JULY 30, 2015
STRANGER: Meredith Denbow
LOCATION: Jyoti, 2433 18th Street NW, Washington, DC
THEME: Learning about a group that discusses business failures
I don’t like to swear, something that’s been with me all my life given my father’s disdain for curse words. And I know he reads these interviews — or at least relies on mum to print them out so he can do so. That’s why I’m asking his forgiveness in advance in writing up my dinner with Meredith Denbow, who’s bringing FuckUp Nights to Washington, DC.
To clarify: that’s not fuckup nights lower case, such as sloppy drunken chaotic evenings in the District. Rather, it’s FuckUp Nights in title case, an organization that started in Mexico but has spread nationwide. It’s a chance for entrepreneurs to speak to audiences of anything from 10s to 100s of people about some of their big business failures and what they learned from it.
The idea behind FuckUp Nights, which Meredith kindly said I could called FUN when asking her questions, is for participants to learn from other people’s failures. Instead of a happy-go-lucky seminar about how amazing someone’s life has been, the FuckUp Nights gatherings allow for a laid-back chance to figure out what went wrong and how to avoid it in the future.
FUN’s Facebook page has this simple description: “Success is never final, failure is never fatal.” The events provide a laid-back atmosphere for presenters to talk about a business flop in their life and what they learned from it, and for the audience to ask questions of the speakers. From its launch in 2012, it has grown in popularity year on year and is now in more than 42 countries.
Meredith reached out to do a dinner interview and spread the word about the organization, and after a few emails we agreed to meet for a meal at Jyoti, an Indian restaurant.
Jyoti is a relatively small venue in the Adams Morgan neighborhood, and the first thing that hits you when you enter is the strong, seductive smell of spices. They waft from the kitchen in the back, making one’s nose prick up like a cartoon character following a scent.
The staff are effortlessly friendly and incredibly attentive as they led me to a seat near the window that looks out on busy 18th Street. It was a humid Thursday night and there were only a handful of diners in the restaurant, but they all seemed happy with their meals. And the menu held promise, featuring classic dishes such as tandoori, vindaloo and samosas. It’s a restaurant Meredith has been to several times and enjoyed, so it was her choice of venue for the interview.
Meredith arrived a few minutes later, and from the start it was almost like the tables were turned as she peppered me with more questions than I’m used to getting.
She came across as a naturally inquisitive woman, friendly and with a great wit. Thinking quickly on her feet, she seems to be able to make a punchline out of anything but also able to make a serious point when the moment allows. A very engaging personality.
After answering her questions about my life, I flipped open my notepad and started in on what I wanted to know about her — starting with her work for FuckUp Nights.
Meredith, 29 (she initially said “older” with a wry smile when I asked her age), has friends in Mexico who had taken part in FUN. It originated in that country in 2012 when a few people came up with the idea of talking about, and learning from, business failures rather than successes. “I thought it was cool,” said Meredith, and she was inspired to bring it to Washington, a city she says has plenty of entrepeneurs.
“I think the small business and entrepreneurial landscape is widening in this area, so I wanted to investigate it and create a community here,” she added.
Between sips of a white rum and Diet Coke, Meredith told me that organizing the first seminar required finding a venue willing to host the expected audience of dozens, as well as finding the right candidates to give presentations on their business failures.
The first event, known as “volume one,” took place at Mellow Mushroom, a pizzeria just across the street from Jyoti. Meredith and the rest of her FuckUp Nights team do research online to find speakers. “We stalk a lot of shit,” she said with a smile. “That’s how I found you, I suppose. It’s background research to be honest, but I like to say stalking because it sounds creepy.”
Meredith’s preference is for a variety in genders, backgrounds and industries among the presenters — everything from experiences with technology companies to the food sector, and from real estate to financial planning. “We want a fair representation of the entrepreneurial scene in the district, especially because of social enterprise being so large here,” she said. “I think a lot of people move here to do good for their communities and it’s really awesome when they’re able to turn that into their job, so we really want that to be represented as well.”
What is social enterprise? Meredith gave the example of one speaker who sells a spreadable peanut butter with a percentage of profits going to fee malnourished children.
Another speaker with a social enterprise project was the CEO of Hello Tractor, a phone application that connects tractor owners in Nairobi with farmers needing the vehicles, obviating the need for farmers to take out cost-prohibitive loans to buy their own tractor.
Others tell perhaps more conventional business stories. Former Dining With Strangers interviewee Craig Schattner, who has a video documentary about trying to date in the District, talked about his failed attempt at launching a bagel company. Another time, there was a yoga studio owner who talked about a $1.5 million lawsuit she faced — a huge figure to the audience of mostly 20- and 30-somethings who haven’t had failures with such massive sticker prices.
