*Living in the age of social media has allowed people to communicate with family, friends, and complete strangers faster than the speed of light. Want to announce a new promotion at work, post a status update on Facebook, just got engaged, the Twitterverse awaits your amorous Tweet, do you desire to peacock your Thursday sartorial stylings, well, Instagram that joint, induce culinary envy by promoting your savory meal on Pinterest, and groan about your latest breakup on Snapchat or Kik.
In the most electronically connected generation that has ever existed, people today are the most isolated. Throughout his thriving career, working professional Lawrence Adjah developed a keen appreciation for the well-known proverb, “never get so busy making a living that you forget to make a life.” His hectic schedule had left little or no opportunities to forge meaningful connections and relationships with other people.
Ending his track career in Austin, Texas Lawrence moved back to New York and became an honorable member of the rat race. “I knew so many people from school, sports, and different avenues that were there and they were just struggling. [We] were doing well professionally, but people live on top of one another in New York, and I felt so alone, I felt all I did was go to work and come home. The only opportunity to interact with people is in these networking environments, which I think there is a time and a place, but it feels like people only value you based on your title and what you can do for them, so the networking does not fulfill you from an intimate standpoint,” explains Lawrence. Born to Nigerian parents, in Flatbush Brooklyn, New York, and raised along with his three sisters, Lawrence’s tight family bond not only aided in the successful trajectory of his career but his parents also developed in him a deep respect for family and community.
In 2006, Lawrence received his Bachelors of Arts degree from Harvard and earned a track and field scholarship to attend University of Texas, where he obtained a Masters in Sports Management, a two-year program that he completed in one year, with academic distinction. Heavily influenced by his entrepreneurial father, Lawrence added an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business in 2012, “I come from an entrepreneurial household. I didn’t necessarily know what I wanted to do after graduation, but I knew I loved business, sports, and content,” states Lawrence. His first foray into the world of business was with Merrill Lynch as an investment banker; later he became a consultant for McKinsey and Company in New York, as well as, Shanghai, China.
While at McKinsey, Lawrence advised clients in areas of media, entertainment, and sports. After a few years, he left his position at McKinsey and served as the Senior Director of Business Development the Leverage Agency, a leading sport and entertainment marketing agency. While there, he supervised their multi-cultural division while working with such notable clients like the LPGA, Ironman Triathlon, world champion professional boxers Evander Holyfield and Manny Pacquiao, as well as, various other sports and entertainment properties.
Armed with a stellar education and professional background, Lawrence decided to establish his independent consulting practice particularly for large media conglomerates and pursued his deep love for film by also co-founding Greenlighter, a startup based in Silicon-Valley that seeks to revolutionize the way Hollywood films are marketed and released. He reveals, “I wrote a college essay on how [cinema] changed my life; I thought film brought people together. I love storytelling, and I love the way storytelling can change how you see the world.” Also, he currently serves on the Board of Directors and as an advisor to the Urbanworld Film Festival which is sponsored by HBO and BET Networks. Understandably so, he wanted his life to be more than just a constant string business meetings; he desired to develop meaningful relationships outside of a rigorous professional work environment.
“Often time the opportunity to meet with people is very challenging. I was traveling for a project, and I remember saying [to my friends] that I was struggling. I recall saying that I would love to get people together and not talk about work. No one will give out their resume, we are going to put our phones away, we are just going to come together, eat dinner, and get to know people,” he says. In 2008, he sent out an email message to his friends encouraging them to invite anyone who would enjoy a relaxed dinner at Carmines in New York. To his surprise, twenty-seven people showed up at the restaurant, and everyone enjoyed the get-together, they even stayed until closing time. Every person agreed to meet up again with another month, and they pledged to invite someone that would enjoy the sharing a dinner with new people. The word traveled fast, and the dinners grew to 30 people, to 60, and eventually 200 every other month for years. At this time the monthly event did not have a name, it was just a formal organization without a board or even a domain name. “[Initially], my name was even disguised behind the email. No one knew who it was, people just came, and when I moved to California [to attend Stanford] that is when things hit me. My commitment to everyone in New York was to continue the dinners. But when I got to California, people would say to me I heard about these dinners you host in New York, we need it in the Bay area, we are spread out, we can’t see people and no one fellowships anymore, people are just about their work,” recalls Lawrence. So he hosted gatherings and surprisingly the dinners held in San Francisco grew faster than those in New York. That is when he knew that this event was larger than him, people from other cities started reaching out to him requesting to bring the dinners to their cities, and that was the start of Our Family Dinner.
