This networking forum is thirsty for more conversation

October 23, 2011

On a recent Thursday evening in the District, a lively 100-plus crowd mingled at Bier Baron while DJ-spun beats pulsed through the bar. It looked like a typical happy hour replete with the usual young, energetic business-types.

But this was a meeting of Thirst D.C., a social event that aims to meld networking and drinking with stimulating discussion.

Founder Eric Schulze, 28, wrapped up a conversation, grabbed a microphone and headed toward the back of the bar to start things off. Chairs were set up facing a pull-down screen, as people began to take their seats in the lounge-style environment.

Schulze introduced the night’s line-up of speakers, whose mandate was simple: “Be utterly fascinating,” Thirst D.C.’s tag­line.

“I think that nerds have style, they have swagger and they can have fun,” Schulze told the crowd.

The Washington area molecular biologist conceived of the concept three years ago while living in Los Angeles for graduate school. He took his inspiration from other networking events centered around new ideas with names like TED, Mindshare L.A. and Synn Labs. But instead of TED-like conferences, where speakers have 18 minutes or less to share their ideas, Thirst D.C. presents four speakers who have 10 minutes each to present a new topic. Their presentations are more conversation openers than lectures. Atendees are encouraged to chat with each other and to take advantage of bar specials.

Schulze, along with co-founder Lori Noto, 28, and a small group of professionals created Thirst D.C. in May and hosted their first event Aug. 25. Twenty-two volunteers round out the team.

At a recent session, Simon Owens, director of public relations for Jess3, outlined how the creative interactive agency built its following through branding. Internet policy expert Karen Reilly explained how an add-on for the Firefox Internet browser intercepts unencrypted cookies to allow someone to login to another user’s Facebook and Twitter page. Amos Snead, founder of FamousDC.com and a communication professional for Story Partners, spoke about what drives communication in Washington. And Danielle Ricks, described as a “social media specialist for social change,” broke down how science can explain smartphone addiction.

Weeks before the event, tickets start out at $15 and end up at $25 at the door, but Noto, who is an assistant manager at American Apparel, says it’s easy to land a discounted ticket — one way is by following Thirst D.C. on Facebook.

After paying for audio visual equipment, securing new venues for events and purchasing badges for attendees and other small expenses, the money goes “right into a Paypal account” and sits there, Noto said. In the future, Schulze said Thirst D.C. plans to obtain 501(c)(3) charitable status.

Thirst D.C. isn’t the first of its kind. One such company, Ignite D.C., started in 2009 and employs the “Five minutes, 20 slides. What would you say?” idea.

“Time will tell if it works,” said 35-year-old independent Web developer Michael Pritchard, who attended Thirst D.C.’s recent session. “I mean, we could watch TED talks [at home] and drink and talk [for free].”

Pritchard said he heard about Thirst D.C. from Mark Malseed, 36, co-founder of OhMyGov.com and former research assistant to Bob Woodward at The Washington Post.

“I liked the vibe,” Malseed said. “It was more interesting than the tech and social media conferences I’ve been to.” Malseed said he may speak at an upcoming event, which Thirst D.C. hopes to host every six weeks.

“It’s better than watching cheesy documentaries on Netflix,” said two-time attendee Joy Murphy, 26.

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