Will Bachman: Hello, Michelle. Welcome to the show.
Michelle Welsch: Thanks. Thanks so much. This is exciting. I’m always happy when schedules can align and I can talk to people back in the United States.
Will Bachman: And you say back in the United States because you are sitting in Nepal, and we want to talk about that. So there’s at least three things that I want to chat with you about today. One is your work with Seth Godin, who is sort of my hero. And number two is your dinners, your Project Exponential. And three is your work in Nepal. I want to make sure we talk about all those things.
Michelle Welsch: We got a big list.
Will Bachman: We do. So why don’t we do it chronologically. Tell me about your work with Seth Godin.
Michelle Welsch: Sure. So before, pre-Nepal, I was living in New York City, Upper West Side, and Seth and I started to do some projects together. I was taking on a few different clients. I had moved from … My background is in social work. I finished my master’s in social work from Columbia University and moved into branding and marketing. So I was working at Interbrand Consulting, more Fortune 500 companies, and then moved on to being the kind of community development, marketing director for social media week. And then from there, I began working closely with Seth for events and helping him kind of curate his communities for events and putting on interesting productions. He’s a very interesting guy with a lot to offer, and that work was incredible. I learned so much from him. And just watching him work and be generous with his time and his spirit and his knowledge was really, it was transformative for me.
Will Bachman: Walk me through what it’s like to create an event with Seth Godin. I’d love to hear some of the real tactical details that we might not normally be aware of. And maybe you just pick one of the events. I attended one that had, I don’t know, 4 or 5 hundred people, kind of West 23rd Street I think. Maybe pick one event. Kind of walk us through from conception to how you decide to position it and some of the little logistical details that you worked on. Like the catering was often amazing and just the handouts and the collateral was really beautiful. Walk us through that whole process.
Michelle Welsch: When you’re designing an event, whether it’s with Seth Godin or with any sort of client, you always want to think, “What is the aim? What is the intention here? Who are we trying to reach? What are we trying to say?” And with Seth, his work was always about community, and collaboration, and inspiration. So setting the key goal and working backwards is always helpful. And that’s how little details can evolve out of that. So if it is trying to … And, again Seth is very unique and has kind of a funky, quirky side to him, in addition to being very generous, and giving, and smart. So being able to incorporate interesting catering elements and interesting networking ideas, it was fun. It was a lot of fun.
Michelle Welsch: But I think whenever, whether it’s you’re writing a marketing email or you’re designing an event, you always have to think, “Who am I trying to reach? And what am I trying to say?” Because audiences are different, and the way you speak to different groups of people may change. Your core values and your core essence of the message you’re trying to send is going to stay the same, but the way in which you deliver and present information is going to morph and adapt to the client and the environment.
Will Bachman: What were some of those? You mentioned creating some unique networking elements. Give us an example of one of those.
Michelle Welsch: I mean, with a few of the events that I did with Seth, we arranged connection dinners after the event. So I spent time looking over who was coming and who might be interesting to spark conversation or who was looking for what. And much like the Project Exponential dinners that I do in New York, I essentially did that for attendees at his event. That and also keeping things a little bit light and fun. We were always looking, “How can we start conversation? How can we get people talking? How can we get people to ask questions and be open?” So for one of the events, we created this beautiful letterpress card where on one side it said “Problem” and the other side was “Solution.” And things that are tactile is always great for in-person events that people have in their hands. When people are moving around, it can help them get talking to strangers and feel comfortable. An environment where, again, with Seth, he wants people to be vulnerable. And he wants people to really dive deep into their problems and issues. So creating an environment that encourages that was always at the forefront of my mind as well.
Will Bachman: You mentioned your dinners, your Project Exponential dinners. And I’ve been to several of your dinners, which are always really fun. Talk to us about that side project of yours.
Michelle Welsch: Yeah. So the dinners. Again, so my background was in social work. I moved into marketing. I saw that in New York City, groups of people were very siloed. And very rarely would you have, for instance, a social worker from the South Bronx in a room with a corporate exec who is in the Flat Iron District. The networking, at the time, was also very siloed. So you would see the financial sector, Wall Street guys, they would have their own thing. And then you would have the kind of more creative, marketing, branding events. And then you would have nearby Columbia University, and even down at NYU, you’d have different kind of networking groups aimed for, whether it’s academics or people involved in education. And I was thinking, “How can I get all of these people in a room together, and share dinner, and talk about problems, and come up with interesting remedies because they all are seeing the problem from a unique perspective. Because I always believed that that social worker in the South Bronx had something to teach that guy that is trying to come up with an incredible marketing campaign for his company.
