Having a strong social network is especially important in New York City, where who you know is crucial to your success.
Among the city’s most skilled networkers are titans of finance and advertising, whose stature and wealth can create connections that lead to powerful outcomes.
Jon Levy may not be a Wall Street billionaire, but over the past five years he’s hosted more than 400 influential people from around the world at networking events in his home.
Don’t mistake him for just a socialite who loves lavish cocktail parties. Levy is a networking entrepreneur.
Twice a month, he holds his “Influencers” dinners. He invites 12 influential people — Nobel laureates, Olympic athletes, hip-hop icons — to make dinner together. They spend the first part of the night talking about anything but their jobs. After the meal, about 30 more people, many of them former dinner guests, arrive for the Salon, a night centered around presentations in Levy’s living room. Not all Salon guests are celebrities in their fields, but everyone has either an unusual job or an unusually strong network.
It’s like condensing a TED conference into one intimate night, says Regina Spektor, the acclaimed musician.
At the Influencers dinner and Salon I attended in December, Bill Nye the Science Guy gave a presentation about his new book on evolution, “Undeniable.” Break-dancing pioneer Crazy Legs got on the floor and busted out moves. Beatboxing legend, and former member of the Roots, Rahzel ended the night’s events by getting Levy to rap along to the classic “La Di Da Di” with Crazy Legs as his hype-man and Levy’s sister, singer Batsheva Levy, on vocals.
“I’m offering a novel experience with no expectation that anybody does anything for me,” Levy says.
In a city full of boring networking events, Levy has managed to create something uniquely enjoyable and valuable to his Influencers at his sprawling Upper West Side apartment, which his parents passed on to him.
Says Nye, “He’s trying to change the world with this remarkable living space he inherited. What’s not to love?”
Levy grew up in the apartment as the son of eccentric artists: his father, Ben, a painter and sculptor, and his mother, Hanna, a composer and conductor. Their successful careers provided them with the means for both a large Manhattan home and an eclectic group of friends to invite to it. They would throw big buffet-style dinner parties for 40 people and invite jazz musicians to play.
“I grew up around it,” Levy says. “I just had no appreciation for it at the time. I was 7 years old and wanted to play Nintendo.”
Despite the lasting impression the dinners left on him, Levy says that his parents — who now live in an artists’ colony in Israel — had nothing to do with the creation of the Influencers concept.
That inspiration came from a Landmark Education seminar on personal success. Levy says he left thinking about this quote: “The fundamental element that defines the quality of your life is the people you surround yourself with and the conversations you have with them.”
So in 2009, Levy, whose background is in marketing and includes a six-year stint as a life coach, began inviting interesting people to his apartment to meet one another over dinner.
“In the early days, I was doing 20 to 30 hours a week on this stuff,” Levy says. “And while my friends were going out, I was doing designing, planning, organising, and research on people.”
When the award-winning magician Marco Tempest was a guest, he asked Levy if there was a way to take his Influencers concept further, and Levy achieved this with the Salon, each of which has a loosely interpreted theme.
On the night I attended, the theme was “Evolution: The challenges that make us, our culture, and our species better.” Nye spoke about the scientific theory of evolution; Crazy Legs walked us through the evolution of break dancing.
Of course, Levy had to get people to come in the first place. He says there were three elements that persuaded high-profile executives, celebrities, academics, and the like to visit a low-profile New Yorker’s apartment on a Saturday night.
Most important, Levy says, is that he drew from a diverse audience that mostly had no applicable use to his business. When he asked a top jazz musician to perform one night, for example, he was looking for a way to enrich his network, rather than finding a way to nab a lucrative deal.
“When you’re connecting with people just to connect with them and to bring them together, it’s obvious that there’s no angle,” he adds.
He made sure to tell everybody he met about the Influencers concept that he was developing — “sometimes before I even discussed my own job.”
And finally, he asked everyone about the most interesting people in their networks, and then invited them.
“I’d always have something to invite people to, and I’d always have one or two scheduled so that there was always an opportunity to be connected with people,” he adds.
The level of people Levy is able to attract keeps going up, he says, since each high-profile guest he acquires builds his reputation as someone offering a unique experience with no strings attached.
Economist Nouriel Roubini, who met Levy three months ago, says his favourite aspect of Levy’s events are that they break the tendency for New York professionals to socialize only within their industry.
“New York City can be so tribalized or balkanized,” Roubini says, “so Jon is very good at bridging these usually unrelated urban tribes who are interesting in their own way when they mix with other ones.”
New Yorker contributor and author Maria Konnikova likes how Levy tells his dinner guests to avoid talking about their professions until they’re revealed at the end of the meal. It’s a tendency he encourages his Salon guests to adopt, so that he can build a network based primarily on personal connections.
