From the Secret Service to the Front Page of The New York Times

10 Lessons From My Four Years in the Berkeley Forum

March 19, 2014. Journalists film Kentucky Senator Rand Paul as he speaks at a sold-out Berkeley Forum event that was live-streamed by CNN and featured on the front page of The New York Times.

Four years ago I made one of the best decisions of my life: I joined the Berkeley Forum. The Forum is a quickly growing, entirely student-run organization at UC Berkeley that hosts debates, panels, and talks with leading experts from every field imaginable.

In my time in the Forum, we put on 97 events with 152 speakers, brought in 7,760 audience members, and reached hundreds of thousands more online. In my four years I’ve served on the Communications Committee, as Marketing Manager, as Press Chief & Head of Special Projects, and most recently have been Vice President of Communications. Being part of and growing the Forum has been one of the greatest honors of my life.

As I prepare to transition to the next phase of my life (and being someone who is interested in startups, entrepreneurship, and leadership), I decided to write this post on the top 10 lessons for growing organizations that I learned from the Forum.

Backstory

In November of 2012 the Berkeley Forum was founded. From the start, the goal was to build on the centuries old traditions of similar organizations (such as the Oxford Union, the Cambridge Union, and the Yale Political Union) and to bring that tradition to the home of the Free Speech Movement: Berkeley.

The Free Speech Movement of the 1960’s in Berkeley | Image Source

Our mission has been to provide the community a non-partisan, accessible forum for the free expression and debate of a wide-range of ideas by organizing debates, panels, and talks with distinguished speakers.

The non-partisan aspect is key. Despite Berkeley’s reputation as a liberal bastion, we think there’s value in hearing a variety of opinions. Among our student members, we have both Democrats and Republicans. In casual conversations over dinner (or late at night in Eshleman Hall) we regularly disagree and have political debates. When it comes to our events though — our personal opinions don’t matter. We’re here to create a space for productive dialogue.

The accessible part is also crucial. What’s the point of creating a space for free expression if it’s only available to a select few? Hence, all of our events are open to community members and all of them are completely free for UC Berkeley students, faculty, and staff. For community members, most of the time admission is free (when we do charge, it’s always a small amount). In fact, to date over 93% of all attendees have been on free tickets.

March 1, 2017. MIT Broad Institute Professor Feng Zhang speaks to an audience of about 200.

In March 2013, the Forum hosted its very first event, a panel on the federal budget fight. That August I stepped foot on campus as a college freshman and weeks later joined the organization. Since then, I’ve been fortunate enough to play a role in its growth.

Here’s some of the lessons I learned along the way:

1. Dream BIG

This may be a cliché but it’s true. If someone told me when I joined where the Forum would be today, I would have called them crazy. But that’s how you achieve success in an incredibly short period of time. Dream BIG and be okay with continuous failure. Even if you fall a bit short of your insane goals, you will still have achieved a ton.

A selection of news organizations that have covered Berkeley Forum events

Since I joined the Forum, we’ve hosted almost 100 events with some of the world’s most distinguished individuals: presidential candidates, US senators, Cabinet Secretaries, influential business leaders, a Nobel Laureate, an Emmy Award Winner, a Pulitzer Prize Winner, foreign government officials, and many others. Our events have been covered by 45 different media organizations. We’ve appeared on the front page of The New York Times. One of our events was livestreamed by C-SPAN and CNN. We’ve even worked with the Secret Service.

Left: The Sopranos Creator and Emmy Award Winner David Chase | Middle: a panel on women in technology | Right: exiled Russian Duma member Ilya Ponomarev

Sometimes people assume that our members have some insane connections that make this all possible. The truth is: we’re just a bunch of college kids. Our largest events haven’t come from connections, but from the dedication of our members — meticulously reaching out to speakers, consistently following up with them, and pitching the value of speaking at the Berkeley Forum.

2. Have a Powerful Mission

Don’t underestimate the power of an inspiring and clear mission. A lot of people (especially in Silicon Valley) create startups just to create startups. That’s the completely wrong approach. You should create an organization if you have a mission that you’re excited about and if you see a way to add value to the world through it. That’s the path to success.

Immigrant Rights Advocate and Former Wall Street Executive Julissa Arce takes a selfie with audience members after her talk

All of the members of the Forum believe incredibly strongly in our organization’s mission. Keep in mind: we’re all full-time students (many of us taking insane course loads). We’re working internships, have part-time jobs, participate in other student organizations, and also have personal lives. Yet, we still find the time and are willing to put in tons of work into this organization (unpaid). Each of us probably puts in as much as 10, 15, 20, in some rare cases even 25 hours per week.

To be honest, I still find this hard to believe sometimes. But that’s what happens when you have a group of individuals that believe strongly in a mission.

Similarly, when you have a powerful and clear mission, it makes it so much easier to convince others of the value of your organization. For us that has included convincing people to join our organization, to donate to our crowdfunding campaigns, to partner with us, to get press coverage, to help promote events, and of course to come and speak at Berkeley.

