Women on Top, A Conference Experience

Christopher Hitchens once described  “anima”, the ability to think like a woman, as one of the qualities he most admired in a man. It’s a quality few men would admit to admiring and one that even fewer men would admit to having. This is a mistake.


Last weekend I had the good fortune of attending the “Dynamic Women in Business” conference hosted by the Women’s Student Association at HBS. The conference was sold-out with over 1,000 people in attendance. Presenters and panelists included HBS grads in the beginning, middle and ends of their careers, who hold or held positions of influence in companies like Accenture, Bain, BCG, Pepsico, JP Morgan, PIMCO, Google, McKinsey, Discover, Citigroup, American Express, and other icons of industry.

Despite overt instructions on the invitations that the event was not limited to women, I was one of 5-10 men there. The conference was so devoid of men that one bold young woman ventured into one of the (cavernous) men’s rooms. I discovered this when, while I had just begun to disengage my zipper, she burst out of a stall in the back.  She trotted across the bathroom, averting her eyes and apologizing profusely all the way, while her high heels clomped and clacked on the tile floor. I heard her make it to the door, then – to my confusion – pause and come back.  She rushed to the sink and methodically washed her hands (30 seconds, plenty of soap) while still breathlessly exclaiming “sorry! I’m really sorry!” before trotting away. I admire her dedication to hygiene.

Three Major Takeaways:

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Hispaniola Hoedown – Dispatches from the Dominican Republic

pet me, bro

I’ve always had a soft spot for dogs.  My parents owned a rambunctious golden retriever, Rags, when I was born. They had other large dogs throughout my childhood  – a spastic yellow lab, a bovine and affectionate golden retriever – and they currently have a docile 130 lb black lab/Clydesdale mix. I regularly break my meticulously maintained blasé New Yorker cool to pet the dogs of strangers on the street, often asking after their breed*. So when I was lying on the nearly-deserted beach in Las Terrenas, Dominican Republic, last week and an older couple approached with their canine companion trotting alongside them, I thought nothing of it when the animal ambled my way. I leaned over my wicker chaise, and petting the animal called to the owners, “nice dog”.  They replied, in German accents, “zat is not our dog”.  At first my mind went blank; there was nothing but a numb silence. Then: “Holy. Shit. Oh my god, I’m touching a stray dog” as a wave of Oedipus-stabbing-his-eyes-out-magnitude shudder rolled through my body.  I ran and jumped into the ocean, hoping to rid myself of whatever tropical canine pathogen I’d just managed to contract. Welcome, blanquito, to the Dominican Republic.

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In Search of Nancy Nesbitt Ost – Part II

“There are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.” – Oscar Wilde

Last Sunday brought with it another trip to Madison Ave. Presbyterian, book in tow. I toned down the attire, sporting charcoal flannel slacks, a navy blue cardigan, white shirt and (again) the red repp stripe tie, rather than the suit which made me look like I was there to hock sketchy real estate to nice old ladies.  I was dressed like a cross between a Yale theology student in the early 60s* and Mr. Rogers. At the end of the service, I again approached Dr. Anderson, who was shaking hands and chatting at the back of the church. He pointed to Mrs. Ost and boomed “Nancy!”  She was briskly moving about the front of the church, gathering up various gilded sacred implements before ducking through a doorway without hearing the reverend.

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In Search of Mrs. Nancy Nesbitt Ost – Part I

“Openness to life grants a lightning-swift insight into the life situations of others. What is necessary? – to wrestle with your problem until its emotional discomfort is clearly conceived in an intellectual form – and then act accordingly.” – Dag Hammarskjold

an excellent and compelling book

I bought four copies of Markings from the Strand. They were all originals, printed in the mid-1960s, some still in their now frayed and yellowed jackets, some naked with faded blue cloth covers. Markings is a powerful and beautiful book, one that contains poignant and profound reflections on spirituality and the struggle of doing what one should. It is the diary of Dag Hammarskjold, second Secretary General of the United Nations, which he maintained from the age of 20 until his death under questionable circumstances while flying to negotiate a ceasefire in the Democratic Republic of Congo in 1961.

I went about sending copies of this book to various friends and family members, and upon opening the front cover of one of the copies, saw, in delicate pencil strokes:

Warren W. Ost
234 E. 45th Street

I learned that Warren Ost is Rev. Dr. Warren W. Ost, Presbyterian minister and founder of A Christian Ministry in the National Parks who received a commendation in the Congressional Record as a result of his work with the ACMNP. ACMNP now serves over 20 national parks, from the US Virgin Islands to Denali, an impressive expansion from Ost’s original student ministry in Yellowstone in 1950. My research revealed that Ost died in 1997. But, he was married, and there a possibility I could contact his wife, Nancy, to see if she’d like his book back. The Rev. and Mrs. Ost were parishioners at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, where I went to explore this mission further.

