A Take On ‘Humans Of NY’ At Vanderbilt

Humans of Owen Live Event. Courtesy photo.

You’ve heard of “Humans of New York,” photographer Brandon Stanton’s series of interviews with random people on the streets of the Big Apple. What began in 2010 as a collection of photos morphed into a book and blog that has gained cultural cache in the form of 18 million Facebook followers and hundreds of imitators in cities around the world. Among those expressing their sincere flattery: a group of MBA students at Vanderbilt University’s Owen Graduate School of Management.

“Humans of Owen,” led by four Owen MBAs, uses live storytelling events and one-on-one chats over coffee to give students, faculty, and staff a chance to share their backgrounds and personal stories and learn more about each other. In the process they’ve brought the Owen community together in an unprecedented way.

“We came up with the concept this summer,” says James Murray, HoO co-founder and second-year MBA candidate. “We felt like we were living in an environment where our country was becoming more polarized, and we wanted to do what we could to bring our own community together. We saw an opportunity to celebrate all the unique differences and all the backgrounds and perspectives that make us a community.”


HoO began via grassroots storytelling recruitment. Kirsten Kelly, also a co-founder and second-year MBA candidate, says it began with one-on-one interviews that the founders called “coffee chats.” They and others who wanted to get involved reached out to classmates they thought might have a unique background — or those they wanted to get to know better.

They would talk and share their stories in an intimate, private setting. Kelly says the chats helped to build awareness about HoO and helped them find people who might participate in the HoO live events. And that’s still the case because the chats are still going on.

A big theme for HoO? Murray says empathy and becoming an empathetic business leader. MBAs will most likely head off to various companies after graduation, where they’ll be leading people who are very different from them. To be an effective leader, he says, they have to be empathetic to differences, and they have to be willing to break down barriers and understand what makes people unique.

“Being in business school, we have classmates from maybe 20 or 30 countries, and people from all across the United States,” Murray says. “It’s really an opportunity to practice empathetic leadership. There are few other places where we could interact with people from so many different backgrounds and perspectives.”

Jeff Stephens. Courtesy photo


Live storytelling events really got the ball rolling. Each event — one is held every month — lasts for about 30 minutes. Two storytellers speak for about 10 each, sharing stories — perhaps about their childhood — and how they got to be where they are now, or about a specific moment in their lives that influenced how they see the world today.

“I think the experience of hearing someone tell their story in person is very powerful,” Kelly says. “It’s been a very influential way to get this initiative moving. We were able to spark interest through word of mouth, and people would talk about it, and to the storytellers, afterwards.”

One of the first storytellers was second-year Jeff Stephens. He decided to share his story, in part, because he had been really excited about HoO. “When Kirsten Kelly asked me if I’d be one of the first speakers, I kind of had to put my money where my mouth was,” he says.

But Stephens also genuinely wanted to tell his story. “As humans, we instinctively jump to conclusions about people based on superficial observations,” he says. “I’m kind of an introvert and tend to be shy and quiet around people I don’t know well. I think many people interpret that as being aloof, or too cool for school. But that’s not who I am at all.”