When I went to the annual YPO/e-club mixer on Wednesday, January 24, I expected a repeat of the MBA/AMP (Advanced Management Program) networking event in which I was cornered by a narcissistic executive who spoke ad mortem about his company. I could hardly have been more mistaken.
As I walked toward Kresge, I was perplexed by the number of buses parked out front. When I checked in, I found out that we were not eating at Kresge; instead, those ten buses were about to take us to small group dinners at restaurants around Boston. After running back to my room for a heavy coat-again, I had not anticipated leaving campus whatsoever-I jumped onto my assigned bus.
I had been on exactly two party buses before in my life, both times as a matter of course at HBS. But never before had I expected to go to a stodgy networking event and ended up on a party bus. The YPOers had started drinking back in their posh McArthur flats and brought their party-and drinks-on board. They were loud, rowdy, and obviously having a great time. We HBSers sat with our hands in our laps, looking at each other with astonished, frog-eyed expressions. It dawned on me too late that I really had no clue what the YPO, in fact, was. At the moment, the YPOers seemed neither young nor professional. Did that “P” stand for “party”? My ignorance was soon extinguished by a YPOer who came over to introduce himself and the YPO.
The Young Presidents’ Organization was founded in 1950 and has had a relationship with Harvard Business School since 1954. Some HBS professors, such as Nabil El-Hage and Steve Kaufman, were members of YPO before they joined the faculty. Every year, members of the YPO apply to attend continuing business education classes at HBS. After nine years of attendance, they become honorary HBS alumni. Membership in the YPO is restricted to presidents of organizations worth no less than $10 million or having at least 50 employees. Members must join by the age of 45, and at 55 they “graduate” to the WPO, the World Presidents’ Organization.
So why join an organization that inspects your books and birth certificate? In the words of a YPOer I spoke with, her colleagues in the YPO act as a “shadow board of directors” who share their advice and put her in touch with business contacts. The strict membership requirements ensure that everyone is a millionaire and that the networking opportunities are unparalleled; perhaps only the HBS database rivals the YPO’s. The YPO also offers outstanding educational and recreational programs for members’ families, and who does not want their children to have access to the global elite from a young age? I also discovered one other great reason to join: these folks know how to party.
We dined on fine French cuisine at the venerable, 137-year-old Locke-Ober restaurant in downtown Boston. The incongruity between the uptight waitstaff and the devil-may-care YPOers at times erupted into hilariousness. I witnessed the following interchange:
YPOer: Where can I smoke?
Waiter: There’s no smoking, sir.
YPOer: Not even a cigar?
Waiter: There’s no smoking in any restaurant in Boston.
YPOer: At all?
Waiter: At all.
YPOer: At all?
Waiter: At all.
YPOer: At all?
Waiter: [Turns, walks away, trying to hide disgust]
The most fascinating thing I listened in on, though, was a heart-to-heart talk between two YPOers discussing work/life balance, relating to spouses who were less successful than them, and the challenges of being a woman CEO. It seemed that the YPO really was living up to its reputation for both formal and informal relationship building.
Dinner started winding down, and our group leader announced that we were invited to a party at a YPO member’s home only a few blocks away. He also mentioned that the owner was “a bit eccentric”, putting him in contention for the Understatement of the Year Award.
Emerging first from the elevator on the twenty-second floor of a building overlooking Boston Common, I made my way toward the commotion. I did an immediate double take as I walked into the foyer. Is that.Sammy Davis, Jr.?!? It took me a second to assure myself that he was not back from the dead and that the man crooning in the living room was only a professional doppelganger. (His follow-on act, an impeccable Snoop Dogg impersonator, almost made me want to ask for an autograph).
Recovering from this initial shock, I took in my surroundings. This was no McMansion. No, this was a Dada paradise, a celebration of the absurd, a tribute to irony, and artifice as art. The owner took seven luxury apartments, smashed their walls, and filled his suite with the most bourgeois furnishings and decorations imaginable: floor lamps with dangling plastic beads, a little red wagon with an inexplicably large rock set upon it, bright plastic green chairs arranged like ultraviolet petals around a lazy Susan, fading blue carpeted walls, garish back-lit National Geographic portraits of people and primates, a submarine hatch leading to a storage basement, two spubble bubbles, and saddle chairs. For those who could not handle the intense feeling of disorientation and vertigo, the owner kindly placed a Boeing 737 bathroom off the main room. Although the faucet had been replaced, I appreciated the owner’s attention to detail in choice of brand: the knobs proudly proclaimed “Delta” in cursive script.
Echoing the dissonance between the pompous Boston Brahmin restaurant and the YPO revelers, the food and beverages confidently defied decorum and tradition: tuxedo-clad bartenders mixed drinks and served expensive wine while Jell-O shots waited patiently on a tray, and the chocolate fondue fountain faced a manicured dessert buffet that included Twinkies, Ho Hos, and Ding Dongs. Amazingly, no one seemed to have a camera, making me question whether any of this actually happened.
I left the party in a daze some time after midnight and ran into a friend on the way out. Breathlessly, he confided in me, “My new mission in life is to join the YPO!” Yes, my thoughts precisely.