There’s no shortage of events available to San Francisco interns. Across the city, nightly, hundreds of speakers sit in panels, topic-oriented meetup groups buzz with activity, and coworkers join each other after work for dinner or dessert.
Students rightly recognize the value of their Bay Area interning experience as an opportunity to grow their social circle and learn from others, but while experiences do exist that offer students the opportunity to meet new friends (social events, parties) or hear from experts (panels, speaker series, etc), many of the interns I interviewed reported that they struggled to find “meaningful connection” with other students – while they desired to find others who shared their interests so they could advance their learning, existing alternatives (events, clubs that required commitments, classes) either required too much commitment to be feasible or failed to provide enough value.
Students want the opportunity to find friends they’ll like, but they don’t want to make a large commitment, where the possible downside is high if they end up committing to a club or activity that requires sustained commitment. Additionally, students want the opportunity to connect with and learn from mentors and domain experts, but find little unique value in attending speeches or talks when much of the same content is easily accessible online (and often even higher quality). The value of in-person events, chiefly, is personal connection; if events aren’t somewhat intimate, the possible upside for each attendee is actually rather low.
Simultaneously, many industry veterans are actually rather willing to spend time to help students learn and succeed. In a quick survey of founders in my network, 33 of the 42 (79%) surveyed indicated they would be willing to devote a significant amount of time – upwards of an hour a week – to helping students succeed. While I personally take these results with a grain of salt, even if we assume that these people might be willing to do so every two weeks, or even every month, that would actually suggest that industry veterans have the desire to help students succeed. When asked why they don’t offer that hour a week in the status quo, though, they report a few common answers: it’s either too hard to find people to mentor and support, or it’s “too difficult” beyond the time commitment (the path to adding value isn’t clear for the mentors).
There’s another problem at hand here, too: even if one were to create some sort of 1-on-1 mentoring service (as many have), if even a single match were wrong – meaning that a student didn’t get much value from a mentor, or a mentor couldn’t offer enough value to a student – user dropoff would be high for students and extremely high for mentors, as we’ve seen in similar initiatives in the past. This puts an unnecessarily high burden on the matching platform to be accurate, which no automated tool or service could possibly be.
How, then, could one reduce the baseline of “accuracy” that a matching system needs to have to match mentors and students effectively, then? Some have worked on models using machine learning to evaluate who’d be a “good fit” versus not; others have created exclusive fellowships and invite-only clubs to facilitate this. To me, it seems like the answer is a lot simpler than we’ve made it out to be.
With Grub With Friends, I decided to test out a different approach. To satisfy students’ desires for intimate experiences with ‘mentors’ and meeting friends they share common interests with, while simultaneously solving for the logistical problems inherent to 1-on-1 mentoring and reducing the time commitment necessary on mentors’ part, Grub With Friends is a dinner series where a small pool of students (10-15) register for topic-focused dinners where 1-3 “special guests” will also join the group. Students are presented with the opportunity to engage with the “special guests” in a casual setting, though they are also free to converse with each other if they wish. The goal here is to make the likelihood of a ‘bad night’ for mentors or for students as close to zero as possible. Since everyone registers with a common interest in mind, hypothetically everyone should get at least some value out of the evening, and attendees are offered the ability to self-select who to engage with to avoid uninteresting conversations or connections.