Michelle Welsch: So it started slowly. I would tap my contact list, and then I think I started with, I invited 20 people into a private room. One of the first ones, I would use Café Select, downtown in New York. They have a very- They have a unique space. You walk through the kitchen, and then there’s this private sitting room in the back. And I ordered a unique menu. That was part of it, too. You get people in an environment that’s going to surprise them and delight them. And I would facilitate conversation and place people strategically next to others who could offer them something unique or could give them something that maybe they were looking for or they could help in some way. Word of mouth spread quickly. The list still grows.
Michelle Welsch: The dinners are, I would say, monthly-ish. In the beginning, I would do them a little bit more frequently. But, obviously, logistically, now, from Nepal, it’s a little bit more challenging for me. But yeah. They still exist. It’s 12 to 15 people at a dinner. Those 12 to 15 people are selected. Again, I have a profile that people fill out and I look to see who could help other people in the room. And I design questions to help them talk about their problems and share some of their expertise in a very nonthreatening environment.
Will Bachman: Now, there’s a couple things that I really loved about coming to your dinners. The one part is the seating plan. You don’t just give one seating plan, but you also move people around a little bit.
Michelle Welsch: Yes.
Will Bachman: Talk about that. Talk about how you do that and why.
Michelle Welsch: So same idea. For an event to be successful, I want people to have a few different individuals that they could potentially connect with, or talk business, or share ideas, or create some sort of solution together. So in order to do that, I’m looking at where are the intersections? Where are the crossovers? And I know that with a dinner, if you sit people in a certain seating chart, they’re going to stay in there for the entire meal unless you move them. Again, because this is, I view it as, this is a professional service that I provide, I want people to have the best experience possible, and that includes strategically putting people in different seating plans so that they have the opportunity to meet a variety of people.
Will Bachman: I see that when … Often, when you go to an event, that often does not happen. And then you’re a little bit anxious as an attendee, kind of like scoping out the other people. Like, “Who do I want to sit next to? Who’s going to be interesting?” And there’s a certain actually generosity that you have when you use your authority to actually kind of dictate that, and then move people around so that you don’t have to be anxious about it as the attendee. You can just sit where Michelle tells you to, which kind of alleviates that burden and kind of gives you the permission to meet multiple people. Talk about some of the questions that you suggest and how you do that as well.
Michelle Welsch: Questions. So this is the social work background coming in. I mean, social work is about asking questions and is about understanding where people are coming from and the dynamics that have shaped their life and shaped who they are. So the questions that I use are absolutely from my education and from my background as a social worker. One of my favorite questions — and this also came out of my work from working alongside Seth – is what problem do you presently wish you could solve? It’s broad, but specific enough to get people talking about something that’s meaningful to them. And for me, so many networking events were kind of this very flippant, shallow kind of conversation that wasn’t really digging as deep as I wanted to see for it to be valuable for people. And that’s part of the reason why the questions that I ask are aimed at getting people to talk about things that are meaningful to them. Otherwise, what’s the point of going to an event, really?
Michelle Welsch: You want to talk about things that are important to you. So the questions help people dive into those topics more quickly than if there aren’t questions and you’re just there with strangers and you have to get through the, oh, “What do you do?” And then, “How long have you been doing it?” Those kind of superficial conversation starters.
Will Bachman: Share some other questions that you love to hand out. So number one-
Michelle Welsch: Oh, I’m not giving all my [inaudible 00:12:59] away.
Will Bachman: So to move people. And I think people want that. They don’t want to have … We don’t want to have just the shallow conversations of “What do you do?” But in some cases, we need to be taught how to have a deeper conversation. We need permission. We’re a little afraid to ask the more intimate questions because we think the other person might feel offended or doesn’t want to go there, but often we do. What tips do you have, when you’re at an event, to get to a deeper level of conversation?
Michelle Welsch: I think you hit the nail on the head by mentioning permission. So from both an organizer perspective and from an attendee side, to give yourself permission to go there, but then to give other people permission to go there. And being vulnerable is not easy. This is something that books are written about, and it’s a hot topic even in business rooms now. How do you reveal parts of yourself without going too over the top? How are you thoughtful and sensitive and caring in an authentic way? I think when you come to any conversation from a place of realness and empathy, when you’re thinking, “I want to know more about where this person is coming from, and I’m going to show up with a generous heart and be open and willing to participate in conversations here.” That’s when the magic happens. That’s when … Again, that’s when problems get solved, both on a personal level and on a more professional scope.
