“No Agenda Other Than To Bring People Together” Words of Wisdom With Sophie Beren, Founder of TableTalk Global
“I believe that each person who experiences the magic of TableTalk absorbs the “pay it forward” mentality and perhaps unintentionally becomes more open to different perspectives and different types of people in future interactions. Each incredible student leader who I have the pleasure of working with will have their own unique moments in which they are impacting individual people. I wake up every day with the excitement of empowering young people to make a difference and to believe that they have the potential to leave their mark on campus in a meaningful way. Within our increasingly disconnected, yet interconnected world, I believe that TableTalk has begun to reinvigorate face-to-face conversation and to channel a mentality that we can truly change the world through better conversation.”
I had the pleasure of interviewing Sophie Beren who is the Executive Director and Founder of TableTalk Global. Sophie is from Wichita, Kansas, and graduated magna cum laude from the University of Pennsylvania with both a Bachelor of Arts in Communications and Music, and a Master of Science in Nonprofit Leadership. Sophie founded TableTalk Penn in 2015 and has since spread the TableTalk platform to 40+ Universities and High Schools across the country. Sophie was inducted into two senior honor societies at Penn and received the Alumni Student Award of Merit and the Stephen Wise Senior Award upon graduation.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory”?
As you can imagine, it all began with a table. Seated across from my friend, Ami, as we were out to lunch in Los Angeles in 2014, he asked me if I was interested in starting something called TableTalk. I was at first skeptical and had no clue what to expect, so I decided to take a few weeks to think it over. I knew I had it in me to be a changemaker, I knew I was ready to put my passions to good use, but up to that point I was content in my endeavors and content with my relationships. I was unsure if I should spend the rest of my college career attempting to reverse an entire culture, but I knew that I was a risk taker. The time I had to ruminate on this opportunity allowed me to take a deep dive into my life and into my Penn experience up to that point.
“Sophie, you’re not in Kansas anymore!” Is a line I hear almost every time I tell someone that I was born and raised in Wichita, Kansas. I am grateful to have been brought up in such a wholesome environment, but I always knew something was missing. I was the only Jewish student in my grade of 70 in high school and throughout my childhood I felt like an outsider. I could not understand why I had to be the only one who had to miss the homecoming football game or my own volleyball tournament for Yom Kippur services. I was so ready to leave Kansas, I was almost running out the door to get to Philadelphia to start my college journey.
Coming all the way to Philadelphia from Wichita was daunting to say the least. I wanted to find people and places that made me feel comfortable. Before I knew it, I was finishing freshman year in the Jewish a cappella group, the Jewish Sorority, and as a proud member of Penn Hillel board. I felt like I belonged and yet I felt “off.” I finally was able to take a step back and realize that not only was I a part of groups that defined me, but also everyone around me was doing the same thing with their respective identity groups. I was missing so many opportunities to meet and engage with new people who could help me grow and understand, as was everyone else on campus.
This realization is what drew me to TableTalk. There was a void on campus that needed to be filled and TableTalk was the perfect way to make a difference. I wanted to dedicate the rest of my time in college to helping others branch out and strengthen their perspectives through the exploration of others. I was finally ready to make the Penn experience my own and to make it a bit more interconnected and accessible to all who make their way down Locust Walk. Sometimes all you need is a good friend to help you take the jump.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you started your nonprofit
“No, we unfortunately do not talk to tables.” There is a lot of skepticism that often arises with the emergence of TableTalk on campuses. Students and faculty do not always see the necessity for the organization, because they like keeping things the way they are. College culture breeds echo chambers and though not explicitly stated, we are encouraged to stick within our social spheres and to stop branching out after first semester freshman year. As a sophomore at Penn, I applied to receive official funding for TableTalk. We proposed a simple budget to purchase four inflatable CampusCouches and some marketing supplies. A few of us TableTalkers presented to the board of the Student Activities Council (SAC) and felt confident in our mission to receive the little funding we requested. However, without even knowing it, they had turned down our application.
