Last summer I was sitting with Ankit Shah in a cafe in San Francisco. A while into our conversation a stranger, sharing a table with us, reached over and asked: “Are you the Ankit from Tea With Strangers? I met my two best friends there. I love it”.
This serendipitous moment beautifully captures the essence of Ankit’s work. He founded an organization called Tea With Strangers, which brings people together over tea and helps them have honest, meaningful conversations. The organization hopes to fertilize the soil for deep relationships and ultimately inspire a deeper and more rooted faith in humanity.
I have been inspired by their approach for a while, because what Ankit and his community of hosts are doing isn’t building “community” in the way I normally think of it: they are not trying to create groups that continue to meet and build relationships over time. Instead, they have found a beautiful gathering template that can be replicated anywhere, a template that weaves the fabric of society more closely together. This for me is very much community work and I believe there is so much we all can learn from Tea With Strangers. Below are some highlights of what I learned from talking to him. Thank you to Ankit and all the Tea With Strangers volunteers for all the beautiful work you’re doing!
It started in college as Tea with Ankit
In 2013, when Ankit was a senior in college, he realized that his student experience was about to end and that he wouldn’t be around his classmates for much longer. It left Ankit with a desire to get to know the people around him before everyone went off into the “real world”. So he put together a website with a charming and goofy invitation to have tea with him (here is the 2013 original). There were 30 minutes time slots, from 8pm to 11pm every day till the end of the school year. Over 250 people signed up. Clearly other students shared his hunger to connect in a sincere way before parting ways.
At first, these were short 1:1 conversations. But then people didn’t want to leave after 30 minutes and it turned into small group conversations. So Ankit changed the format to allow 3 hours for a group of 6 people.
Organically some unspoken guidelines evolved that have influence the organization till today:
- Can we ask ourselves “real questions”? Let’s not talk about work, our major, our plans tonight. Who are you? What’s moving you?
- If you can join from the beginning, that’ll make the conversation better and will help the group go deeper.
Putting our phones away helps us be more present.
- The organization doesn’t care about attendance numbers, but rather about depth and commitment: “If you can’t be there, no worries, just be fully wherever you choose to be”.
Beyond college, beyond Ankit
As Ankit graduated, this experiment came to a successful end. He moved to San Francisco to pursue a job in the tech world. But soon his idea caught up with him. A friend asked him: “What if you did the tea time thing in SF?”. Ankit wasn’t sure if the idea would appeal to people. At Penn there had been a shared denominator of attending the same school and being in the same phase of life. But what would random strangers in San Francisco have in common? His friend saw it differently: “I think what you tapped into wasn’t Penn, I think what you tapped into was a hunger for trust”.
From there, the idea evolved and grew from Ankit hosting tea times in Palo Alto, to bringing on volunteers to help host across San Francisco, to having over 350 volunteers host across 16 cities.
The format is beautifully simple
- 1 volunteer host and 5 strangers meet for a 2 hour long “tea time”.
- It happens at a restaurant, cafe or public space.
- The intention is for the group to have a meaningful conversation. The hosts are trained to facilitate and create the space for a meaningful conversation.
It’s all about building a society built on trust
Through the evolution of Tea With Strangers and by bringing people together, a bigger intention emerged. The organization wants to make cities feel more like neighborhoods, by providing a simple platform where people can have small, local, meaningful conversations. And ultimately it is all about rebuilding trust, the foundation of every society. In Ankit’s words: “the more people trust each other, the less they feel the need to seek out their individual self interest at the cost of others, the more they trust into society as a whole and its institutions”. Trust is the basis of the collective. Yet today, Ankit says, that collective trust is often missing: “we often feel that we are all fighting for ourselves”. And he wants to change that: “What would society look like if we assumed the best in people?”.
The crucial role of intention and language
When asked what makes tea times special, Ankit said that it is not that people show up to have tea, but that they are talking with an open mind, with genuine curiosity. And I believe so much of that is influenced by how beautifully the organization sets a tone. All its materials radiate out a culture of compassionate curiosity, where every human has an interesting story if we choose to look beyond our screens. This culture, this language, this intentionality isn’t a detail, it makes all the difference. For example:
Everything about Tea With Strangers feels personal and human. When you sign up, you get a beautifully worded welcome email that comes from a Ankit, not an anonymous robot.
Ankit: “I think of the language on the website as me looking you in the eye”.
The organization is very intentional about selecting their hosts and making sure they appreciate and buy into the shared culture of compassionate curiosity.
Tension between integrity and scale
As for many community entrepreneurs, Ankit at some point had to ask himself what his success definition was. Was it to reach as many people as possible, possibly to even make a business out of it so he could make a living?
For a while, the organization was on track to scale. In 2016, Tea With Strangers had chapters in 14 cities, where every chapter had its own leadership, its own hosts. But that distributed system wasn’t delivering the same quality of tea times, hosts didn’t find their work as rewarding, didn’t feel as connected to the ethos and intention of the organization. Tea time frequencies started to drop, recruiting new hosts became harder.
That moment provided a fruitful reminder for Ankit that the core intention was around meaningful conversations, not size or scale. So he decided to close down the cities with the weakest attendances, to centralize the organization again and to fully support the 6 cities where they had a critical mass of hosts and attendees. The integrity of the intention was more important than scale.
A community of hosts
I have observed that in many event-based templates that are organized by local volunteers (for example: Creative Mornings, TEDx), the events often don’t create a local community among the event attendees. Yet, the hosts of these events often form an incredibly strong, global community. These host communities provide a place of motivation, peer support, learning, resource sharing, culture and friendships. Similarly, the community of hosts seems to be an important element of Tea with Stranger’s.
Thank you Ankit and all the TWS hosts for the beautiful work you do!