A Conversation with Sarah Weiner

When I think of Sarah Weiner I think of this quote by LP Jacks: “The master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence at whatever he does, leaving others to decide whether he is working or playing. To him, he is always doing both.” Sarah and I met in Napa, at our Food Heroes dinner, and then again in New York over tapas at Seamus Mullen’s El Colmado and every time we chat I’m so moved by her passion for good food and the notion that people who make food that is delicious, respectful of the environment and connected to communities and cultural traditions deserve recognition--hence her current role as Director of the Good Food Awards. Having worked as Alice Waters’ “Girl Friday,” as Content Director of Slow Food Nation and as Co-Founder of the Seedling Projects prior to the Good Food Awards, Sarah is always up to something super interesting in the food space and I’m energized whenever I speak to her. It’s been several months since our dinner together so I thought I’d just catch up with her by phone and ask her instead about any progress and inspiration that may have emerged since our dinner together:

 

On something exciting in the food scene that’s inspired her in the last few months:

I know I’m slightly biased because I have gotten to know them over the years as they keep winning Good Food Awards but the Olympia Provisions new book is fabulous - from the writing, which sounds just like Eli Cairo’s humble and frank way of talking in person, to the breathtaking pictures of the Alpine Mountain town where Eli staged for four years and learned to make charcuterie. Those pictures are captivating, and came just as I was thinking about where to go for vacation, which made the choice really easy.

 

On the best advice she’s ever gotten:

The advice was told to me as: “Ha il potere chi fa,” which roughly translates to “Power lies with those who do.” It came from Paolo DiCroce, Slow Food’s International Secretary (basically, the man right below founder Carlo Petrini when it comes to the international Slow Food movement). I was a year or two into planning Slow Food Nation, which would become the biggest Slow Food event ever to take place on American soil with 85,000 people outside San Francisco’s City Hall. As often happens with a big ambitious project that many different people have set their hopes on, there were a lot of struggles in the vision, the scale, the right team to   lead it forward. I was 26 and trying to get this thing off the ground and was complaining to Paolo about things that were ultimately unimportant - this person saying this, or that person representing what we were doing in some way that didn’t seem right - and I’ll never forget this super simple and true message.  None of what people were saying mattered, it’s the doers that shape the world.

 

On what she’s most excited about in the next ninety days:

The Good Food Awards will be hosting its first traveling Mercantile this weekend! On May 1, we’re helping to gather together 85 of our past winners and Good Food Merchants Guild members - with all their amazing food - to meet 300 grocers, chefs and media. It’s so fun because the food crafters are with “their people,” other small and medium sized food producers that deeply care about their craft and the integrity around sourcing their ingredients sustainably and socially responsibly. While we have done this as an annual event in San Francisco and New York, this is the first time we are taking it on the road and if it works we’re planning to go to a different city each year. When we go, we spend a lot of time finding and inviting that region’s food community to attend and it’s really neat to see what is happening in the Midwest especially because I grew up in St. Louis and I see how far my town and the towns nearby have come; how pervasive the ideas around what good food is have become. We have a couple really wonderful food crafters driving 8 hours from Kansas City to make it - a brother and sister team who are working with a local salt mine (and foraging midwestern sumac and other native ingredients) to create “Made in Kansas” culinary salts, and a spitfire husband and wife that are working with a bunch of great farms to make shrubs, pickles and preserves (Kansas City Canning Co.). It is really exciting to see these people following their passion and conversing all day with people who appreciate them for what they are doing and could make a huge difference in building their businesses. Owners of some of the best grocery stores in the country are flying out for it. I can’t wait.