SAC convenes in a large general body meeting once a month and apparently there is a way to appeal their decision in front of the large room of student leaders across campus. One Tuesday evening, one week following our presentation, I was sitting in my room in my pajamas when I received a text that said “Sophie, I’m so sorry you guys didn’t get funding! I still love TableTalk and the work you do on campus is so important. Are you here? Are you going to appeal?” I was so caught off guard. There was no official communication or notification about this decision and the meeting had started 10 minutes ago. I quickly put on my shoes and sprinted across campus to the meeting and made it just in time. I stood up on stage when my name was called and before I appealed, the board of the student activities council blatantly stated that they were not interested in funding “silly activities like the purchase of couches.” This fueled my fire. I gave a heartfelt appeal as to why the student body should grant us funding and we won the motion to override their decision.
This small win led to the greater success of our organization as we were finally allowed the materials necessary to succeed. This challenging moment taught me that not everyone will be in support of your ideas and sometimes you have to stand up for yourself in order to achieve your desired result. Though couches might seem like a silly investment at first, you have to show the non-believers the significance of what one simple couch can do; and most importantly, you have to believe in the power of dialogue to the point of standing in front of a room of hundreds to explain why TableTalk is needed to make a difference.
What do you think makes your organization stand out? Can you share a story?
In our beautifully diverse, yet divided world, I believe that TableTalk stands out because we are completely nonpartisan and completely student lead. TableTalk is creatively addressing our nation’s largest issues, in an approachable way, through the leadership and passion projects of our students. With this distinction, TableTalk can be flexible and mold itself into a variety of shapes and sizes to impact particular environments where that impact is most needed. TableTalk is not a “one size fits all” model and therefore has the distinct capacity to make a lasting difference. By holding no agenda other than to bring people together, TableTalk maintains a rare universality to help and engage students, faculty, friends, and community members find commonalities with one another.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I would be nowhere if not for the unconditional support, love, and guidance from my parents, Ellen and Adam. In a time where most of my peers are out in the world pursuing conventional career paths, my parents have not once questioned my decision to pursue TableTalk professionally. Even before TableTalk Global sprung up from the ground, I had two other startups I was pursuing on my own that I eventually understood were not the right passion projects for me. Even if Mom and Dad did not personally connect with the ideas originally, they always found a way to give me their time and energy to properly think them through. Additionally, my parents have “soundest of sound” moral compasses and I am incredibly grateful to have been instilled with their Jewish values from a very young age. I believe that I am who I am as a leader today due to their humility, their belief systems, and their desire to help others above all else. It’s sometimes easy to take the startup culture for granted as it was far less common in years past, so having my Mom and Dad as sources of encouragement and wisdom, as well as my most valued sounding board have been the keys to my success thus far.
Are you working on any exciting projects now?
We just wrapped up the first “National Week of Conversation” last month which allowed us to host a series of events on multiple campuses with the support of other incredible organizations who operate in the dialogue space, such as Bridge Alliance, Living Room Conversations, and the Listen First Project. I am constantly inspired by all of the incredible work and good happening across the country that focuses on listening, conversing, and civil discourse. I am amazed by the openness and collaborative nature of this sector and I hope to continue working with these organizations to make the most impact we all possibly can, together.
We are thrilled to announce that we just launched our brand new website — — we hope you get a chance to take a look! Something we are very excited about is the “Share Your Story” tab on the website. We believe that social media and storytelling have the power to be used for good and this feature has allowed us to develop our very own TableTalk “internal social media feed.” The goal here is to encourage people to share their story through the hashtags #ShareYourStory and #TableTalk. We want people to recall a time in which they have reached out and met someone new. Whether in line at the grocery store, seated on an airplane, or sitting next to someone in class, there are countless ways for us to interact with new people. In these moments, we want you to snap a selfie and upload your story. If we begin to seek out these moments through the increased visibility of interacting with strangers, we can increase the likelihood of this happening on a far more frequent basis.
How does it work you might ask? Visit the Share Your Story page and upload a photo! Write down a blurb about your experience and include anything you can remember from your interaction with a new person. When you click submit, your photo will then populate below on the page as a visual storyboard. If you don’t have an image — that’s fine too! We hope this feature will encourage people to go out and increase our willingness to interact with others who might have an impact on our perspectives. We have much more in common with those we often cast off as different, than we might originally think.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I believe that each person who experiences the magic of TableTalk absorbs the “pay it forward” mentality and perhaps unintentionally becomes more open to different perspectives and different types of people in future interactions. Each incredible student leader who I have the pleasure of working with will have their own unique moments in which they are impacting individual people. I wake up every day with the excitement of empowering young people to make a difference and to believe that they have the potential to leave their mark on campus in a meaningful way. Within our increasingly disconnected, yet interconnected world, I believe that TableTalk has begun to reinvigorate face-to-face conversation and to channel a mentality that we can truly change the world through better conversation.