“At the Salon, you’re just enjoying the evening and figuring out which people you actually like, regardless of whether they can be helpful to you,” Konnikova says. “It’s a nice feeling to know that a conversation is based on pure interest and not any sort of strategic calculation. In the ‘real’ world, that can be a difficult phenomenon to recreate. I think this way, it’s more conducive to connections that, eventually, go deeper: You will help each other professionally, sure, but you know that you genuinely like each other personally, too. That makes a big difference.”
Jordan Harbinger received an invitation from Levy to the Influencers after Harbinger interviewed him on his lifestyle podcast, “The Art of Charm.” Harbinger has interviewed hundreds of networking experts for his talk show. He says the strength of the Influencers is that — borrowing a term from Wharton professor and fellow Influencers guest Adam Grant — “it’s a system that benefits givers and weeds out non-givers naturally.”
In Grant’s terminology, givers are those who generously share their network with others. Tactful givers only spend time and effort on those who treat them respectfully, and have clout that can be useful for reputation building or developing strong connections down the line.
If someone attends Levy’s Salon and doesn’t find the performances appealing or the variety of guests useful, then it’s in Levy’s favour for them not to stay in the community. Harbinger says it’s smart that Levy doesn’t share many details with those he invites about who will be attending an event, since the average busy professional is conditioned to weigh opportunity cost, and may be wary of something different from what they’re used to.
Harbinger and Konnikova agree that building a network outside of your industry can have long-term benefits that may not be apparent at first.
“I think it’s the referral network — you need only a few good connections at first, and good people know other good people. Once you have enough critical mass, the momentum builds on itself,” Konnikova says.
Levy says that even though he’s got a streamlined system in place and has outsourced his email invitations to an assistant, he still spends a minimum of 10 hours each week on the Influencers, scheduling dinners and Salons months in advance.
He says that since he pays for each of the dinners out of pocket, he technically runs them at a loss, but “running this has paid dividends that are disproportionate to the cost and effort.”
“One of my core statements is: A network is strongest when the connections between its members are great. I don’t want everybody connected through me. I want everybody connected to me and each other,” he says.
Levy’s career and the Influencers are becoming increasingly intertwined. Since early last year, he’s worked as a private marketing consultant for brands in the retail, hospitality, automotive, and tech industries, and the stronger his network the more big brands will be interested in working with him.
Over the past year, he’s been finding ways to incorporate product sponsorships into his Salons. When asked how he’ll keep them from becoming pure advertisements, he says that he makes their involvement clear and only works with brands he’s personally excited about.
For example, the first experiment he did was with the karaoke-machine company Singtrix for an Influencers community holiday party in late 2013. The night was a hit with his guests, and some journalists in attendance gave Singtrix some coverage.
Besides any pragmatic benefits from being the center of a diverse and influential network, Levy says that bringing people together is what he’s most passionate about.
“The things I create are on a social level. And so for me to see that I’ve brought two people together that then create something, it makes me feel like I’ve had an impact, I have value,” he says. “I get to look back and say, ‘Oh, my God. I connected these people and then this new company was formed.’ I take a lot of pride in that.”
According to Nye, Levy is right on the money. Through him, Nye says, “I’ve met five people that may change my life. Not bad.”
Levy says he became fascinated with studying behaviour as a “really geeky” and introverted eighth-grader. One day at school, a new seating arrangement was announced. Students picked their seats, but no one wanted to sit next to him. It’s a story that Levy says he doesn’t want to dramatically overemphasize, but it’s something that put him on a path to dedicating himself to having hundreds of influential friends.
“I would definitely say I became very heavily interested in understanding how people connect and then becoming really good at it,” he says.
When he hosts an event, he bounces from guest to guest with energy to make sure things go according to schedule. He makes sure to pause to take photos, start conversations between people he thinks should connect, and join in a toast.
His favourite moment the night I attended?
“Are you kidding? Standing there with Rahzel and Crazy Legs singing ‘La Di Da Di’ and then my sister jumping in for all the women’s parts,” he says. “That was freakin’ insanity! How do you even make sense of that? You have to understand: I’m a Jewish kid from the Upper West Side. I went to Hebrew day school. I have no right to be participating in that!
“The big joke I always say is that, one day, I hope to accomplish something worthy of an invite to my own dinner.”
Here’s a video of Rahzel giving a beatbox demo in Levy’s living room:
All photographs and video courtesy of Rick Smolan, Influencers member, CEO of Against All Odds Productions, and author of “Inside Tracks: Robyn Davidson’s Solo Journey Across the Outback.”