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A Night to Remember

An annual event, some would say institution, that I attended mainly because someone last year told me about the afterparty which involved Jell-O shots and an airplane bathroom. I felt it was my duty to investigate.

So what, you may ask, is the Young President’s Organization? Even they themselves seem a little fuzzy on the exact specifications, which also appear to have changed recently, but the general gist is you have to be the CEO (or other role with no direct boss) of a big company (the criteria involve revenue, market cap, total payroll and number of employees) before the age of 40ish. You also have to be invited to join by two current members, and agree to attend a certain proportion of meetings.

One of the events they organize for their members is a short MBA refresher/networking course at HBS, and while they are here they work with the Entrepreneurship Club and host a series of small dinners around the city, followed by a party (the one with Jell-O shots and an airplane bathroom. More about that later).

Our very own Professor Nabil El-Hage is a member of this prestigious group, and kicked off the proceedings with a frank and humorous description of how he became involved with the YPO, some of his and his family’s experiences, and why he felt the organization was so valuable. The main argument seems to be that once you are in a position like this, you have very few true peers in your social group, and so very few people to talk to about the unique pressures and challenges of earning a six figure salary, being responsible for the livelihoods of hundreds of people and making the kind of decisions we have to say we’d make when cold-called, but that they actually have to follow through on. Plus, you probably want to make sure your kids grow up hanging out with the kids of other Young Presidents, so they when they all bump into each other at their private schools they’ll have some common history.

On with the story. My dinner was held at the Harvard Club, which has probably the best views, the best service and the best seafood risotto in Boston. It helps that we had a private room, some truly excellent wine and somebody else paying. This pretty much clinched things for me: I am convinced that this exclusive group is one I’d like to join, or maybe marry into.

We started the conversation with introductions, our backgrounds and ambitions, and we also each were asked to describe an event that changed our lives. Hearing these stories from five current HBS students and five YPO-ers was utterly fascinating. We were a very diverse group, and yet in many ways our stories were similar. Two people who each have four children talked about how that changed their lives, several people mentioned teachers, foundations or schools that gave them chances they wouldn’t otherwise have had, and everyone talked about ambitions and hopes that went way beyond business. There was more than a touch of arrogance around the table, on behalf of both groups, but it was interesting to hear. It does sound very egotistical to say ‘I’ve achieved more than most people dream of and I’m not even 50 yet’, but reassuring to hear that followed with ‘I don’t know what I want to achieve with the rest of my life, but from now on it’s not going to be about the money’. For the HBS students in the room who will spend the next ten to twenty years of their lives pretty much focused on getting where the YPO guys are now, its good to lift up your head for a moment and wonder what happens afterwards.

As far as this evening went, what happened afterwards was the famous after-party in what I can only describe as the most bizarrely decorated apartment in Boston. This guy has a pristine Harley in one of the (four or five) main rooms in his apartment. There is a submarine hatch in the floor that leads to his office. There are chandeliers, a beautiful Steinway Grand and free standing aquaria on art-deco pillars. There was a chocolate fountain, piles of Twinkies and anything you could possibly want to drink. The walls were covered in (occasionally disturbing) huge paper prints of photographs from all over the world. There were two flavors of Jell-O shots, and a balcony with yet another stunning view across the common, the river and the city.

Finally, the thing you have all been dying to hear about, the airplane bathroom. I’m sorry, but it’s not as much fun as it sounds. I guess it makes for a great conversation piece, but think about it: airplane bathrooms are designed to optimize space, not comfort. It was cramped, smelt slightly strange, and looked kind of out of place. It also had just enough details (nice hand soap, proper towels and proper faucets) that weren’t authentic to be a little unconvincing.

The rich, it seems, truly can’t buy everything, but they certainly get the best views.

February 19, 2008
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