Drinking at work dinners
Can you remember the last time you were invited to a work dinner that didn’t at least offer everyone the choice of an alcoholic beverage?
I couldn’t. That is, until last night’s dinner with the USV women’s executive leadership program.
This new initiative, championed by our network engagement and partnership lead Lauren Young, brings together a subset of women leaders throughout our portfolio for a six-month shared learning experience. Under the facilitation of an outside expert, we meet monthly and touch on topics of leadership, self-discovery, empathy, and understanding. And interspersed among these guided monthly meetups, we connect with smaller “pods” of women over dinners or drinks to build a stronger connection.
Last night was our big kickoff dinner for the second cohort of the Women’s ELP. We hosted it at The Assemblage, an emerging healthy co-living community in NYC. When you walk inside, the mood shifts entirely, you may be encircled by an on-site “charcoaler” to help you clear or cleanse whatever may be getting in your way.
And while there are elixirs and brain tonics and aphrodisiacs aplenty, there’s not a drop of alcohol allowed on the premises.
The fact that we felt obligated to give everybody advance notice of this booze-free environment is telling enough. But what does that say about the broader social implications that liquor plays in our day-to-day business habits? That we feel the need to allow post-work decompression through a glass of wine? That this social norm has become so ingrained in our culture that we worried people may revolt without that liquid comfort?
I was intrigued to see how this would play out.
Upon arrival, I decided to fully embrace the healthy juice menu at the Nymphaea Elixir Bar. I analyzed the menu, which read more like a zodiac sign web than a typical cocktail list, but couldn’t come to any conclusions.
“What is your aura telling you that you need today?”
That might not be exactly what the bartender asked me, but it’s certainly how I heard the question.
“Oh, um, well I guess I’m pretty tired so could use an energy boost. But since it’s late in the day, maybe no caffeine. And honestly I’ve been having anxiety and sleep issues so maybe something calming is better.”
Eventually I settled on an elixir that I think was called, “Revive,” a mix of herbs, spices and flavors that honestly aside from cinnamon sprinkled on top I could not even name.
When the next few ELP attendees showed up, they eyed my drink curiously.
“Not sure exactly. But it’s tasty and helps with anxiety,” I replied.
“Oh yeah? I need one of those too.”
I noted that it was only Monday.
Getting in the groove
Like I said, it’s been awhile (honestly probably even years) since I’ve been invited to a work event without alcohol present. I know this seems insane in retrospect, but for whatever reason, this just now seems to be par for the course when working in tech in New York City.
As one attendee pointed out over dinner, it’s actually hard to not drink every day when you live in this city. Particularly for those of us who have worked in sales or other relationship-centered roles, a common meet-and-greet experiences tends to be an invitation for either coffee or cocktails, depending on the time of day.
But in this context, bringing together a group of women across more than a dozen portfolio companies, the stakes seemed even higher. We were expected to share intimate feedback about our work-life, our challenges, and our career aspirations among relative strangers without the social cushion of a glass of wine?
A couple of things seemed noticeably different — the first is that it did seem to be a bit harder to get the conversation flowing. Though I imagine this was also due in part to the relative uniqueness of the space and the quiet room setting. Had we been in the center of a bustling restaurant, booze or not, I think that hurdle would have been easier to overcome.
While our dinner may have been a little less “loose” to start, the group soon got into the groove of the communal eating experience and ceremonial elixir drinks in between courses. One pivotal moment is when half of the table began openly discussing a business book and sharing moments of feedback and criticism in their careers. And just like the summits that we host so often at USV, as soon as one person opened up, this proved to be a compelling catalyst to continue the conversation more broadly.
Eventually, everyone seemed to have an opportunity to jump in and participate. It really showed me once again about the importance of moderating group discussions and making sure there is at least 1 or 2 people to nudge the conversation along and include folks who may not be sharing as much.
It’s scary to jump into a group discussion among a table of strangers. Maybe even scarier when you don’t let your guard down as much after a drink or two. But neither of these were barriers that felt too high to overcome. (Frankly, some of the herbal tonics felt so potent that I could have sworn there was alcohol inside.)
In the end, the dinner party conversation with engaging and intimate. And not for nothing, I slept incredibly well last night. Coincidence? I think not.