Danny Meyer ’80 P’20 Among Panelists for Connecticut Forum’s ‘Disruption!’ Discussion

Trinity College Trustee and Founder of Shake Shack Offers His Thoughts on Innovation

​Hartford, Connecticut, March 22, 2017 – Trinity College students, alumni, staff, and faculty members had the opportunity to attend a recent Connecticut Forum event called “Disruption! Innovators in Business, Media, and Culture.” Among the panelists for the discussion was Trinity College Trustee Danny Meyer ’80 P’20, a restaurateur who is the founder of Shake Shack and the CEO of Union Square Hospitality Group. Trinity is one of the Forum’s Education Partners, which support open dialogue, lifelong learning, and the free and active exchange of ideas.

​Panelist Danny Meyer ’80 P’20 gives a shout-out to his alma mater, Trinity College, at the pre-Forum dinner. Photo by Nick Caito, courtesy of The Connecticut Forum.
Held at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Hartford on March 10, this forum invited a panel of business innovators to share their expertise and to inspire audience members to challenge the status quo by “thinking big” in their work and their lives. In addition to Meyer, the panel included: Ezra Klein, a journalist and political analyst who is the founder and editor of Vox.com; Anjali Kumar, former Google executive and former head of social innovation and general counsel at Warby Parker; and moderator Jonathan Capehart, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who is an opinion writer and editorial board member for The Washington Post and a frequent contributor on MSNBC.

Meyer began the evening by acknowledging his alma mater. “Can I say how great it is to be in Hartford? I spent the best four years of my life at Trinity College,” he said. The panel then took some time to define what the evening’s topic means to them. To Meyer, it represents a form of entrepreneurialism. “Disruption used to be a word you only heard when you were in trouble, before the tech world started using it as a badge of honor,” he said. “Union Square Café was disruptive to the New York restaurant scene in 1985. The idea of hospitality was disruptive. At the time you didn’t find awesome food and wine paired with a warm welcome.” Meyer took this concept and turned it into what he calls his recipe for success: 49 parts performance and 51 parts hospitality.

Kumar said that in her experience, disruption involves pushing yourself to be uncomfortable and being willing to dig deeper, such as when Warby Parker took a chance by selling eyewear in an innovative way. “It’s much scarier standing at the edge of the cliff before you jump,” said Kumar, who added that she often does her best work when on the edge of her comfort zone.

​Left to right: Moderator Jonathan Capehart on stage with panelists Danny Meyer ’80 P’20, Anjali Kumar, and Ezra Klein. Photo by Nick Caito, courtesy of The Connecticut Forum.
For Klein, disrupting the norm meant establishing Vox.com as an outlet to explain the news in a deeper way that provides the reader with context. “Digital media opened up a capacity for broader content. Vox was founded to try to experiment in that place,” Klein said. He explained that many startups begin by looking to target a part of a particular market that competitors do not think is important. He added, however, that young companies are not the only innovators. “Just look at 3M and Google,” Klein said. “They’re still hungry.”

To that point, Meyer discussed ways in which he and his team work to stay competitive in a rapidly changing field. “We are always thinking about how to become the company that could put us out of business,” he said. “Some business is always coming up with better, smarter, less expensive, faster ways to do things, so it might as well be us.”

During the second half of the event, when Capehart read questions posed by the audience, the moderator asked Meyer if he was a perfectionist. “I hate perfection. It’s impossible. It doesn’t exist,” Meyer responded. “I love the journey of excellence. Nobody’s ever woken up and said it couldn’t be done a little bit better today.”

​Peace Kabari ’20, Trinsition Fellow Chanel Erasmus ’15, and Georgia Wetmore ’15 at the Bushnell for the March 10 Connecticut Forum event. Photo by Andrew J. Concatelli.
The conversation turned to politics and even to how to disrupt the standards of elementary education. Meyer said that he favors experiential learning and he spoke about how he learned a lot from an internship in the state legislature while he was a political science major at Trinity. “Make it applicable,” Meyer said of a way to help improve the learning experience.

Peace Kabari ’20, who attended the event with Trinsition Fellow Chanel Erasmus ’15, said that she was able to learn a lot from the forum. “It allowed me to have a peek into the psyche of really successful people. A lot of what I learned is that in order to achieve your goals, sometimes you just have to drop the things that make you feel comfortable in order to free yourself for success,” Kabari said. “I would definitely recommend that Trinity students come to future forums!”

The next Connecticut Forum event will be “A Conversation between Rob Reiner & Jason Reitman: Reflections on Filmmaking, Art, and Life” on Saturday, May 6, 2017, at The Bushnell. For more information on the Connecticut Forum, click here.

Written by Andrew J. Concatelli