by John McDermott
It was when she asked for my business card that I knew we’d never fall in love. What I had hoped would be a flirtatious conversation quickly became an elevator pitch about her investment bank’s philanthropic efforts in Latin America.
I’ve always been willing to go beyond my comfort zone in dating. Earlier this year, I gladly let an almost-girlfriend coerce me into a Bed, Bath & Beyond trip for high-thread-count bath towels that I neither wanted nor needed. In high school, I saw an inordinate amount of ballet, hip-hop and modern performances for someone whose real interest was West Suburban Silver Conference football. I’ve gamely eaten vegan Mexican food, a cuisine that would suffer an existential crisis anywhere outside of San Francisco.
None of those were as jarring as having a potential first-meet flirt pivot into a PR pitch.
Asking for a business card typically signals an intention to keep the relationship strictly professional — but that’s not the case at meetings arranged by IvyConnect, the members-only social and professional club founded by Harvard Business School fellows, Beri Meric and Philipp Triebel.
IvyConnect exists outside the realm of ordinary life. It sits at an intersection of entrepreneurial hubris and Ivy League self-mythology. Exchanging business cards is as rote as exchanging pleasantries. Every variety of relationship — romantic, platonic, friendly or otherwise — begins or often ends with this transaction. For IvyConnecters, trading business cards is a form of flirting.
I did not graduate from an Ivy League school. My alma mater is large, public and part of the Big Ten. When presented the opportunity to join IvyConnect — a “private community” comprised of New York City’s “most inspiring” “like-minded” young people, according to Meric — I was intrigued. I wanted to see if I could ingratiate myself with people who consider themselves the better class of Manhattan.
I was more curious, though, to see if IvyConnect could deliver on its promise of helping me establish genuine personal connections with people from a smattering of professional and socioeconomic backgrounds.
The answer to both proved to be no.
In just a year and a half, IvyConnect has grown from fairly elitist dating startup — then called IvyDate — to elitist lifestyle service with approximately 3,000 members and another 1,000 on the waiting list. Membership may be slim relative to other social networks, but IvyConnect is not a typical, all-inclusive social media company. Whereas most social networks try to amp up user numbers with free services that will later be monetized (usually through advertising), IvyConnect hand-picks members and charges them dues. Applicants are approved by IvyConnect’s five-person membership committee and then pay $45 each month or $500 each year. (I was given the $20-per-month “recent graduate” discount.)
Despite its private-club-level selection process, IvyConnect has a laudable goal: To help create relationships that exist IRL as opposed to online. IvyConnect’s accommodations — hotel discounts, professional networking events and free drinks at the company’s bi-monthly members and plus-ones-only cocktail parties — are all geared to this end.
The two events I attended were near max capacity, a testament to Meric and Triebel’s deft word-of-mouth marketing. (To date, IvyConnect says they haven’t spent a dollar on paid advertising. They are, however, getting advertising: Cadillac is now their “exclusive automotive partner.”)
“What we found is that a lot of people graduate and feel like ‘Okay, that was back in college. Now this is the real world where you have your work and sometimes you have social activities, but things become much more compartmentalized,’” Meric told me. “What we thought was to bring a community feeling to big cities like this — almost create a campus-type of environment.”
Meric and Triebel also said that IvyConnect doesn’t have an Ivy barrier for membership. Despite the “Ivy” branding, the only actual requirements are intellectual curiosity and passion. How IvyConnect reconciles being both elitist and inclusive is what initially intrigued me. It’s also why I’m simultaneously an ideal IvyConnect customer and a natural IvyConnect malcontent.
I moved to New York from Chicago on a whim in early 2012. I was equally running from something — Chicago’s suffocating familiarity — as I was toward something — New York, the city where I’d realize my literary dreams!
New York, as it does, greeted me with a resounding shrug. I quickly learned New York doesn’t give a shit about who I was or wanted to be. While Chicago felt too cozy, New York felt too uncaring. The cost of my newfound independence was solitude. An organized, offline social network seemed ideal for people like me, even if this particular network wasn’t a natural match. I was skeptical of IvyConnecters before I even met them. I doubted whether IvyConnect really cared about diversity or genuine friendship. It seemed like a classic Big City ruse; a clever way to profit from people trying to protect or project their privileged statuses.
Whether IvyConnect exists to promote social mobility or to perpetuate socioeconomic hegemony, the company is selling the same commodity: exclusivity. It’s a sound marketing philosophy; recently, venture capitalist Paul Graham dubbed it the “contained fire strategy.” Graham used Facebook as an example, but a better choice is ConnectU. Before they were bartering Bitcoins, the Winklevoss twins created that now-defunct social network. It was Harvard-only website that, according to them and their lawyers, inspired the creation of Facebook. If only a few can have it, everyone will want it, the thinking goes.
Meric and Triebel hope to turn this fervor into something larger than what, for now, is mostly just an excuse to get drunk and mingle. One in-development feature is IvyCareers, a way for members to help one another advance professionally. (That this is an actual existing feature of attending an Ivy itself seems beside the point.)
My few half-hearted attempts to use IvyConnect to accelerate my career were fruitless. I didn’t mind, though. As with almost anything, I was most excited about the chance to meet women. And not just any women, but what were apparently the best women.
“We’re not dating for Ivy Leaguers,” Catherine Lowell, IvyConnect’s vice president of content, said. “We’re the Ivy League of dating.”