Left: MythBusters co-host Jamie Hyneman | Middle: Secretary of Housing & Urban Development Julián Castro | Right: Liberty in North Korea President Hannah Song

3. Expect the Unexpected

This might seem like an oxymoron. My point is that you should have a plan in place but be mentally prepared for things to go wrong (and plan for those situations as much as you can). Because things go wrong. Always.

Having put on this many events, I think we’ve encountered almost every single event situation imaginable. It’s funny because when I first joined the organization, we would ask a series of behavioral questions in interviews for prospective members:

An event speaker is currently driving to Berkeley but there’s an issue with the parking permit.
A speaker wants to come but is worried about protests.
It’s 48 hours before the event and we’re counting on a full house but only a small number of people have RSVP’d online.
What do you do?

They were all completely hypothetical, but over the years a version of every single one of them has happened.

For the parking question, the actual situation was even more intense because it was just 10 minutes before the start of the event. The solution that our members came up with was having two of us run out to meet the speaker. One member walked her to the venue, while the other street parked her car.

Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson speaks with protesters outside a Forum event, while surrounded by Secret Service agents and TV cameras

Then, for protests, the first time we encountered them was at our event with PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel. The protest was completely unexpected and while we handled the situation as best we could, the event did end up being shut down. However, we learned from the situation and developed contingency plans for future events. This allowed our event with Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson to go on despite protests.

Recently, we even had a speaker for a panel cancel less than 3 hours before the event. Our members reached out to every possible connection we had and through a professor that one member knew, were able to find a replacement speaker in time for the event.

4. Plan For Mistakes

Similar to #3, but more focused on the human aspect within your team. I like to tell my team that mistakes are inevitable, regardless of how good you are. The truth is that we’re all human.

On an episode of the Freakonomics podcast, a guest cited a shocking statistic:

On 98% of US commercial flights, a pilot makes a mistake.

Think about that for a second. Pilots, who are highly skilled and are operating planes carrying hundreds of people, make mistakes constantly.

Why don’t planes fall out of the sky more often? The mistakes are small and are expected. Hence, there are sophisticated redundancy procedures to catch them. Expect mistakes by developing procedures that take the human aspect in mind and hence maximize the chance of catching mistakes.

5. Working Relationships Matter

Dealing with high pressure situations is no easy task and so it is crucial that you know the strengths and weaknesses of your fellow team members, and most importantly can trust them. When you ask them to do something you need to have the confidence that they will get it done.

Forum members take a picture together during Berkeley’s Holi celebration

In the Forum, we’re all incredibly close. We pride ourselves on just how close-knit we are and like to refer to ourselves as “Forum Fam” (Forum Family). While part of it is just that it’s a lot more enjoyable when you have this kind of organizational culture, the other part is that it’s often crucial for success.

6. Go Beyond. Do the Unnecessary.

There’s no fun in doing subpar work. Know when a situation truly matters and go above and beyond for it.

In a TED talk on building human companies in the age of machines, Tim Leberecht says to “do the unnecessary.” The example he gives is Hamdi Ulukaya, CEO of Chobani, giving all 2,000 of his employees company stock.

“Actions like Ulukaya’s are beautiful because they catch us off guard. They create something out of nothing because they’re completely unnecessary.”

I think that ‘doing the unnecessary’ is a great way to put it. The unnecessary is how you impress, it’s how you stand out, and it’s how you make a lasting impression.

When at the end of an event, one of our speakers made an offhand comment about having an incredibly busy day, being hungry, and craving caffeine, one of our members instantly ran to the nearest coffee shop to buy him a croissant and espresso.

A custom designed poster for our event with Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson

Similarly, for every Berkeley Forum event, our marketing team designs a custom poster. It doesn’t matter if the speaker will bring in an audience of 400 or 40. We do it because we want speakers to feel special, and it’s the least we can do as a thank you to them for coming to speak at Berkeley.

Furthermore, Forum events always include a student moderated portion. For each event our moderating division (#modsquad) spends hours researching, writing, and discussing questions. In fact, this semester they wrote 278 (!) questions (not counting rewrites or follow ups). That’s an average of over 17 unique, highly researched questions per event. Only a handful of these ever get asked at each event, but that’s the incredibly high standard of quality that our students set for themselves.

Our event with Noah’s Bagels Founder Noah Alper featured free bagels and a custom Snapchat Geofilter

When we hosted Noah Alper, the founder of Noah’s Bagels, we provided free bagels for the audience and also designed a custom Snapchat filter for the event. Sure, it was completely unnecessary from a tactical standpoint, but it added to the overall atmosphere of the event and the audience loved it.

You get the point. Put in the time and do the unnecessary.

7. You Can Learn Anything

When we started off at the Forum, none of us had any experience putting on events. We all learned on the job.

Just to give you one example: in March 2014 we were hosting Kentucky Senator Rand Paul, who at the time had a lot of attention on him because he was widely considered to be the frontrunner for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. I was tasked with handling press efforts for the event.

The Berkeley Forum appears on the front page of The New York Times

I’ll be the first to admit: as a college freshman I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. I had no public relations experience and here I was taking calls from New York Times and San Francisco Chronicle reporters during the walk over from UGBA 10 (Intro to Business) to Math 16B (Calculus).

