On a Wednesday night at the end of October, Zumtobel hosted a get-together for Olio volunteers at his apartment in Brooklyn. He called it a brainstorm for Think Olio’s future, but emphasized there would be nachos.
Zumtobel was slicing eggplant to toss into the topping and sipped on a Budweiser. “This nacho party was a weird idea,” he admitted, “[but] we always have to be different.”
Not long after, a new volunteer named Bianca showed up. She had responded to the call for volunteers after her first Olio by writing, “I love the concept of continued learning over a beer.” She said she’s attended many adult education-style lectures, but they tend to be mostly women. She thought the beer was the reason for Olio’s relatively even gender ratio.
Over the next hour or so, an impressively diverse group of 16 people trickled in. (One stylishly dressed guy from Portugal was just visiting New York but happened to meet Kurfirst that day, who extended an invitation.) The only area the group wasn’t very diverse in was age. Everyone was right in that 25 to 40 range.
In typical Olio style, the social hour went on for longer than expected as Zumtobel and Kurfirst either couldn’t peel themselves away from their conversations or didn’t care to. Finally, around 9 p.m., about an hour later than planned, the brainstorm began. The group gathered in a circle around the low coffee table stuffed with books. Zumtobel sat on the edge of the couch with Kurfirst on the floor next to him, cross-legged, adjacent to the acoustic guitar and the vinyl player and record collection.
After they made their introductory speech, during which they asked the volunteers for their suggestions on Think Olio’s 2018 road map, both the co-founders realized they didn’t have anything to take notes with. Kurfirst jotted on the reverse side of a photocopy of book pages. Zumtobel scrambled for a notepad.
After some discussion, one of the volunteers turned it back on the co-founders: What are their goals for 2018? They exchanged glances before Kurfirst rattled off a series of initiatives, including expanding their “seminars”—Olio series that go more in-depth into subjects over multiple sessions such as the link between technology and loneliness (which sold out) and a close reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s landmark 1949 publication, The Second Sex. Zumtobel nodded before cutting in with a quick fact check. “2018’s the next one, right?”
Soon, another volunteer inquired if they considered branching out from the humanities. They’re certainly open to any subject, Kurfirst replied, but he added, “Our motivation in a lot of ways is the humanities.” This, he explained, is based on the country’s university structure where the vast majority of a student’s curriculum is within their major. “And it’s supposed to lead to a career and then you’re just like: Wait, what just happened to the last five years of my life?” Maybe you never got to take a poetry class even though you like poetry.
“And you know what?” the volunteer, who works in advertisement and marketing, replied. “I love that. So much of the world is like, ‘Oh, get into a STEM career where you’ll have a stable job and you’ll make money.’ But like so many of us nowadays, we want to be entrepreneurs but we also feel like we need a sense of purpose that’s bigger than just crunching numbers for a living.”
The room nodded along, and the co-founders took notes. Over the hour-and-a-half discussion, lots of ideas were thrown out, some contradictory to what Zumtobel and Kurfirst had previously said they wanted to do, others right on track. (One idea that seemed to spark the imagination: Think Olio as some kind of dating service.) But they were thrilled to have new ideas. Zumtobel and Kurfirst know a good Olio if they walk out with more questions than answers. By that measure, the evening’s brainstorm was another success.
One topic that came up was expansion. Did they plan on holding Olios outside of New York? They’re excited about the possibility—they haven’t given up on changing the world—but they need to figure out a plan. They recently traveled to Mexico City and Berlin where friends are eager to launch local Olios. They joked (or was it a joke?) that they should expand to their favorite cities first.
Zumtobel outright rejects the suggestion he sometimes hears that Olios can work only in New York. “I’m just, like, so sad to hear that,” he moaned. “So this is the only place people care about learning?”