 

A Conversation with Marcus Brain

When I first met Marcus, it was in connection with a safari I was planning for my family in South Africa. We used his company and in just under a week experienced some of the most beautiful scenery and had some of the most dramatic game sightings imaginable. So it seemed only fitting when it came time to plan the How To Lead an Epic Life dinner for Capetown that I include someone who has made a career of creating unforgettable experiences for others in one of the most far flung corners of the world. I caught up with Marcus as he was on his way to Kruger for Easter to discuss some of his favorite moments from our conversation back in the fall and, as always, was very interested to hear what he’s most excited about in the coming season…

 

On why he was at the table:

My company believes in showcasing the best of Africa to international travelers but also that tourism can alleviate the plight of millions through employment and foreign investment. So every day feels to me like I am doing something for my continent. But the timing of this dinner was also opportune for me personally in that even something as exotic as the adventure travel business is like everything else a business. And I have found myself recently trying to strike the right  balance in life and find a way to escalate work to something more meaningful than just “the grind.” Sharing thoughts and ideas with like-minded people was absolutely invaluable.

 

On a valuable lesson learned over dinner:

There were so many amazing people in the room like Mathapelo Ngaka from Monkeybiz, author and speaker George Walther and Elana Brundyn of Zeitz Mocca but their lives all pointed to the same singular lesson: Challenge yourself to live your own truth. It was pretty powerful stuff.

 

On inspiration found post-dinner:

Several people talked about the simple solutions of de-cluttering your life and prioritizing what is important. Small steps like ridding yourself of unnecessary technology and making time to reward yourself are now things I am thinking about on a daily basis.

 

On another kind of inspiration (whether on screen, on the page, or in real life) that recently moved him in an altogether different way:

I recently read the new Elon Musk book: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance which is a fascinating story of focus, made all the more interesting to me as a fellow South African entrepreneur. Highly recommended.

 

On something epic he’ll be doing in the next few months:

I’ll be taking time out to camp in Botswana game reserves in May. Cannot wait!

 

On the best advice he ever got:

My hands down favorite was this one: Wear your reputation as your highest crown.

A Conversation with Todd Putman

Todd Putman and I met as part of a group that walked the last 110 kilometers of a spiritual pilgramage across Spain known as Camino de Santiago (or simply “the camino”). Suffice it to say that walking from town to town for miles every day in all conditions, and carrying everything you need for the entire trip on your back, breeds closeness and lots of time for talking, thinking, and more talking. So when it came time to put together a dinner around the theme of Where Are Our Food Heroes, I thought immediately of Todd who is both passionate about this subject and, as I learned on the Camino, a great conversationalist. He is also a veteran marketing executive who has worked at Coca Cola, Pinkberry, and Bolthouse Farms, where he was the architect of “Eat Brighter” a partnership between the White House and First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! Initiative, the Sesame Workshop, and the Produce Marketing Association created to encourage children to eat more fruits and vegetables, Todd is currently General Manager of the Garden Fresh Gourmet unit of Campbells. He brought an informed and creative spirit to our discussion of food heroes so I caught up with him briefly about this thoughts and reactions that evening and in the intervening months.

On why he was at the table:
I’m privileged to sit smack in the middle of changing the food system in the U.S and I’m connected to a ton of people doing the same thing. At Bolthouse, we used creative and impactful marketing to try and change the food system and I’m doing the same thing at Garden Fresh now, uniquely backed by a CEO and a quickly changing “big food” company.

On what really got him thinking differently that night:
The topic of gut health. Marrying that to some of the work we are doing around genome research got me thinking: Could there be a DNA designed food system for individuals that would address gut health and radically improve people’s lives??

On his inspiration following that dinner:
The dinners are not causation, they are propellant. They are shots that push conversations and solutions to move faster. Most people that attended the food heroes were already active problem solvers working on cool solutions (Karen Washington and Sam Kass to name just two). But these dinners are that sparks that I know will start even bigger fires. Again, I consider them propellant.

On another kind of inspiration (whether found on screen, on the page, or in real life) that recently moved him in an altogether different way:

The Revenant. The pure human power of personal will, passion, commitment is often underestimated and almost always amazing when trotted out in full view as it was in that film. (I will add here that Todd is too modest to mention a book that inspires him and that he is obviously passionate about: his own! Be More: Find Your Truth, Tell Your Story, and Get What You Want Out of Life is Todd’s book designed to empower people to accomplish their goals and realize their individual potential. While I am singing his praises you should also check out his great Tedx PerdueU talk.