I learned on the job. I researched stuff online, worked with Rand Paul’s Communications team, followed my gut, and was also fortunate enough to get some guidance from the wonderful folks at UC Berkeley Public Affairs.

It all worked out and we had over 20 news organizations in attendance. I learned A TON, even if in the week leading up to the event I slept incredibly little. Despite where I was back then, today I can tell you exactly what the difference between a ‘press release’ and a ‘media advisory’ is.

Rand Paul answers questions from journalists during a media availability after the event

Don’t think that just because you don’t have the background or experience in a certain field you can’t learn it quickly. With the right opportunity, strong motivation, and a go-getter attitude, you can learn absolutely anything. The sky’s the limit!

8. Tools & Systems Matter

My friends know that I’m a huge fan of productivity tools. Without established (and well thought-out) systems and procedures in place, it can be absolute chaos. It becomes easy for things to fall through the cracks, for mistakes to be made, and it also leads to tons of unnecessary stress.

At the Forum we currently use Slack for communication, MeisterTask on some teams for project management, and Google Drive for file storage and other important information.

Effective tools and systems are crucial for creating well-functioning organizations

In Slack, for example, we have specific channels for every single upcoming event. It might at times feel a bit excessive, but it means that everyone has access to information about what’s going on and it creates a culture of transparency. It also allows us to keep conversations compartmentalized so that each of us can prioritize them accordingly (i.e. I can respond right away to urgent messages about tonight’s event and then come back later to those about events in a few months).

I can’t even imagine what life would be like without systems like Slack. When your organization is small you can probably get by without established tools and procedures (although you shouldn’t!), but when you grow it becomes absolutely imperative to have them.

9. Never Stop Innovating

After initial successes, it’s important to still have the hungry startup attitude and to keep pushing the ball forward — to keep innovating.

This extends to both personal growth (learning, reading, and picking up new skills) and also obviously to organizations.

Just in the past year, the Forum Communications team has launched a podcast, completely overhauled our semester event lineup announcement strategy, established a new data analytics team, experimented with a frequent guest loyalty program, held a crowdfunding campaign, created a small business sponsorship program, ran Snapchat filters for the first time, started to livestream events, and much more.

Recently the Berkeley Forum launched its own podcast

It’s important to keep the momentum going, so keep innovating.

10. You Can’t Do It Alone

No matter how talented you are, you can’t achieve success on your own. Recognize that and be humble.

Berkeley Forum President Daniel Ahrens thanks speakers of our Islam in America panel with custom designed posters

From your team members to your customers, from the community in which you operate to your friends and family — other people around you play a crucial role in your success.

In his book, “The Will to Win,” business leader Robert Herjavec says that as a boss you should avoid being the person in your organization to deliver good news and to always be the one to deliver bad news.

That might seem backwards but it’s a wise approach. Letting someone else deliver good news recognizes their efforts and makes them feel good. Similarly, being the one to deliver bad news, despite how uncomfortable that may be, creates a culture of honesty and builds trust and respect.

“The goal is to build respect and trust in you and in the values of the company, not to build your own ego”
–Robert Herjavec

By the same token, when leaders give reports, notice how often they use the word ‘we’ and how often they say ‘I’. It’s only one word but I would argue that it makes a huge difference. Saying ‘we’ demonstrates that you recognize and appreciate the work of everyone else that worked on the project.

Final Words & Thank You’s

So just to recap:

  1. Dream BIG
  2. Have a Powerful Mission
  3. Expect the Unexpected
  4. Plan for Mistakes
  5. Working Relationships Matter
  6. Go Beyond. Do the Unnecessary.
  7. You Can Learn Anything
  8. Tools & Systems Matter
  9. Never Stop Innovating
  10. You Can’t Do It Alone

As I said earlier, being part of the Berkeley Forum has been one of the greatest honors of my life. Not only do I feel like I’ve been able to give the organization a lot, but I’ve gotten so much out of it.

At this time there are some people that I want to thank.

Thank you to all the amazing speakers that have come to speak at the Forum over the years. Thank you to all of the wonderful people in Berkeley that have helped us along the way — from organizations we’ve partnered with to others at Berkeley that have helped and supported us (special shoutout to our past advisor Alexander Coward and to the folks at The Daily Californian). Also, a big thank you to everyone that has attended Berkeley Forum events — at the end of the day, you are why we do this.

And finally, thank you to all of the incredible members I have had the privilege of working with at the Forum. You’re some of the most talented and driven individuals I have ever met. It has been an honor to work with you. As I leave the Berkeley Forum, I could not be more confident in its future and that is largely because of you.

I know there are a number of exciting things in the pipeline and I’m excited to watch you take the Forum to new heights.

Keep it up Forum Fam.


For the past four years Sergey has been a member of the Berkeley Forum, most recently serving as Vice President of Communications. Having graduated from UC Berkeley with a B.A. in Economics and a Certificate in Technology Entrepreneurship, Sergey will soon be joining the startup Beyond Pricing.

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