Will Bachman: You seem very sensitive to place and finding places that really foster that kind of connection. I’ve been to dinners that you hosted at [Bach Row 00:15:08], which has this amazing downstairs. Almost feels like a underground cavern at a castle, sort of rock feel to it, with a private room there. And then you had a beautiful one at, I think, [Chalelle 00:15:24] on the Upper West Side. How do you scope out and find these amazing locations? And what are you looking for when you find a location for a dinner?
Michelle Welsch: Another lesson from Seth, “Surprise and delight.” You want to bring joy to people’s lives. And New York is a great place to do that. There is so much available. And really, an environment … Again, it’s not the most important thing, but that can help make and elevate an event. You can have conversations in anyone’s living room. You can have conversations … I mean, again, here in Nepal, I see people on the street having warm conversations with each other. But in terms of an event that people are paying for, then they want something worthwhile and something to go home and tell their family or their partner about. I think being able to surprise people is key. And that’s part of the magic of these dinners.
Will Bachman: What sort of impact have you seen and kind of feedback that you’ve received from people, the connections that they’ve made at these dinners that you’ve organized?
Michelle Welsch: Yeah. So it’s been incredible. I mean, anywhere from people have met business partners or clients. And on the more personal side, there’s been a few couples that have emerged. Some people have explained that they were going through a really tough problem, and they were able to find an answer there, or they got the support, or the encouragement, or the inspiration they needed to kind of work through a sticking point. Yeah, it’s been incredible. And that’s what keeps them going, right, getting that kind of feedback and that kind of response. After every dinner, I always send a follow up thank you note. And I ask people to tell me what was valuable, what worked well, and did you connect with somebody. And I encourage people, you follow up. Send out an email. Invite someone out for coffee. Try to connect with whoever you met and you got along well. Figure out another way to reconnect because that’s important. And that’s also part of it.
Michelle Welsch: Now, I totally realize people are busy, and some people go to the dinners and they just want to have a good time and leave it at that. They get what they need and they’re inspired. And then they go along their way and they try and get into another dinner, which, now with my roster, you got to wait a little bit. But yeah. I think relationships, whether, again, business or personal, take time and attention and care. For a lot of people, those dinners are just the starting point of that.
Will Bachman: For folks that are listening or hearing about this the first time, where would they go to learn more about Project Exponential?
Michelle Welsch: Yeah. So there’s a website, projectexponential.com. There’s a regular blog that I’ve kept up to date since I started the dinners, so it’s been years. And I write about, again, anything from inspiration and perspective to adventure and asking questions, and marketing, and branding, and entrepreneurship. So I would say the website is a great place to start.
Will Bachman: Excellent. Projectexponential.com. And we’ll include that in the show notes. Now, you mentioned Nepal, and we’ve heard a little bit of street noise from Nepal in the background, which adds authenticity here to the show. So talk to us about that. So you were living in New York, running Project Exponential, doing events, and now you’re in Nepal. How did that happen? And tell us what you’re doing there.
Michelle Welsch: I’ve been in Nepal now over five years. Sometimes I cannot even … Yeah. Me neither. Me neither. Had you told me when I came to Nepal that this is a direction that my life was going to take, I would have left. Originally, Nepal was supposed to be two weeks. I wanted to do Everest Base Camp, and I ended up volunteering after the trek at a monastery, and ended up extending my visa. Extending my visa because I saw things that, as a human, I couldn’t walk away from. And, again, my social work background. I had worked in the South Bronx. I had worked with probationers in Colorado State. And the stuff I saw in Nepal, I didn’t feel good about just leaving. One thing led to the next, and I ended up starting a nonprofit based on education and leadership. After working at the monastery and focusing on education initiatives and development initiatives there, anywhere from helping them build and grow their English language program to installing solar systems so they had light in the classrooms and could study.
Michelle Welsch: Then I started Learning House. Me and some other educators, locally, we were looking at what exists and what doesn’t exist in this community. And Learning House was born. We built it from the bottom up through crowd funding. It’s been amazing. From that, we’ve been awarded different grants to continue doing our work. Also, friends chip in and private donors. It’s been incredible. It’s been incredible.
