The Profile: The man reinventing philanthropy & Amazon's biggest threat

Don't ever underestimate the power of a meal.

Don't ever underestimate the power of a meal.

When I was growing up, dinnertime was sacred. No matter if it was just me and my mom or if we had new friends over for dinner, we always made it a point to eat at the table each evening. I may not remember the food we ate, but I'll never forget the conversations we had.

That's because a meal is never just about the meal. Dining together is a tiny act that quickly becomes an expression of friendship, connection, and intimacy. As writer Victoria Pope notes, "Food is more than survival. With it we make friends, court lovers, and count our blessings."

The beauty of sharing a meal with strangers is that it immediately builds rapport and transcends language barriers and cultural differences. I call this "The Anthony Bourdain Principle."

Anthony Bourdain understood this better than anyone. The late renegade chef believed that breaking bread with strangers around the world had the power to unite us. He visited more than a hundred countries, and he spoke with the locals, tried to understand their culture, and offered us a new perspective on a country often mischaracterized by many.

One of the biggest lessons he learned is to embrace difference, delight in strangeness, and find joy in the weird.

"It’s something I will always at least aspire to — something that has allowed me to travel this world and eat all it has to offer without fear or prejudice. To experience joy, my father taught me, one has to leave oneself open to it," Bourdain wrote.

By embracing the different and delighting in the strange, people opened up to Bourdain in a way they would never open up to a news reporter.

(Read the Profile Dossier on Anthony Bourdain here.)

In her book Eating Together, Alice Julier argues that dining together can radically reduce our perceptions of inequality, and it allows us to view people of different races, genders, and socioeconomic backgrounds as more equal than we would in other social situations. In other words, our differences are less pronounced at the dinner table.

One of my favorite dining memories is when Anthony and I went to a house in upstate New York with a few friends. After cooking together, we sat down at the dinner table, and Anthony asked his favorite — albeit controversial — question: "What is one belief you hold that you would be afraid to share in public?" Because it was only the six of us, we were able to express things (and hear how they sounded) while debating, arguing, and playing Devil's Advocate. It was a productive conversation because it was intimate. There wasn't the threat of mass judgement or public shaming. This question works well in showing you how people reason and how willing they to change their opinion.

My personal favorite question to ask is, "What was the most formative event in your life that you believe shaped who you are today?" The reason I love asking it is because it reveals how a person sees themselves through the lens of a situation that left a significant impression on them. It brought out incredible stories among my group of friends — ones that I had never heard before.

I recently posed the following question on Twitter: "What is a good question to ask at the dinner table to guarantee a great conversation?" It elicited more than 200 thought-provoking responses including, "What's one moment from this year you least expected to find joy in?" and "Would you rather have a Princeton diploma without any Princeton education or a Princeton education without any diploma?”

In 2016, Bourdain gave us some of his own ideas about the questions that build intimacy with a complete stranger.

He filmed an episode profiling Masayoshi “Masa” Takayama, a man who was raised a “country boy” in the rural farming community of Nasushiobara, Japan. Takayama went on to become one of the most sought after sushi chefs in Los Angeles, and later, opened the eponymous Masa — "the most expensive (and easily one of the best) restaurants in the country."

In a post about the episode, Bourdain gave us the "cheat sheet" for how to better understand a person over a meal. He writes:

It’s always great when you can tell a story of a place through the eyes of an individual. It’s even better when that individual is an extraordinarily creative and talented artist with a unique way of looking at the world.

How did they get from “there” to “here”? What mysterious forces shaped them? What was it about the place and circumstances of their upbringing that helped push them, gave them the drive and the hunger to be different, to be bold, to insist on carving out their own path?

Although it might still be a while before we can travel the world and safely gather with strangers, one of the biggest lessons I've learned from Bourdain that I believe we can all put into practice today is this: Don't be a snob.

Remember, the dish you're eating is nowhere nearly as important as where you are sitting when you eat it and who you're eating it with.

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PROFILES.

— The star who learned to live with his diagnosis
— The man reinventing philanthropy at scale
— The 22-year-old exposing financial wrongdoing
— The woman who dressed America
— The Hollywood reject who built an empire
The boy band that rules the world
— Amazon's biggest threat [**HIGHLY RECOMMEND**]
— The pet retailer dominating the market

PEOPLE TO KNOW.

The star who learned to live with his diagnosis: Michael J. Fox was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when he was only 29 years old. Parkinson’s, he said, had made him quit drinking, which in turn had probably saved his marriage. Being diagnosed at such a young age had also knocked the ego out of his career ambitions, so he could do smaller things he was proud of. Now, at 59, he still considers himself a lucky man. In this moving profile, Fox reflects on what his diagnosis has taught him about hope, acting, family and medical breakthroughs. (The Guardian)

"I came to a place of gratitude. Finding something to be grateful for is what it’s about."

The man reinventing philanthropy at scale: In 2013, Darren Walker was appointed president of the Ford Foundation and he's in charge of overseeing the deployment of its annual funds. Walker asked himself, “How do we blow up old ideas?" He's finding new ways to maximize the $13.7 billion endowment, like issuing bonds to raise much-needed cash for grantees in distress. Here's how he's convincing other legacy philanthropies to join his efforts. (WSJ; reply to this email if you need access to the article)

"It’s not just giving money away. It’s creating a system in a very old, massive organization and shifting it to what it needs to be.”