On the best advice he ever got:
Take time to do nothing. Hear nothing. Just be.

A Conversation with Karan Bajaj

Karan Bajaj is a bestselling author and striving Yogi, who was born and raised in the Indian Himalayas but who now lives in Brooklyn. A former banker who took a year long sabbatical from New York to travel, write, and practice yoga and meditation with his wife Kerry. Karan regularly blogs about writing and meditation. (Worth noting that we actually met through Kerry who works with our mutual friend, and attendee at the Where Are Our Food Heroes dinner, Dr. Frank Lipman.) In any case, when it came time to assemble guests for my first dinner to tackle the topic of Religion vs. Spirituality, Karan was an obvious choice not just because I knew he would have a unique perspective to share but also because I knew he would bring a compassionate heart. Here are few of his thoughts when asked to reflect back on dinner experience:

On why he was at the table:
More than anything else, just being a human who was very possessed by questions of “Who am I?”, “Does life have any objective purpose”, “Why was the world created” etc. after my mother’s death. A deeper exploration of this question led me to quit my corporate job in New York and take a year off to travel from Europe to India by road without any possessions and spend a year meditating in the Himalayas. I answered some of my questions in my year off, the rest I answer to myself through my writing and daily meditation practice and in rare occasions, through discussions with fellow seekers like the one David organized.

On what surprised him about some of his fellow guests:
I was deeply struck by the intensity of religious experiences that some of the fellow participants experienced. In my skepticism of experiences that originate from traditional religious structures, I’d closed myself off to the possibility of redemption and mystical realization from traditional faith.

On a new way of thinking about of fundamentalism:
One of the challenges we discussed at length was religious fundamentalism. Indeed, I found a very specific solution to that because openness begins with me—and post the dinner, I did realize that I was fundamentalist in my own way by rejecting traditional religious experiences as being fundamentalist.

On the book that deepened his regular practice of meditation:
Mindfulness by Joseph Goldstein. Buddhism and meditation has become so populist and simplistic in the West with mantras and chanting and "just let go" instructions that I was stunned to find this rare gem of the book which doesn't flinch away from the hardcore intellectual components of Buddhist philosophy. One of the few books that has greatly deepened my meditation practice. Something switched on in me after reading the book and I evolved from a concentration based meditation practice to an awareness-based practice by my own accord.

On his favorite image from the Yoga Sutras:
There is a metaphor in the Yoga Sutras that compares life to an eagle flapping its wings high, then bringing them down gracefully. First, you grow, pushing the boundaries of your experience in the world—travel, work, love, writing—in every dimension. Then, you pull away from the world of sights and sounds and experiences to find stillness and completion within yourself. I’ve loved this image because it’s helped me give myself fully to every phase without holding back. Now, for instance, I’m comfortable that our next vacation is going to be spending ten days in silence in the middle of a forest rather than seeing cathedrals in Germany.

On something that changed in him after the dinner:
Growing up in the Indian Himalayas, I’ve always thought of the quest for the soul as a solitary, independent pursuit, rejecting society and its superficiality and materialism as symbolized by the yogis who lived alone in the caves near my village. The dinner softened me. In others’ paths eg, Jane Newman a lady whose interpretation of spirituality is helping build school for kids, I saw much more compassion than mine and I think that’s opened my heart a lot. I have a more communal rather than solitary view on the spiritual pursuit now, in a large part due to the dinner and subsequent interactions with the participants.

On the most exciting thing coming down the pike for him:
Penguin Random House’s Riverhead imprint releases my first worldwide novel, The Yoga of Max's Discontent, in May’ 2016. I’m excited about it because this isn’t a novel for me as much as five years of walking on the path of purifying myself so I became just a medium for the story to tell itself. The initial reviews are heart-warmingly positive and in my heart, I hope the book opens doors to new worlds that I don’t even know exist.