Will Bachman: Tell us about the work of Learning House. What are you doing?
Michelle Welsch: So Learning House is an education community. We have a focus on promoting, obviously, quality learning experiences that are practical. So skills-based. So we do English language and barista training. And a lot of students that come to us, either they studied at a government school, so their English skills are not that great, and they’re trying to improve their English so they can get jobs locally in the tourism sector or go elsewhere. Or we have students who are looking to go abroad for higher education. So they want their bachelor’s, their master’s in a more Western setting. And they have to study for admissions exams. So they have to show that they can speak English, and write English, and listen to conversations and understand them. Some students actually want to go to the US, and they’re working on GRE and SAT. I remember when I took those exams. They were tough for me. Now, imagine taking it if it’s not your first language. So we help them [inaudible 00:22:47] with that as well.
Will Bachman: When starting any organization, at least in my experience, there’s elements of it that you are totally comfortable with, and there’s elements of building a new organization that you are completely unprepared for and unqualified for. At least that’s my experience. What has been kind of a surprise for you or something that you weren’t really prepared for? Talk to us about that and kind of how you dealt with it.
Michelle Welsch: Yeah. I mean, starting a business, period, is difficult. Starting one in a country like Nepal poses a whole new set of problems. And being a manager is tough, being a leader of an organization when you have a vision. And, again, in a place like Nepal, you need community buy-in, and it’s never just about you. And it’s really “It takes a village.” [inaudible 00:23:41], personally, I have a great network of friends who support me. They act as my cheerleaders. And professionally, I’m thrilled to have great mentors. And here, we have a great team. People here, they’re energetic, and they’re fun, and they like to help others. It’s just a great environment. It really is. Again, it’s incredible that we built this from nothing.
Will Bachman: You mentioned barista training, which, I guess maybe would not have occurred to me as the first thing someone would need to be learning in Nepal. But I guess there’s rising demand for that in the tourist sector.
Michelle Welsch: Yeah. So I’m based in Pokhara, which, there’s a huge kind of tourism hub here because many trekkers come here to start treks. It’s called the Annapurna Circuit, and people wander through the Annapurna mountain range on hikes. And Pokhara is like their base. It’s their hub. You should see the hotels and the growth that has been here just in the last five years that I’ve been here. If you look up Pokhara, it’s spelled P-O-K-H-A-R-A. It’s often ranked as a top travel destination. So we’ve had students go on to get jobs locally here. The coffee trend has exploded here in Nepal. So we’ve even had students go on to open up their own coffee and café shops. A lot of our students, also, as I had mentioned, they go abroad for higher education. We have one of our former students, he’s finishing his bachelors in engineering in Canada. And he’s working at a coffee shop and getting some pocket money while he’s studying. What better way to make friends and kind of plop yourself in a new environment than at a coffee shop.
Will Bachman: You mentioned the need to get community buy-in. Tell us about that and maybe if that’s different in any way from what you would have experienced in New York.
Michelle Welsch: Yeah. So I think whenever you’re trying to create substantial change, whether it’s cultural or within a community, you have to have … it’s got to come from within. Me being the foreigner coming here, I knew that what I wanted to create, I could not do myself. It would be seen as a white woman coming in and pushing this agenda. But when you have a community rallying around an idea or a cause, and people, strategic leaders, from within that group promoting education, promoting leadership, promoting practical skills, that’s when you see real change happen.
Will Bachman: Can I turn one question back to you? So one of your favorite questions is kind of what problem that you’re working on right now do you wish you could solve? Could you share one with us and our listeners?
Michelle Welsch: Many. Many. Being a manager is hard. And keeping both yourself inspired and passionate and motivated and keeping others passionate and motivated is tricky. So I’m always thinking, “How do I keep my team engaged? How can I reward work that’s done well? What kind of fun, energetic things can I keep to the table to keep everyone going strong?” So that’s something for me. And whenever you’re community building, which is essentially what I’m doing here, it’s, yeah, it’s an ember. And you have to constantly stoke that ember and keep it going. So I’m constantly coming up with new events, new ideas, little offerings that we can provide here. And it’s, I think for any entrepreneur, it’s a balance of how do you give, but also give to yourself and create that time where you can recharge and refresh and be inspired as well. So yeah. I think that’s something this year, again, after being here five years, this year I finally have made a very intentional effort to think about what can I do for myself as well instead of constantly giving to others and constantly looking outward, but also look inward and see what are the things that I can do also for myself.