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Adventures in Branding – Rebuilding Barbasol

“Winning is like shaving – you do it every day or you wind up looking like a bum.” – Jack Kemp

The Inspiration
While standing in the bathroom of a Milwaukee hotel room at 6:00AM, thinking about the day’s upcoming meetings with the CEO of a global mining equipment manufacturer, I squirted a sphere of shaving cream into my palm.  I bought a compact travel-sized cylinder of the stuff at the hotel’s sundries shop, as I’d forgotten my admittedly indulgent “made with tropical plants and expensive so it must be good” skillfully-marketed upmarket product. The shaving cream was white and thick as buttercream icing, and the can – in a motif reminiscent of Captain America  – emitted a wonderful cappuccino-machine growl when I pushed the nozzle.

As I lathered my face, I inhaled and was struck instantly by the scent. I was transported two decades into the past, to the house where I grew up, watching my dad get ready for his day at the office.  He’d lather up with Barbasol, and while he shaved we’d chat about plans for the day or the politics of the moment (I was 6; he’d have C-SPAN on in the mornings, which looking back was a genius move in setting expectations – after an hour of C-SPAN anything you did that day was exhilarating by comparison).  During this Proustian flashback, I experienced nostalgic sentiments of masculinity, hard work, and decency. It’s similar to the feeling I get when I polish my shoes, a ritual I observed my father maintain for several years.

The Question
How can a brand that every man recognizes, that’s been on pharmacy shelves since 1921, that has a great story (invented by an MIT professor, survived the depression, supplied to WW2 soldiers) be a bottom-shelf product selling for $1.99?  How can Barbasol have no premium product selling in boutiques with retro packaging and a vintage, buy American, “good enough for your grandfather” message? Why doesn’t Barbasol want my $6 for some cool throwback product that I toss onto the counter as I check out at Brooks Brothers or J Crew or even L.L. Bean? Please, Barbasol, give me a reason to give you my $6.



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Lessons from Def Jam

Simmons and Def Jam founder/ Karl Marx doppelganger Rick Rubin

This Friday I had the pleasure of hearing rap pioneers Russell Simmons and Rick Rubin, founders of Def Jam, in conversation with Paul Holdengraber at the NYPL.   They spoke about culture and counterculture, making something great, and the confidence of youth.

Simmons strolled on stage wearing a Nantucket red hoodie and characteristic Yankees cap, while Rubin glided in looking like a cross between a member of ZZ Top and a yoga instructor. He sported a black t-shirt, black shorts, no shoes, and a massive gray and white beard that spread across his wide chest.  Rubin spoke with zen equanimity, a calm which provided him a generally Zarathustra-like personage.  Prior to their arrival, the room thumped with rap, which alternated between vintage songs and stuff familiar from my high school years, including Ja Rule’s* “Put it on me”.

The evening took an unexpected turn when Rick Rubin requested the entire crowd close our eyes and meditate for three minutes. When Holdengraber asked Rubin what motivated him to request the group meditation, he replied not only that meditation gives one clarity of thought and turns off the noise of daily life, but that there’s a lot of power when a group of people meditate. Russell Simmons then chimed in, “do that shit twenty minutes twice a day – gets you high as hell.”

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My mental dance card – staying thoughtful (and social) in the working world

As we work our asses off at our first-second-third job out of college, our hard-earned collegiate intellectual breadth can begin slipping away.  We all recall the professor who grabbed our imaginations and intellects and exposed us to a subject of such wonderful originality, depth, and complexity that we still remember certain lectures or the themes of our papers for that class. Professional life has innumerable exciting challenges and learning experiences, and I can say with certainty that I’ve matured (often in unanticipated ways) since starting my career in 2007. But as professional life progressed I became concerned about becoming more narrowly expert and less broadly thoughtful, and I noticed that my appetite for fresh intellectual topics grew from a mildly distracting tug to an insistent shove. With that in mind, I started looking for some events in New York where I could learn about new topics and take an hour or two to consider some bigger life questions.

I expect that I’m not alone in this, and so am putting down a some of my favorite organizations and events in New York.  These events represent not only an opportunity to get fresh exposure to or become reacquainted with creative or philosophical or literary ideas, but are excellent chances to meet like-minded young professionals.  The guests at the below events and ones like them are passionate to learn, grow, and engage with new ideas and new people. In addition, these activities are a perfect opportunity to take a colleague or new acquaintance to an original outing, or to go on a brainy date. This list barely scratches the surface of NY intellectual life, but I’ve been to several events hosted by all three organizations and can recommend them thoroughly.  So put on your tweeds, grab your moleskine, and lets meet some nerds.