The events are “not geared to millennials but that is a large amount of who attends. This is the twitter generation, everyone want everything at 140 characters,” said Meredith. As a result, presents are limited to 10 slides of 40 seconds each, with a total of three or four presenters on average.
“The intention is to be as laid back and chill as possible. We’re not trying to do that boardroom and ties fancy shit,” said Meredith. “We have beers, there’s laid back conversation, we have venues with the capacity for presentations, a screen and a mike,” helping to entertain the crowds that number 50 to 70 people — fewer what she called the “insane” 200 per event that other cities draw.
“Part of the magic is that the intimacy of this feels more like a conversation when it’s not packed to the brim and people are not waiting outside to get in,” she added.
There was no queue outside Jyoti when we went, but I’m sure that’s because it was a quiet night and not any testament to the quality of the great food on offer.
Meredith declined to get an appetizer, but I opted for the vegetable bhajia, a slightly spicy mix of diced vegetables dipped in flour and deep fried. They came with three sauces that ranged from pleasant accompaniments to mouth-scorching, but all tasty.
While I picked at the starter, Meredith elaborated on the FUN discussions and said that after each presenter speaks they take questions from the audience. At the end of the night all the presenters then gather on the stage to answer more queries. People often ask similar questions, including how the presenters got funding for their failed enterprises; how they decided on what work they wanted to do; and what it took to identify a client base.
There have now been five events, or volumes, with the most recent taking place August. 13. But Meredith has not yet been a presenter at any of them. Asked what she would talk about if she was to discuss a failure in her life, she thought about it then said, “Probably the failure to leap and do what you want. I think that’s what holds everyone back.”
When I suggested that taking charge of bringing FUN to DC was a huge leap, she shrugged in agreement, then said, “But I work with awesome people,” including some she met through past work including as a volunteer tutor for George Washington University. “Surrounding yourself with a good team when you’re trying to pull off something that’s really big is essential,” she added.
At some point in the future Meredith would like to explore living elsewhere. “I’m not looking to be in one place forever, so if want to live in Mexico City for three months or be in Nebraska for nine months, I want to be able to have that fluidity. I want to be able to make salaries in different currencies, to see whatever I want in the world at any time.”
For now, however, she’s happy in the District.
Meredith moved to Washington in 2010, after travels to various countries and a childhood divided between the North and South. She was born in Florida, and when I asked if it was anywhere near Miami she laughed. “Absolutely not, that is too cool. I’m from Bradenton, about an hour south of Tampa. There’s a lot of serial killers and bombers. It’s a sunny state for shady people,” she joked. “But it was nice to grow up in proximity of the ocean and field trips to the beach were cool.”
When Meredith was 10 years old her family moved back to Ohio where her parents originated from, and she spent the rest of her youth in Worcester, which is located between Cleveland and Columbus. She then went to university in Cleveland where she studied political science, and said she’s always had an interest in international relations — particularly the United States’ relationship with Mexico, where she spent a semester. “I studied there, and still have friends there,” she said.
Another semester was spent in DC, where she fell in love with the city. She had done work for a bilingual non-profit, and was eager to move back to the District permanently.
Prior to moving to DC, Meredith also spent time teaching English in South Korea. “I graduated in 2008 and the U.S. was taking a nosedive in terms of its economic status. That Christmas, I ran into a friend and she told me she was teaching English in Seoul. I knew nothing about Korea, so I thought I’d do that and learn what it was about.” The English school paid for flights, rent and gave her a salary, and she called it a “decent” job.
After Seoul, Meredith spent about six months living back with her parents in Ohio. And then she decided to relocate to DC. “I wanted to see different things, different people.”
Since moving here, she’s also made a concerted effort to find decent Indian food. Meredith told me that Jyoti is one of the few venues that have made her must-visit list.
That’s when our waiter returned with our entrees.
Meredith chose a dish she’s had before: the mater paneer of green peas and homemade cheese cooked with spices. She wasn’t hugely hungry so took a fair amount home, but nevertheless said that the dish was up to its usual decent standards.
I had the chicken tikka makhanwala, tandoori chicken in a tomato-based gravy.
It was a great meal; the rich tomato sauce had just the right amount of kick for my typically bland tongue. There was a generous amount of large, tender chunks of chicken. And the hefty slabs of garlic naan bread were perfect for mopping up the leftover sauce.
The only downside, if it’s even fair to call it that, was that the portions were so huge neither Meredith nor I could even consider getting dessert.
So as the meal came to a close I asked her whether she has an end goal for FuckUp Nights before moving on to other projects. “I think about if I got paid for FUN would I enjoy it as much? I don’t know. Part of the thrill is doing it myself and for my own intrigue as opposed to a paycheck.”
Thinking about it for a while longer, Meredith concluded, “I don’t want to be graded as to how well one volume goes versus another. I want to be graded well on every one. If money was attached to something, I don’t know if I would feel as strongly about it.”