On beginning, career change, and empathy

The following is derived from an interview. For the full article, click here

How did you begin Project Exponential?

MW: I was living in New York City, bored out of my mind after finishing my masters at Columbia University and working in their admissions department. The creative in me wasn’t satisfied, and the realist in me knew I couldn’t afford to stay in Manhattan on a social worker’s salary. I began moonlighting as a copywriter and slowly weaseled my way into the advertising industry.

How does a social worker enter advertising?

MW: The same skills I’d use in the therapist room I would use while consulting with larger companies: asking questions, trying to dissect possible causes for a person’s behavior, trying to understand what they want and what drives them. In advertising, it’s the same thing. You identify your audience and imagine who they are, what they want, what motivates them. Then you build campaigns that successfully reach them. The method is similar but the population is different.

How did the first dinner come about?

MW: After directing New York City’s Social Media Week, my contact list became an eclectic mix of social do-gooders and non-profit leaders, tech experts, marketing gurus, entrepreneurs and a various assortment of athletes, entertainers and minor celebrities. I imagined what might happen if these accomplished, talented people found themselves in one room. The therapist from the South Bronx has something to offer the Wall Street executive; it’s just a matter of giving them the opportunity to exchange ideas and talk openly.

Who was invited?

MW: The very first dinner was a list of academics, entrepreneurs, investors, therapists, writers, performers, and marketers. I invited around twenty people to SoHo’s Cafe Select. They have a great back room, a hidden dungeon that you have to walk through the kitchen to enter. It’s lit with small lights and candles, and the magical environment added to the evening’s serendipity.

One of the key ways I separate Project Exponential from other networking events is I don’t tell people who is coming. I don’t list names or titles. I want people to connect on a real and personal level. If they want to reveal they’re the CEO of whatever company because they feel that is important, fine, but I’m more focused on relationship building and what someone has to give. That’s where the real magic happens.

What do people talk about at dinners?

MW: Dinners are loosely structured with questions; the exact format depends on who is attending. I encourage people to talk about their struggles and challenges because everyone in the room is some expert. It’s an incredible resource for people. Sometimes the best insight comes from someone looking at a problem from an entirely different perspective, and work can be inspired with a fresh set of eyes.

How are dinners structured?

Dinner questions often focus on empathy and giving. The topic of empathy is one that has been derived from my social work training. The ability to recognize what contributes to another’s worldview, what influences the way they assess and analyze situations, and how to put yourself in their shoes is a skill that can be utilized both personally and professionally.

Seating charts are designed based on what I’ve come to learn about each person and what I think they can offer. The number of attendees is limited because I have found small groups allow the type of intimacy that enables people to connect and get honest.

You have a large roster of clients who want to attend. How has the word spread?

MW: It’s been word of mouth. A lot of thrashing happened in the beginning. I tried different formats and researched the history of the salon. Trial and error came helped me define the ideal size and format for the dinners. The evening unfolds like an onion: the beginning is creative and exploratory and by the end of the evening, people are helping each other with real life problems. They’re asking each other questions and using each other as resources, even sometimes hugging as friends.

What is the process of selecting guests for the evening?

MW: That’s my social work background: how to analyze and assess and identify areas of need and opportunity. My work is to get the right people in the room. I evaluate each attendee’s experiences and look to match skills and interests. I look at it like a big puzzle piece, putting people together in a way that makes sense.

My opinion is that most everyone is trying to get somewhere. If I can make introductions to someone who is already “there” or knows how to move in that direction, that is value. Very few people are exactly where they want to be. And that’s a good thing. We’re all in this together — exploring and failing and achieving goals. The beauty is that people have different experiences across different verticals.

How do online interactions affect these offline encounters?

MW: Technology has been instrumental to bridging gaps that once existed. We have the opportunity to develop so many different connections and reach out to people we didn’t have access to before; however, I believe certain things can only develop in person, away from computers and gadgets.

Project Exponential has been founded on blending both worlds to create meaningful relationships. I use social platforms to introduce and connect people yet emphasize the value that stems from real experiences. The most authentic, vulnerable conversations take place when you step away from the screen.

What has been most rewarding for you?

MW: The emails I get from people whose career paths have changed because of someone they met, people who have started projects together. Others have found business partners, friends, mentors. My work with Seth Godin showed me the value of connection and what can happen when people build relationships in a real way.

My best success is when I’ve helped someone move in the direction that’s closer to what they want for themselves, both in business and in life. As a probation officer, I found great satisfaction in seeing positive change. It’s the same thing now: I love hearing I’ve helped people achieve their goals by introducing them to the right people.