Today, the organization boasts 67,000 members with a thousand new members added each month. The dinners are held in over 30 cities nationally and globally that include Atlanta, Miami, Washington D.C., Baltimore, Detroit, Dallas, Kingston, Jamaica, Lagos, Nigeria, Tokyo, Japan and Dubai, UAE, to name a few. The dinner that he hosted in Lagos, Nigeria, as per the request of his family and friends, was particularly cherished by Lawrence because he felt he had come full circle.
“Because of my Nigerian culture, these dinners took place when I was growing up. We were not allowed to eat alone. We came home when my [parents] made food. We ate together at the same table. It was our family tradition to do so,” says Lawrence. “Coming back to me was honoring the lineage that helped me to shape my disposition towards others.” The success of the dinner in Lagos was again unexpected, 120 people attended, 20 people traveled from the United States just to attend the occasion. “As much as it was great to see my family, what was beautiful to see was people from the States, London, Johannesburg, and Dubai converged in in Lagos, Nigeria for a dinner, that is when I said let’s keep honoring and doing this,” says Lawrence. His organization continues to grow significantly, and he attributes its success to addressing a real issue among young people who often are transient and yearn to feel at home their cities. “One of the things we have seen in young adults is everyone is moving for work or education, and they are settling in [places] where they may not have any family,” he says. “Ultimately, people want to go home and want to be around people that are familiar, where people know them, care about them, and account for them.”
He also recognizes that millennials are considered the digital generation. Most people have replaced the use of social media to build relationships as opposed to calling or engaging in more social activities. Lawrence notes that the most significant bonding building years, approximately between the ages of 25-35, are being mediated behind a computer screen, “What would have been a phone call is now a like, what would have been dinner is now a text message. But when life happens, you will see how shallow those relationships were because you weren’t building those relationships in person.” The dinners provide an opportunity to forge genuine connections so when life does happen; members are surrounded by individuals who care.
As a mean to encourage community building within each city, the dinners are kept at affordable costs from $25.00 to $45.00 so the teacher, student, the unemployed, and the profession can eat at the same meal. Because as Lawrence believes, “It’s not the people who are the most attractive, who have the best jobs who should have family or great community relationships, everyone should have these things.” There are two categories for the dinners. One is the neighborhood dinners in which someone can host in their homes, and the other is the city-wide dinners, which take place at restaurants that honor and respect idea of family. Lawrence seeks partnerships with restaurants that are family-owned who will respect multi-cultural communities and young adults who may not frequent their establishments to share a meal. The testimonials that flood the Our Family Dinner website continually speak of the warmth and fellowship that each experience. From the time that registrants sign up for the dinner, which can be paid directly on the website, a family member calls and welcomes them to the dinner and the city whether they are new or existing.
Existing family members inform new fellows on what to expect at the dinner were handshakes are banned and are replaced with free hugs. Handing out business cards is prohibited, but taking photos are encouraged except at the dinner table. Everyone is invited to socialize within the first hour of the dinner, and then there is a formal welcome where the hosts tell the story of how the meals began, why it is here, the mission, and then everyone comes together to take a family photo. Afterward, every person is seated and is urged to sit with someone they do not know. “At each table, there are moderators and family icebreakers. We recognize that people have different personalities, so we make it easy for everyone [to interact] at their table. Midway through the dinner we do what we call ‘Life Moments,’ these are announcements, significant milestones in your life that you would share with family,” says Lawrence. At past dinners, individuals have shared that they are in remission from cancer, just had a baby, or purchased their first home. He describes the vibe as people showing love to one another and exchanging gifts like an actual family. In addition to those who participate in the dinners, the restaurant staff is also acknowledged and celebrated. “We thank the restaurant staff with a standing ovation which honors the mission and usually brings the staff to tears because they do not get recognized. Then we give final thanks, and finish the dinner,” he explains. In essence, the spirit of hospitality is highly stressed, and patrons are inspired to host dinners in their homes with hopes they will continue to honor family by sitting around the table, enjoying a supper, and connecting with one another.
While the social side of Our Family Dinners continues to grow exponentially, Lawrence’s business acumen has helped him in creating conversations with Live Nation and the Essence Festival to establish venues that people can experience coming together amidst a unique backdrop for a festival or concert. His goal by 2017 is for every major city on every major continent around the world that has young adults and a multicultural population to enjoy sitting down at the dinner table together. Lawrence proclaims, “We also want to partner with all the cities so that they can take ownership of it, and market Our Family Dinner as a city- wide tradition.” The ultimate point that Lawrence wants for the organization is to become fully financially sustainable with a dedicated full-time staff to make sure that the significance of enjoying meals at home with family and friends is a message and a custom that goes viral.
For more information on how to attend an event visit www.ourfamilydinner.org.