It was a Tuesday night in May when we attended an “Influencers Dinner” salon — a virtual party hosted by author and behavioral scientist Jon Levy.
There were games, breakout room trivia, and a musical performance by singer-actress Jihae, who’s set to star in the upcoming season of “Succession.” The event was co-hosted by actress Nia Vardalos — best known for starring in and writing the hit movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” — and also counted CEOs, an Oakland Raiders linebacker, a serial entrepreneur, and a film producer in attendance. About 124 people attended the evening, which was actually somewhat of a reunion for past guests of Jon’s parties.
Before the pandemic, these virtual parties were dinner soirées. Insider covered one six years ago when it was held at Levy’s New York apartment. (During that one, Bill Nye “The Science Guy” gave a presentation in Levy’s living room.)
The caveat is that the dinners are supposed to be secretive — guests, unaware of who else will be attending, are only given a date and a time. After arrival, no one is supposed to talk about work or boast about achievements. It’s a time to connect and understand one another as equals.
It’s a safe space, in a sense, for these high-profile guests to simply exist.
And then there was us. Guests were told reporters would be there, but our identities were never revealed. In our anonymity, we watched the event unfold.
Our ‘therapeutic’ experience at the salon
Levy discussed his new book “You’re Invited: The Art and Science of Cultivating Influence” and then sent guests into breakout rooms where we had to work together with other strangers to quickly answer trivia questions such as: what came first — Tumblr or Myspace? (Myspace, obviously.)
Later on, Jihae — who afterward told us she found the night “refreshing” — sang her new single “Utopia” as well as a rendition of Sam Cookes’ “A Change is Gonna Come.”
Edited for clarity, here’s our post-salon conversation about what else we saw happen during the evening.
Keishel Williams: What was your first impression when you logged in?
Dominic-Madori Davis: Oh my god, I thought it was going to be him promoting his book for two hours, but it definitely turned into therapy in a sense.
KW: I’d had a chance to read a bit of excerpt from his book, so I knew that there are specific ways he likes to get things done in order for people to feel like they’re connecting with each other.
DD: That first game where we had to quickly check our phones, then put them down, and try to remember what was on the right of our screen was interesting — it got pretty deep fast.
KW: One thing that I think we both wanted to know: What about these gatherings makes busy, important people want to attend?
DD: The artist that performed that night said one reason she really likes going there is because it feels like a “wisdom circle.”
KW: That’s an interesting way she put it.
DD: I agree, it seemed everybody was really into the whole introspective thinking about how they live their lives and how they can better themselves.
KW: I felt a bit like that too. I also spoke to someone, South African-Canadian actress Kandyse McClure. She’s attended several in-person salons in New York and LA, in addition to a few of the virtual ones, and said one of the reasons she enjoys attending is because Jon himself is very authentic. And that even though she’s an accomplished actress, and is usually in a room with other accomplished people, she doesn’t feel like they’re going there to network. They just go in there to connect on a human level. For you, did you feel a sense of kinship with any of the people, when you had to do the breakout sessions?
DD: Oh my gosh, during the breakout session, I was muted right when everyone was introducing themselves, and then the breakout session ended because my group jumped right into the activity. So I didn’t really know who I was with the entire time until like the final two seconds when everyone went around, introducing themselves. I was muted, so they didn’t know I was a reporter at all.
KW: I’m not sure how many people were in your group but it was just five of us in my group, so it started off a little awkward where nobody really wanted to start talking first. But as soon as the ball got rolling we were all speaking and really trying to figure out the answers. We were done at an early enough time that we had time to chat after and find out who was who and what they enjoyed about being there. After that, we all decided that we wanted to speak further and I thought that was a really great way to connect.
DD: It was really interesting to play all the games and everything. It gave me ‘safe space for notable people’ vibes.
KW: I believe there was a photographer in my group. Indrani [ Pal-Chaudhuri]. There was also a journalist, Joel Stein — he was in my group as well, and a few other people.
DD: Yeah, there was also a journalist in my group. I forget if he worked for either the Wall Street Journal or the Washington Post, but he was a journalist and I had heard of him and I think I looked him up on Twitter afterward. We were like six people in my group, and they just jumped right into the activity. Everyone, I mean, I don’t know, were we allowed to Google? I’m not gonna say we were Googling.
There were things that, at 23 years old,I’m not sure if I would have known about them. I think the one question I got was ‘what was older Tumblr or my space,’ and I was like, obviously MySpace. That thing is ancient. But one of the other questions I was like, oh I don’t know, I’m gonna need to be like an adult to answer this stuff. What did you think?
KW: For me, it was very interesting to see the mix of people. I tried to make sure to keep a count, and there were about 124 people there. There was an Emmy Award winner, Barry Kibrick. And then there were entertainers, there were other stars, there were producers, photographers, musicians, CEOs, medical professionals.
KW: What do you think made this particular virtual version work for them? Because when [Levy’s] events first started, they were dinners and he brought together these 12 people, strangers, to cook together and get to know each other that way. But now he had to move it virtually. What do you think made this still remain such an intimate experience for them?
DD: I don’t know, I think they’re really just longing to connect with other people. I’m thinking if the dinners were still on, it’s kind of like you just go to a stranger’s house, in a sense, and meet other strangers. It must be people just really want to connect with each other and other people and probably find a sense of humanity in one another.
KW: Yeah. You said you spoke with the musician [Jihae], what was that conversation like?
DD: She told me that she was recommended by one of his guests to be the musical performer. She said that it was great to meet new people, and it reminded her of going to diplomatic receptions with her dad as a teenager, watching diplomats, generals, and politicians maneuver intelligent questions to each other. That’s also the vibe I got … and I guess there’s not, like, a superficial vibe to [the parties], which I guess is the recurring theme.
KW: Exactly. Authentic, that genuine connection. The fact that these people are so accomplished but they don’t seem to be coming there to get something from each other, rather than just be in each other’s company.
KW: I know Jon did mention specifically that was one of his aims when he decided to do these types of events. Even though it’s called a networking event, people don’t necessarily come there to network because ‘networking’ brings a somewhat negative connotation that you go into a room, you carry your business cards, and you pretty much just want to know what someone does, in order to know how you fit into their circle.
DD: Yeah, I know that the idea of networking can be so uncomfortable because to the root of it, it’s basically, like you said: How does this person fit within my circle and how can we possibly lean on each other to do good? There’s an element of using each other and it can be uncomfortable.
KW: So he really tries to make it more like a vibe where people are coming to create friendships and close connections. And I think just the short time that we’ve been there, I was able to see some of that taking place.
DD: Having an influencer circle where it’s not necessarily branded straight as networking, but you go to get genuine relationships that can then more organically and authentically bring you together. I think people feel much more comfortable with that type of branding and with that type of setup than just straight networking.