Do you have a favorite book that made a deep impact on your life? Can you share a story?
My good friend Leah introduced me to the book titled The ONE Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan, and I am forever changed because of it. I love to multi-task. I love to balance more things than I can handle. My to-do list is never ending and as a recent college grad, I often struggle with focusing on the bigger picture rather than crossing one million things off of my list. This book taught me a lot of about the art of juggling and the importance of counterbalancing in life. Page 82 is what made a deep impact on the way I live.
“Imagine life is a game in which you are juggling five balls. The balls are called work, family, health, friends, and integrity. And you’re keeping all of them in the air. But one day you finally come to understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. The other four balls — family, health, friends, integrity — are made of glass. If you drop one of these, it will be irrevocably scuffed, nicked, perhaps even shattered.”
We must take care of ourselves, we must prioritize, and we must acknowledge that work will inevitably bounce back. For me, I always put health on the bottom of my to do list and I leave it for last. My health as a ball of glass was on the verge of shattering and I wouldn’t have even realized without the help of this book. The juggling of glass can be incredibly difficult and we must put proper care and attention into our personal health as well as the health of others before we shatter.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started my company” and why.
- Celebrate the small wins. Though they may be few in number, they will keep you holding on when disappointments seem to fill your days far more often than bright and shiny moments. The small wins are everything and will fuel your fire. Before you know it, all of your small wins will begin to add up and your successes will feel all the more meaningful to know that they have been built upon the smaller victories that led you to where you are today.
- Remind yourself why you’re doing what you’re doing. Whether it be attending a program, or grabbing coffee with someone has been positively impacted by your organization — make the time to remember your organization’s essence. Prioritize the ability to re-familiarize yourself with the impetus for why your organization exists. It’s easy to get burnt out when you are eating, sleeping, and breathing your organization. For me, I love attending TableTalk events every once and awhile to see real people in action, meeting one another and having conversations. When I’m reclining on one of our navy, inflatable CampusCouches, I’m reminded of the power of conversation which is why I started TableTalk Global in the first place.
- You are your best advocate. No one knows your organization better than you do — we know that. With that power comes great responsibility. Put your best self forward in every interaction you have and be gracious to the people who have helped you along the way. Be that person who delivers a hand written thank you note. Be that person who goes the extra mile. Be that person who follows up first. Be that person who believes in the human capacity to change the world. Vivacity and humility can separate you from the pile of thousands of entrepreneurs.
- Get lucky — increase your odds. Did you know that we can increase our own luck? Science proves it. Luck favors the bold and brave so reach out! Whether this be fielding 100 emails for a few responses, cold calling organizations who you believe can add value to yours, reaching out to an old friend, writing to someone who you look up to in the industry, you name it! You are bound to get lucky if you are willing to increase your luck and your chances. Those few responses you receive will be major players in your journey. We must also get comfortable with asking for expertise, advice, help, contacts, and support. Though it may feel unnatural at first, you will become a pro in no time!
- Just do it! If you have an idea and you are still deciding whether to go for it or not — channel your inner Nike commercial and just do it. Jump. Leap. Extend yourself. Go. It took me one whole year to take the TableTalk jump and I wish I had listened to myself the first time when the voice in my head was telling me to take the leap. It’s okay if you fall, it’s okay if you need to hit the breaks, but it’s also okay to dive in. You know you’re passionate about it, you know you’ve thought it through, you know it will be a journey of ups and downs no matter what route you take, so take a chance on yourself.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this.
I would love to have a meal with the incredible Guy Raz from NPR! His podcast “How I Built This” has inspired me in countless ways to believe in myself and take a chance on changing the world. His unique ability to gather thought-leaders and tell their stories about the movements they created is very powerful and distinct. Guy truly opened up my eyes to the fact that while every leader has their own journey to building their movement, we must celebrate the similarities that we all share as change agents. It would be an honor to learn from him about the power of storytelling and to hear his story of how he built so many well-established programs, followings, and cultures. I would love his advice and I would love to tell him about TableTalk!
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
If you would like to see the entire “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me” Series In Huffpost, Authority Magazine, ThriveGlobal, and Buzzfeed, click HERE.