The 22-year-old exposing financial wrongdoing: Edwin Dorsey started pestering big-name investors for meetings when he was still in high school. Now, at 22, Dorsey has carved out a niche for himself in the financial world. He puts out a successful newsletter about a sector of investing that doesn’t get the sustained coverage it arguably should: activist short-selling, betting against a company’s stock while alleging fraud or other problems. (Institutional Investor)

“Just look at people’s track records and you’ll see a lot of times the short-sellers are the ones to blow the whistle first."

The woman who dressed America: Jenna Lyons spent 26 years as the president and executive creative director of J.Crew. In April 2017, her departure was announced after two years of declining sales at the retailer. Lyons has spent the past three years quietly focusing on a new company called Lyons L.A.D. — literally “life after death.” She started a beauty company, a false-lash brand called LoveSeen. She’s designing a new hotel in the Bahamas. She has a super-secret project with Rockefeller Center she can’t talk about. Here's what she's up to in her second act. (New York Magazine)

"Helping someone feel good or attractive or good in their skin is a gift.

The Hollywood reject who built an empire: Tyler Perry's business strategy is simple: Own yourself. Perry became a billionaire by amassing one of the most valuable individually-owned libraries in Hollywood. He is also the first Black actor-director-writer-producer to own a studio outright with no partners, investors, or corporate backers. Here's how Perry built an entertainment empire, including one of the industry’s largest coronavirus bubbles—making his work more impactful than ever. (WSJ; reply to this email if you need access to the article) + Read The Tyler Perry Dossier here.

“He knows his audience, and he respects them. he is committed to serving his audience. That’s his biggest innovation.”

The boy band that rules the world: The South Korean pop group BTS has exploded in popularity around the globe. It has reached the top of the U.S. charts, united millions of fans around the world into a self-styled ARMY, shattered online viewing records, and been part of a major IPO. Now BTS is preparing to release a brand new album. (WSJ; reply to this email if you need access to the article)

“This shouldn’t be seen as just a victory for South Korean singers, but a paradigm shift in America’s racial and linguistic hegemony.”

COMPANIES TO WATCH.

Amazon's biggest threat: Shopify started out innocently enough. In 2006, it launched as a simple maker of e-commerce websites. Over the next 15 years, as e-commerce grew from novelty to part of daily life, Shopify grew with it. Today, it’s a public company with a market cap that exceeds $100 billion. The question on everyone's mind is this: Can Shopify compete with Amazon without becoming Amazon? (The New York Times Magazine)

“Amazon is trying to build an empire, and Shopify is trying to arm the rebels.”

The pet retailer dominating the market: Online pet supply company Chewy just had its best year yet. About two-thirds of U.S. households have pets, and their coddling owners will spend a record $99 billion on them this year. From February to July, the company added more customers than in all of fiscal year 2019. This profile lays out Chewy’s insane path to success. (Bloomberg)

“If we were going to be able to survive Amazon, we needed to build a larger pet business than they did."


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AUDIO TO HEAR.

Alexandra Carter on how to handle tough negotiations: In this podcast, Alexandra Carter, the director of the Mediation Clinic at Columbia Law School, discusses how to handle even the toughest of negotiations. She explains that the main thing you do in a negotiation is simply teach people how to value you. Carter delves into different frameworks to keep in mind during a negotiation and emphasizes the difference between "mirror questions" and "window questions." (Link available to premium members.)

Tope Awotona on finding an obsession: Tope Awotona identified a big problem: There weren't great scheduling software tools out there. Could he build one and solve this? "I tried to find all the reasons not to do it," he says. "But the more I researched the opportunity, the more I became obsessed with the problem. I wasn't happy until I emptied my bank account and took a huge risk to start the business." Here's how he founded Calendly, a scheduling service on track to make about $60 million this year. (Link available to premium members.)

Dan Harris on taming your anxiety: The coronavirus pandemic has had physical, emotional, and psychological effects for people across the globe. In a time of endless paranoia and excessive rumination, how can you regain control of your mind? In this episode, Dan Harris, the author of 10% Happier, weighs in on how to minimize worry while maximizing mental resilience. (Link available to premium members.)

VIDEOS TO SEE.

The early Bitcoin believers: As Bitcoin nears all-time highs, check out this free documentary on its earliest days. It goes deep into why the technology captured the attention of so many people across the globe, and why the timing of its inception was notable. "It's kind of remarkable that this idea of Bitcoin was launched just a few weeks after Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, and the whole system nearly collapsed," says New York Times reporter Nathaniel Popper. (Link available to premium members.)

Angie Nwandu on building an Instagram-based media company: Angie Nwandu had a violent childhood. Her father murdered her mom, he was sentenced to decades in prison, and Nwandu ended up in foster care. "My sister and I had to figure things out on our own, so we grew to be resilient. I learned to adapt to different environments," she says. In this interview, she explains how she re-formatted tabloid magazines for a whole new generation. (Link available to premium members.)

Bobby Ryan's mysterious past: Long before Bobby Ryan was an NHL star and a U.S. Olympian, he had a different name and story. After a brutal domestic assault, his father hid from authorities and built a life on lies. This is a really bizarre story about identity, forgiveness, and coming to terms with a difficult, shady past. (Link available to premium members.)


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