Every week IvyConnect sent me an email with a new “match,” and every week I became increasingly convinced these potential dates were being selected at random.
A majority were women from Ivy League schools (Columbia and Cornell, especially). Others lacked Ivy League diplomas but graduated from the kinds of schools that give moms book club bragging rights (Duke, Michigan, Oxford). Fordham, Penn State and Stony Brook alumnae were peppered among them. These matches were uniformly attractive. (IvyConnect said attractiveness is not a factor in its membership selection.)
Only one of the dozens of matches was immediately appealing. She was a strawberry-haired drama major from Yale. We sent several messages to one another via IvyDate — IvyConnect’s online dating feature — before she gave me her number. She then iced me on two text messages and we haven’t communicated since.
I came across the profile of another woman, N.; IvyConnect introduced us by email upon my request. N. suggested we get together for drinks and I accepted. On date day, N. asked if it was all right that she was bringing a friend. This was either an intense form of first date vetting, some obscure Ivy League courting ritual or a telltale sign that we had different thoughts about what “meeting over drinks” constituted. Embarrassed, I lied about a non-existent deadline and canceled the date.
That was my dating experience in total, but I plunged on to attend two IvyConnect events. The first was a classical music concert followed by a cocktail hour. The men outnumbered the women, causing the room to fill with a primal competitive air. It was creepy, and my awareness of the event’s creepiness neutralized my attempts to be charismatic (which, in turn, made me self-conscious about coming off as creepy).
The mixer had all the excitement of a job fair. I met three women, and we talked at length about their burgeoning careers. Two of them ended our conversations by asking for my business card.
The second event was at a Chelsea club that would have been unidentifiable from the exterior were it not for the velvet rope and unnecessary line outside. Every man wore the same blazer, jeans and button-down ensemble. The women were all in dresses. The human scrum around the U-shaped bar was three people deep. Even the supposedly better-off know not to squander an open bar.
The first woman I met said her sole motivation for attending was to recruit donors for the non-profit organization for which she worked. Her secondary interest was discovering whether attendees were, in fact, IvyConnect members. Rumor was IvyConnect was becoming more selective and people were trying to discern whether a membership was a worthy investment. She asked for my business card.
Her guest was the only person dressed for the St. Barths theme — floral shirt, khakis, fedora. He looked like an uninteresting Hunter Thompson, and then he chastised my friend Matt for not having a business card.
I subtly slipped away to talk to a woman in a white dress standing alone, head buried in her phone. Just when we had moved past rudimentary conversation topics, her friend pulled her into the VIP room for VIP room activities.
The crowd thinned when the open bar ran out a half hour earlier than planned. New York Post features writer Dana Schuster approached me and Matt, Steno Pad and pen in hand. She was skeptical of our association with IvyConnect. We looked like hipsters, she said, because every other guy was wearing a blazer.
For all IvyConnect’s affectation, it was refreshing to be part of a social network that wasn’t solely interested in growth. While Facebook allows users to promote offline events, it’s an ancillary feature. IvyConnect, meanwhile, is almost entirely focused on the real world — at least at it pertains to the aspirational class of New York City.
But IvyConnect’s rhetoric about diversity and intellectualism was merely that. This is not the organization’s fault. One need only rummage through the seedy underbelly of Reddit to understand that social network founders don’t control how their mediums are used. Rather, their users create the culture.
In practice, IvyConnect is commercialized social climbing. It’s a devilishly genius business plan that solicits users to purchase the perception of privilege. Everyone I met was eager to meet someone, but only toward some self-serving end. The people were like-minded, but not inspiring.
Nothing illustrates the IvyDisconnect between the company’s ideology and operations better than the Gatsby-themed Valentine’s Day party that it hosted last February. You can have an Ivy League MBA and still fail to realize that The Great Gatsby was a cautionary tale about the unbridled pursuit of wealth and status.
Perhaps I hated IvyConnect simply because I believe relationships shouldn’t be reduced to social capital transactions. That’s partially true, but not entirely accurate. My assessment was equally a projection of my own insecurities — my relatively modest Midwestern upbringing, my even more modest writer’s salary — as it was a reflection of IvyConnect and its membership.
Instead of embracing the IvyConnect’s norms, I moved upon my predispositions to hate them. I was just as pretentious as anyone, just operating under different criteria. My only motivation for joining was to subvert the rules and poke fun at people. I am not IvyConnect material, and that’s half my fault.
I did take solace, however, in discovering that dating is just as (if not more) complicated and confusing for Manhattan’s finest young people as it is for me.
Meric and Triebel want to establish IvyConnect communities of around 10,000 members in every major city in the world. Take the all-business-class Singapore Airlines Flight 21 with all the other junior litigators and you’ll be able to IvyConnect with a like-minded set in Asia. (It’s A Small World after all, again.)
The most immediate expansion target is Washington, D.C., a natural choice given its concentration of shameless recent Ivy grads. It’s a good match; a friend who used to work in D.C. once described the city’s social scene as “drinking with all the kids who did model U.N. in high school.”
On my way out of IvyConnect’s office, Meric and Triebel asked me if they think there’s a market for the service in Chicago. Chicago has its share of self-entitled yuppies, but the company’s Ivy branding might repel Chicagoans, I said. Those who are interested should order more business cards.
John is writer living in Manhattan. He has written for Vice, Fast Company, Playboy, the Chicago Tribune, Inc., and Ad Age. He does not hate you for having gone to Harvard.