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Go West Young Man – Dispatches from the Desert

“Every man, woman, and child alive should see the desert one time before they die. Nothin’ at all for miles around. Nothin’ but sand and rocks and cactus and blue sky. Not a soul in sight. No sirens. No car alarms. Nobody honkin’ atcha. No madmen cursin’ or pissin’ in the streets. You find the silence out there, you find the peace. You can find God.”  25th Hour

This post is a little past-due, as I took this trip in early summer, but the series of emails I sent regarding my travels to Utah were well received and worth putting down in a more cohesive, permanent form.  So without further ado:

With summer three day weekends come an exodus of New Yorkers to sundry sunny locales for beaches and barbecues with family and friends.  Buses are loaded with 20-somethings heading from Manhattan to DC or Boston and vice versa in a post-college eastern-seaboard-level game of musical chairs, beach houses in the Hamptons and on the shore are reopened, and many a grilled (organic/kosher/wagyu/veggie/local/turkey etc) hot dog/burger is consumed.

I joined that escape  over the past summer, and went, like  New York’s favorite cartoon mouse(1), West.  I headed to the Beehive State, epicenter of my third favorite American-born religion(2) and second earliest adopter of womens suffrage(3) – Utah, to the town of Moab.   Moab, UT (not to be confused with the biblical Moab, ancient Israel’s longtime frenemy) is a small scattering of lowrise buildings in the desert tucked between Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park.

Welcome to Utah

I spent my days hiking, biking, and rafting, with one afternoon riding around the rocks in a humvee and one evening sleeping under the stars near the Colorado river.   I signed up for a tour package with the very “you’d order this as an appetizer at Chile’s” title of “The Southwest Sampler”, which was pleasant if not overly intense. The natural beauty of the landscape in the Utah desert is, in its abundance and scale, preposterous.  It is vast, stark and majestic.   The expanse of the desert, the hugeness of the rock, and the enveloping silence are imposing and exhilarating.

I risked my life on two occasions: 1) mountain biking fast downhill on bare rock, and 2) buying, then consuming, jerky from a shack on the side of a desolate desert road.  On the jerky: I’ve never had cannibalistic inclinations, and would have put the probability of eating human flesh during my lifetime at <0.1%.  Following this stop by the shack, I’d say that probability is now around, oh, 10% or so.  Regardless, the jerky did live up to its very persuasive marketing, which consisted of a huge plywood sign that read “BEST JERKY IN UTAH”; and while my experiences with dried meat products in the Beehive State are decidedly limited (4), I’d say that sign was damn accurate.  This may surpass in “unexpectedness” the time I opted to eat the $3 chicken & rice “LUNCH” from a precarious-looking lean-to in the middle of the Belizean jungle while on a cruise with my family.  Perhaps I’m just a sucker for shack-based cuisine.


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subway seduction, or, how to meet a great girl on the train using your friend’s choice of ethnic cuisine

It was a clear, crisp Friday night in mid-November.  I was going into Manhattan from my neighborhood in LIC for a dinner party for my friend Tom.  The restaurant was a loud BYOB joint lit exclusively by innumerable, tangled strands of Christmas lights, where disheveled South Asian men stand outside the door and heckle passersby to come eat.  It has the quite regal name “Royal Bangladesh”. Tom was in from Moscow, where he was working as a journalist for a state-owned television network/Ministry of Truth.  Excited to see my friend, I jumped onto the Manhattan-bound 7 train to begin my trip downtown.  The car I boarded was nearly empty, with only a listless derelict in the corner and a striking young woman sitting near the center.  The girl’s neck was enveloped in an impossibly large, woolly scarf reminiscent of some 16th century royal garb, upon which her head rested like a maraschino cherry on the top of a generous spiral of reddi-whip.  Her beautiful, vaguely ethnic but ultimately racially inscrutable face (“Persian?” I thought to myself), was intensely focused and tilted down toward her blackberry, where her elegant hands tapped with a flourish.

At this point, I sat close enough to get a good look at her, but not so close to be considered a creepy, encroaching weirdo*.  she was quite a looker, but the combination of her single-minded, brow-furrowing blackberry tappery and the unforgiving lighting of the subway gave me pause despite my relief that I was wearing my favorite purple sweater, had lifted weights a mere hour before and was wearing my attention grabbing fancy shoes.  As they say, tempus fugit, and we were soon at Grand Central, my stop to transfer to a downtown train.  With cognitive dissonance already resounding in my internal dialogue (she probably has a boyfriend/is married/watches glen beck), we parted ways without speaking.

Boarding the 6 train at Grand Central, I continued on my journey toward the East Village to meet Tom and other friends for dinner.  The 6 was packed, though it’s worth noting that the 6 trains are newer than the 7 and have a much more pleasant ambiance.  While on the 6, I realized I wasn’t sure which stop was mine, and had to quickly tunnel my way – meerkat style – through the dense crowd, to the nearest map. Standing directly in front of the map was the girl from the 7 train, flowing hair the color of dark chocolate, glittering hazel eyes, floppy Elizabethan neckwear.  “Providence.”   That was the word that came to mind: “Providence“.

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