A Conversation with Matt Daniel

My friend Matt Daniel attended the Future of Wellness dinner that was held last year in New York City. A former VP, Business Development for over a decade at a publicly traded health club operator who is now CFO and VP, Business Development at Way Better, a health tech startup, Matt brought an interesting perspective to dinner. As both a veteran of the legacy fitness club business and a forward-thinking entrepreneur interested in the new ways technology and particularly social media and gamification can improve health and wellness, he sits at the nexus of the changing face of fitness and found himself surprised, challenged and energized by our conversation that night.

On why he was at the table:

“I’ve had a personal passion around health and wellness for as far back as I can remember in my adult life. From a professional standpoint, I’ve spent the last fifteen years of my career in this field—and for the last five I’ve been in the digital health space with a company that’s making social games to help people build healthy habits.”

On what surprised him about his fellow dinner guests:

“What I expected to find at the dinner were some other folks whose background was in fitness, exercise, nutrition, coaching, things like that. What surprised me was that there was an entrepreneur-chef-restauranteur named Seamus Mullen there, and he ended up contributing probably the most of all participants. Linking the foods we eat to the microbiome and how your gut health affects your overall wellness. It’s just not a subject I had ever given much thought to. And I think I along with a lot of the other attendees found it fascinating and probably could have spent many more hours just discussing that topic.

On the lesser known aspects of wellness discussed:

“Again it was interesting that the discussion focused less on exercise, diet and traditional nutrition and more on topics like mindfulness and the microbiome. Another great topic was the importance of sleep and regeneration which is something I’m still not sure has fully hit the mainstream yet. This just wasn’t where I expected the conversation to go but, when it did go to these other places, it was a pleasant surprise.”

On the untapped potential of the wellness business:

“Even though I’ve spent fifteen years in this business, I think I came out of the dinner with a better appreciation of how many spokes there are to this wheel of wellness. It made me realize, wow, there are so many business opportunities here. Someone even said that at the dinner. We need to start taking a more comprehensive, holistic view of wellness. And I feel like we’re still in the very early days of understanding how we can help people live healthier lives in an effective way and where we can measure results. We’re just getting started. I mean the insurance companies really haven’t done anything meaningful yet in this area. I think it opened my eyes to that somewhat.”

On something he set out to tackle after the dinner:

“One thing the dinner reinforced for me was the opportunity to come up with solutions that are social. I still think there’s a big gap in the offerings that are out there. Now, I’m a bit biased because the products we put out have a big social component and are all about collaboration and helping people reach their goals. I think there were even some people at the dinner who acknowledged that it’s easier and more motivating when you’re part of a group, helping each other--even when it’s activities you technically have to do by yourself like meditating or sleeping. It’s generally more fun to join a group and support each other than to go to the gym by yourself, for instance, and try to get a fifty minute workout in on your own. So I’m just really focusing on the idea of social approaches to goal oriented health and wellness challenges.

On the best thing he’s read/seen/experienced in wellness recently (article, TedTalk, etc):

I’ve read a couple articles lately on the benefits of meditation for young children. As a father of three (7, 9 and 12) I can appreciate the challenges of getting their young, active minds to wind down at the end of the day and prepare for a good night’s rest. One study conducted in Australia found meditation to be particularly effective for children with ADHD. Not surprisingly parents found this a refreshing alternative to oft-prescribed medication.

On his proudest wellness/fitness achievement:

“OK, a chance to toot my own horn, here it is. I’m getting ready to attend my 25th college reunion and my pant size hasn’t changed since those undergrad days. (Although I’d like to think my taste in fashion has improved immensely.)”

On what topic he’d select if he were a dinner host:

“Gosh. I feel there’s a lot related to parenting I’d want to talk about. Parents have lots of experiences and opinions and face a lot of challenges that would probably be really interesting if people would open up. Especially if you could bring together parents of teenagers. And I think a really good, honest discussion on race relations. It’s a little bit like talking about religion. It can be a controversial subject but I think a lot of people would have ideas they’d want to share.” [In late 2015 we did start tackling Religion and Parenting as dinner topics.]

