public museum when it opened to visitors in 1869 and soon became the fourth-largest natural history museum collection in the United States.

    Since moving to a newly built home in 1999, the nature museum—named for donors Dick and Peggy Notebaert—has become one of the most popular young family attractions in Chicago. One of the favorite parts there is the Judy Istock Butterfly Haven, a 2,700-square-foot greenhouse containing more than 40 species (where you can witness a daily First Flight release of new additions or take part in a weekly yoga class).

    One recent Trip Advisor reviewer wrote of their family’s visit: “So refreshing to interact with such welcoming, friendly, and knowledgeable volunteers and staff members. Everyone seemed to genuinely enjoy answering our questions and showing us the exhibits. Beautiful butterflies, awesome turtles, and more! Great for the whole family.”

    Amico’s back-to-back MBAs (the University of Cambridge, England, and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management) are evidence of her out-of-the-box thinking. She’d already applied for a place at Northwestern when she was offered a scholarship to study in the U.K., based on an essay she had written. “So, I went to London, and I fell in love with the city,” she says. “Walking around a place where you see buildings from the 16th century where the kings and queens were… I loved it.”

    Accepting the offer of the one-year program in Cambridge, she then went back to Kellogg. “I said, ‘Hey, you guys accepted me into your two-year program. Your requirement for being in your one-year program is prior business knowledge. Well, I’m going to complete my MBA at Cambridge, so I’m going to have prior business knowledge; transfer me into your one-year program.’ And they were like, ‘OK, crazy girl.’”

    The unlikely sequence of events was “an example of creating my own path,” she says. “I looked at the numbers: it’s the same amount of time, same amount of money (because they’re giving me some scholarship) and it’s what will enrich my personal experience in the best way.”

    Prior to joining the nature museum, Amico most recently spent three years as chief marketing officer with P33, a Chicago nonprofit promoting the tech industry. She believes that and all her other past experiences prepared her well for her new role. “I’m a marketer through and through, and I applaud the team at the nature museum for hiring a marketer because I think ex-marketers make the best CEOs,” she says.

    It’s not about me, it’s really about the mission and the work that I’m stewarding.

    Communities of color
    There’s probably not a better time to be bringing fresh life to the nature museum because its focus on issues like equity and climate change through promoting STEM education and conservation taps into current concerns. “All these topics are out there, and it feels like now’s a moment to be talking about nature and to be connecting with nature,” Amico says. “Coming out of the pandemic, people were literally running out of cities for refuge, for mental health, so to be at an organization that’s about nature and sustainability is so exciting.”

    As part of the museum’s program of public forums, Amico wants to address topics like sustainability. The movement driving the conversation about the issue is “not the most diverse environment,” Amico notes. “But we know that the negative impacts of climate change most affect communities of color, and I think the solutions to address climate change are going to come from communities of color.”

    Among the groups Amico has in mind to reach are teens, young adults and business leaders. If there used to be a time when young children grew beyond the appeal of the center, “there’s this new generation, the 12- to 24-year-olds that care about the climate, that’s activated, that wants to do something.” Then there’s Chicago’s rich business community, with its many Fortune 500 companies. “All of them now have to deal with new ESG [environmental, social and governance] regulations; how can we be a source of information for those corporations? Right now, we’re kind of little kids and families, but over the coming years, I want us to reach all of those different audiences.”

    Part of the nature museum’s new look is Nature’s Playspace, a $4 million immersive experience for children to learn about the outdoors. Due to open this year is a $1.5 million sustainability center highlighting climate issues. It will be the home for the organization’s Chicago Conservation Corps program, which trains local leaders to tackle urban environmental issues.

    Children remain an important focus, though. A mother of two daughters (she and husband Augustin K. Wegscheider celebrate their 10th anniversary this year) and author of three children’s books, Amico tells Chicago Parent magazine that to raise children who love nature it’s important to “champion and promote their instinctive curiosity. Explore your backyard, explore nature in whatever way you can… fuel that natural curiosity that children have. The more they wonder, the more they are curious, the more they’ll want to engage.”

    Jump in with both feet
    Amico’s varied career path suggests someone who was never afraid to try something new, but she admits that apparent confidence was a learned skill. “I was definitely one of those fake-it-till-you-make-it people,” she says. “And in the first moments when I would make the jump from, like, director to chief marketing officer (and now to president/CEO) impostor syndrome was real.”

    What has helped her get over that is reminding herself that “it’s not about me, it’s really about the mission and the work that I’m stewarding and bringing.” Plus, she has always had the drive to just go for it. “If something scares me, I have to jump in with both feet,” she says. “That has been the impulse, when I see an opportunity come by, I’ll take the conversation, I’ll apply for the job if it’s interesting and if it makes sense. And if it’s a fit for what I care about, I’m just going to say, ‘What have I got to lose? All they can say is no.’ And that’s been kind of my guiding push.”

    Even though she has taken more chances than many, Amico says what she would tell her 16-year-old self, knowing what she does now, is, “Fear is a waste of time; trust in your light.” She’s referring to the words of Nelson Mandela in his inaugural address as president of South Africa. “It’s not people’s dark side that they fear, but it’s their light,” she says. “If you’re a spiritual person, you can never be as great as God or that entity, but people limit themselves because they’re like, ‘Who am I to shine so bright? Who am I to be this person?’ And the quote says something like, ‘Who am I not to?’ That’s a little bit of that confidence and that kind of bravery that I wish I’d had earlier.”

    Amico advocates some kind of overseas experience, if at all possible, because of the way it broadens your horizons. Going to China on a school trip when she was 15 and having people wanting to take photos of and touch her then dyed-blond hair was eye-opening. Then there was her time in England, which led to one of her unexpected turns, introducing her to the luxury goods world.

    She had already had a taste of how new experiences can open up new possibilities. She studied French in college, where a professor told her that when you learn a second language you become yourself, but in that second language. “That ability to sort of be me, but then have this almost like other identity was really exciting.” As a Black woman, her unorthodox progression through different sectors is even more unusual.

    What advice does she have for young women looking to climb the corporate ladder? “Network and find mentors,” she answers in a heartbeat. “I’ve described myself as being really scrappy; I’m the person that will send that cold email on LinkedIn and just say, ‘Hey, do you have five minutes to grab coffee?’”

    Even just a few minutes with someone you admire—she name-checks Brenda Darden Wilkerson, president and CEO of, a community for women in tech, and Chevy Humphrey, president and CEO of the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago—can be invaluable. “Them telling me, ‘Read this book,’ or do this; those little tips, I take to heart,” says Amico. “So, build that network and reach out.”

    Hands down, my family, specifically my mom and my dad. They were both the first generation [in their family to go] to college; had nothing. Their example created the path for me. One of the things they told me was, “Erin, we’re not going to leave you tons of money, we’re not rolling like that, but we’re going to give you the best education we can provide.” Even the fact that I’m at a nature museum now, I think is a testament to my dad. He would always say, “Look to nature. Everything’s calm, everything’s still.” So, my love and interest in nature came from him.

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