Learning about gender equality at Virgin Hotels Chicago

Maria Ines-Gul worked with Virgin.com to create the incredible artwork for our International Women’s Day series in March. But celebrating women lasts longer than a day – and soon after, for Equal Pay Day, Maria headed to Chicago to visit Virgin Hotels to learn more about gender equality and to meet some inspiring women. She shares her travel journal…

Both of my parents are Geography teachers and I grew up in an abundance of maps: giant wall charts in their classrooms, road maps of local towns with interesting walking routes marked, atlases filled with exotic places, names disguised in mysterious languages.

When I started university my dad gave me his old map of North America. I put it on the wall above my bed, just like he did in his college dorm. Before I fell asleep, lying in my bed, I would stare at the map thinking about the imaginary travels, my eyes would often stop at Lake Michigan. I had no idea at that time that this pool of water is such an exquisite turquoise colour. Places like Chicago and New York, though distant have always felt strangely connected with my life and somehow intertwined in its narrative. Going to America had always been a huge dream of mine.

After a long and delayed flight from London, involving two flat tires and one tornado alert, I arrived in Chicago late at night. I got off the train at the Washington stop, walked out of the exit and stared right up at the tall concrete forest. Usually scared of tall buildings, in that moment I felt incredibly excited instead. The Virgin Hotel was just around the corner and after inspecting the incredible view from my room on the 13th floor I fell into a deep peaceful slumber. 



I woke up early next morning and went to the third floor to join the “Future of the Female Entrepreneurs” - an event organised by Virgin Hotels for the Equal Pay Day. It was a panel discussion with five highly successful businesswomen talking about their own experiences in the industry, giving useful advice on how to survive in business.

To believe and invest in oneself was the first crucial step according to Diane Latiker. Building a community and networking were among the other highlighted topics. Keisha Howard and Nicole Yeary talked about the importance of reaching out to like-minded people and forming a good team. Alison Victoria's call was to support other women and keep the female competition healthy. "You belong at the table", "your vibe attracts the tribe", "put your foot in the door" were just few of the many motivational quotes. The atmosphere was great, the air almost electric. After an hour in the room with a crowd of women nodding, laughing and clapping, I left energised and inspired. Take a peek at my notebook from the event below...

Next on my list was to go and see the lake and the Art Institute. The water felt very still and I was surprised by its beautiful shade of turquoise. The Art Institute was incredible, I spent the rest of my day there and the amount of beauty was quite overwhelming.


Arriving in New York I was absolutely exhausted but still had too much adrenaline and excitement to simply fall asleep that night. My apartment was located in Clinton Hill, a picturesque neighbourhood not too far from the East River so I decided to walk up to Brooklyn Bridge. The construction, as everything in America, was enormous and so much bigger than I had imagined. The footpath was built with squeaky wooden boards and through the cracks I could see cars speeding up below. There was some loose change in my pocket so I decided to celebrate my entry into Manhattan with a hot dog from the van. The skyline was built with thousands of little lights blazing in the dark sky, like an airstrip, guiding me and inviting to set my feet in the city that never sleeps.


My very first drawing kit was a box of 120 Crayola wax crayons, sent over from New York by my parent’s college friend. The crayons had served me well and filled my childhood with colours, ideas and shapes. Ania and her husband still live in New York and have not seen my parents in 26 years but immediately sent an invitation for a family dinner so we could finally meet. One of the best things about this trip was a chance to meet up with people, fellow artists and collaborators, many of these meetings were for the first time.

On Sunday I met up with Tavi Gevinson for brunch. We had been working together for years, mostly for her online magazine, Rookie. The second we saw each other we started to laugh as we had both picked out matching pink outfits. After the meal we went on a long walk around the streets of Fort Greene, climbed up the hill and visited her favourite local bookstore. 

We talked about many different subjects but one of the most memorable moments was a conversation about how travelling to dream places can be overwhelming. We expect perfect experiences and it disconnects us from reality. Looking around feels like watching a film: vision becomes super sharp and oversaturated while we try to grasp the impossible - pure essence of the moment. We can only render it piece by piece; sounds, shapes, colours, patterns, textures, smells...



The first thing that I noticed about New York was the ever-present smell of fresh laundry. The second thing was the colour palette. The pigment combinations felt completely different and fresh: chalky browns and grays, mustardy yellow and lots of deep green.

Writing this I realised that it is exactly what I am wearing today. The new colour palette is just the first thing out of many that I took home with me. I know that there is so much more still to be discovered.

All illustrations by Maria Ines-Gul.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details.


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