On the dinner format overall:

“One of the things I so appreciated about the dinner and why I would recommend the experience to many of my friends if they had the opportunity to attend one is that, sadly, there are so few opportunities these days to sit around the table for several hours with a group of people who all have expertise in a particular area or particular theme. To go really deep on a topic, to not be rushed, and to enjoy some good food and drinks while you’re at it. It’s hard enough to find five or six nights a week to have dinner with your family and those last for twenty or thirty minutes…never mind a three to four hour dinner where you go deep on a topic. It was just a such a unique experience and I cannot recommend it enough.”

A Conversation with Dan Hoffman

My good friend Dan Hoffman attended the Dangerous Education dinner that was held last year in Barcelona. As a CEO excited about improving workforce development and an EdTech advisor, investor, and entrepreneur, he was a valuable addition to the group we brought together.

We had an incredible discussion about how and why the school system has failed us, and people shared quite differing opinions on who is ultimately responsible for educating our young people.

Since I’ve been back to Barcelona for a few months (Dan, like me, is technically based in New York but also enjoying the Spanish mediterranean for a while), I figured I’d reconnect with him for a follow-up conversation about the "Jeffersonian Dinner" experience.

On why he was at the table:

“I think everyone at the dinner had the same question because the caliber of people was impressive but the backgrounds were so diverse.

In my case, I was new to the field of education. However, as a CEO I think a lot about the necessity of establishing a culture of learning. Learning gives me energy so I decided that would be the inspiration for my next venture.”

On his favorite teacher: 

“That question got wildly different responses when you asked it over dinner. I remember Tiina Makela, a renowned expert in the Finnish Education system saying every teacher was her favorite which sounded pretty unrealistic until she explained that she was taught that it was her job as the student to learn — that the onus was on her.“

On what came after the dinner: 

“Well, one guy from the dinner ended up as a business partner, and another as an advisor.

A third gentleman, Eduard Vallory, had written World Scouting: Educating For Global Citizenship, a book about scouting and it was interesting because I never thought about the scout movement as the biggest educational institution on the planet. The diversity in the room really pushed the boundaries of thinking about education.”

“Overall I’m interested in how to get people to be self-directed learners. My next venture is exploring how to form peer groups with common interests to take learning journeys together.

On what topic he'd select if he were a dinner host:

“I've been thinking about the book Reinventing Organizations by Frederic Laloux and would love to further explore the future of the company. My new venture is specifically focused on this. There so many things that just feel wrong about organizations from the way we do budgeting to the practice of peer reviews, and I’d love to dive into this.

Some of the case studies I’ve read have been inspiring.  The U.S. military is super interesting — Stan McChrystal and the 5000+ person daily calls he’d have while commanding the Afghan war, for example.

Also there’s a Dutch home-care provider, Buurtzorg Nederland, that has 7000 employees and only thirty people in ‘headquarters’ because nurse teams self-govern. These are the types of ideas and cases I’d like to explore.”

On where he'd want to host his dinner: 

“We can do the direct opposite of the dinner topic and host in a bureaucratic city like Brussels.  I understand that in Kurdistan they are experimenting with interesting principles to create a non-hierarchical democratic government. So perhaps hosting it there, and inviting local leaders, would be interesting.”

On something we should have asked at the dinner:

There were so many things that came up throughout the night organically. There was already more that came out of it than what I think we all envisioned so I can’t think of anything additional.

Be interested, not interesting

Be interested, not interesting

Do you know the expression “Be interested, not interesting”? It’s advice that resonated with me more than ever after moving my family abroad for a stint as expats in Barcelona, Spain for a year. Why? Because when you find yourself far from friends, neighbors, and your community, you have to first and foremost listen and learn from those around you if you want to make any progress building relationships in a new environment ...