Will Bachman: For listeners that want to learn more about Learning House, you want to share a website and talk about how people can get involved either by volunteering there or visiting or making a contribution?
Michelle Welsch: Yeah. So there’s a few different ways to get involved. And the website is K-H-A-T-A-L-I-F-E dot org. And on Facebook, you can look up Learning House Nepal and join our online community there, which, I think we’re nearing 20k now. It’s very exciting.
Will Bachman: That’s amazing.
Michelle Welsch: Yeah. Oh, and to give you a scope of the number of students we work with each year, it’s around 3,000.
Will Bachman: Wow.
Michelle Welsch: I think I forgot to mention, also, it’s primarily young adults. So we don’t work with small children. It’s anywhere from 14, 15 and up. And we have a lot of adult learners come here as well. So they didn’t really learn English when they were in school. And especially women. Women were not … A lot of women in more remote areas did not receive education. So after migrating to Pokhara for more business opportunities or for family, now they’re in the position of they want to learn English so they can speak to their children who have taken it on, whether it’s at school, or through movies, and pop culture, and that. Yeah, so khatalife.org is a nonprofit branch that fuels Learning House.
Michelle Welsch: Learninghousenepal.com is where people can learn more about our offerings and our community and what we provide. Yeah. Swing by to see pictures on Facebook. There’s always something fun going on here. We do live videos of the students practicing their latte art. Every week we do a free event for the community. Sometimes it’s an art club, or music night, or movie night, or a branding seminar, English conversation hour. So it’s a way, also, for people, no matter where they are in the world, to feel connected to what we’re doing here.
Will Bachman: I’d love to hear about some influences on you in terms of are there any books that have really shaped you or that you’ve regularly gifted to other people?
Michelle Welsch: Books. Where to begin. Where to begin. I mean, obviously, Seth’s books are great. And they’re always [inaudible 00:31:13] in a nice way that it makes a great gift because they’re beautiful as well, and appealing. In terms of … I read a lot of fiction, as well. So that’s always the [inaudible 00:31:30] to me. Books, for me, especially being here in Nepal … Again, I am the only foreigner. Books can provide a little bit of a vacation for me. I’m sitting here, actually, right now in our library surrounded by books at Learning House. And that’s been an interesting challenge, getting books here. So a lot of times volunteers come here and I tell them. I send them a list. “Bring these. Can you pick up these books for us?” Yeah. So we have Nepali books, English books. We got it all right here.
Will Bachman: That is amazing. Michelle, the work that you’re doing is totally inspiring. I’m looking for a way to find a way to get to Nepal and visit what you’re doing. It sounds awesome. Thank you so much for the Project Exponential dinners. Those are always [crosstalk 00:32:25].
Michelle Welsch: Yeah. Come out. We love visitors. Oh, yeah. Sure. We love visitors. It’s always a awesome kind of cultural exchange. So visitors who come here, they take Nepali classes from one of our instructors. They practice English with the students. And then, we give them a list of things to do in the area. A lot of people go trekking. And it’s just a beautiful, very unique culture here. Everyone who comes to Nepal say, “Wow! The people here are incredible.” And really, you’ll find hard-working, spirited, easy-going people here. Where I had an experience like this in New York. And that’s one of the things, I am very blessed to work with my team because when I take things a little bit seriously and tend to overanalyze and drive myself crazy, a lot of the members of our team, particularly Ngawang, who teaches a lot of the classes … He’s so easy going and has such a great perspective on things. It’s taught me a lot about what it means to be grateful and to keep things in perspective. Sometimes you do the best that you can. You do the best that you can, and that’s got to be good enough. That was a lesson I had to learn here.
Will Bachman: Well, from a two-week vacation into five years and counting, I suppose we could either count that as an advertisement for traveling or a cautionary tale. But what you’re doing is absolutely amazing and inspiring. And Michelle, thank you so much for being on the show.
Michelle Welsch: Hey, thanks for having me. It was a pleasure talking to you. And I hope I was able to inspire, maybe help someone, or give them a new idea, maybe for an event or even hosting a dinner at their own home. There is an e-book on the Project Exponential website if they need some ideas on how to host a dinner party themselves. And that’s free. Can go on there and check that out.
Will Bachman: Fantastic. And we’ll include a link for that in the show notes. Michelle, thank you for joining.
Michelle Welsch: Hey, thanks for having me.