woman speaks to a crowd

After School Special

How one group of New Yorkers is changing the world of adult education, one free beer at a time.

Geoff Klock had just been hit by a car. He was on sabbatical from his job as a professor at the Borough of Manhattan Community College when a taxi made a turn through Klock (and his bike) in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. Until then, he had logged more than 100 miles a week commuting around the city, but he knew those days were over, at least for a while.

As he was recovering, in August 2015, he heard from two guys running a small, new adult education business called Think Olio. Would he be interested in meeting and learning more?

“They sent me an email,” Klock recalled recently, “and I was like, This is sketchy. I don’t know what this is.”

In a sense, it was sketchy. Think Olio’s founders, Chris Zumtobel and David Kurfirst, hunted RateMyProfessors.com for local instructors with high teaching ratings. Klock was on the list, so they invited him out for a beer.

Thanks to a broken shoulder and sabbatical, Klock, an English professor, was bored enough to find out more. “We’ve cut the excess out of education,” Olio’s website declared. “The costs, the tests and grades, the fluorescent lighting, and people who don’t really want to be there.” Well, that sounded pretty good to him.

Three months later, Klock was teaching his first “Olio” (noun: a miscellaneous collection, especially of art or literature) on the wisdom of pop culture in a bookstore he described as “the size of a large bathroom.” Despite his short stature, Klock commands the room with his athletic frame and naturally projecting voice, remnants from his musical theater days. But on that day, none of his trademark showmanship was of much use. Eleven or so people paid something like $10 each to hear him talk. As per Think Olio’s original agreement with its instructors, Klock pocketed half the proceeds.

To most professors, this would have been a mildly successful evening, mostly thanks to the money. But that’s not what Klock took away from the event.

Think Olio’s Chris Zumtobel and David Kurfirst photographed at NeueHouse in Manhattan

“One of the things that attracted me to teaching—and this is a silly, pretentious thing to say—it’s an old profession,” Klock said. “It goes back thousands of years, you know? I like the idea of, like, Socrates walking around talking to people. It’s a very attractive image to me.” While he considers himself very lucky to be teaching at a community college that gives him flexibility in structuring courses and choosing the material he teaches, there’s always the required flotsam of modern education: financial aid, homework, committees, meetings, grades, forms. “It becomes, there’s this whole …” Klock searched for the right word. “There’s all this … stuff.”

But Think Olio was different. “There’s something about it that just feels pure,” he said as his cadence slowed and his words became smoother. “There’s something pure about it because the entire bureaucracy is not there.”

Attendees pay a modest fee to hear local professors speak about pretty much whatever they want, from David Lynch movies to Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale to asteroids to racism. The only requirements: The professors can’t read the lecture verbatim, and they have to love teaching.

Klock called back the image of Socrates walking around, the vision of the old profession he held dear. Think Olio, for him, is its modern successor. “It’s just: Let’s talk about stuff because this is interesting.”

Nine months before they first emailed Klock, Zumtobel and Kurfirst were students at the City University of New York, the same state system under which BMCC operates. The two were studying in a special program where they could design their own majors and bounce between CUNY’s many schools. Zumtobel, who moved to New York from Reno, picked entrepreneurial storytelling, while Kurfirst, New York born and raised, majored in religion and entrepreneurship.

The two met their final year, in a course called social entrepreneurship. Half the class dropped the first day because they thought it was about Facebook, and the course almost got canceled. But just enough students stayed. The teacher assigned them a project to pitch a business idea along the course’s theme.

“Dave pitched basically a ‘gym where adjunct professors would teach classes’ kind of concept—”

Kurfirst corrected Zumtobel: “A gym membership model.”

“Yeah,” Zumtobel agreed, realizing how he had just made Think Olio sound like a fitness facility, “but a place, like a gym.”

Think Olio teacher Geoff Klock

“It wasn’t, like, adjuncts working out,” Kurfirst clarified. The idea was, more precisely, “a school where adjuncts would teach, an adult education place where you’d go sign up for a day of classes or something.”

The idea needed refinement, but it came to Kurfirst because he was “really pissed off” about the abominable work conditions for adjunct professors. While higher education used to be dominated by full-time, tenure-track professorships about two-thirds of instructors at the university level nowadays are non-tenure, half of them only working part-time. Even as tuition fees soar at private and public colleges, 31 percent of part-time higher-education faculty is living near or below the federal poverty line, according to the American Community Survey. Most adjuncts get paid a few thousand dollars per course, max. And after the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, universities slashed adjunct hours and pay rates to skirt laws requiring employers to provide health insurance to employees working full-time hours.

Not only are these professors the worst compensated, they can often be the best teachers a student will have. Over a two-semester stretch, Kurfirst had five or six adjuncts who ended up being some of his favorite instructors. But they weren’t paid like it, scraping by on something like $12 an hour with side jobs to make ends meet.

As a result, Think Olio’s goal was to give adjuncts a place to teach and explore new ideas outside the university system—and pay them fairly. The vast majority of the 350 Olios they’ve held have been one-off lectures on topics largely of the professors’ choosing. Ticket prices range from $12 to $25 and often include free beer or wine.

But there was a selfish element to the business plan, too. The two students were in their last year of college. They already dreaded the idea that soon they would have to stop dedicating their lives to learning. They, like many adults, had friends who left college and wished they dedicated themselves more fully to their studies. Or, as Zumtobel put it, “We kind of predicted our nostalgia for the classroom before it happened.”

So, when they left college, they took the classroom with them.

A few days later, the two went out for a beer. Zumtobel launched into his plan about how to make it a reality. Not years from then, or even months from then, but within weeks. No need for a physical building, he suggested. Just use other people’s space, like living rooms or local coffee shops and bars. And, he added, charge audiences as little as possible. Make it accessible.

“I didn’t even know if I was really going to do this or not,” Kurfirst said, chuckling. “Chris just decided to be my business partner, and I was like, ‘All right.’”

Less than three months later, in March 2015, they hosted their first Olio in Kurfirst’s living room. One of their former professors, Michael Haltenberger, gave a talk on religion viewed through the lens of Bokononism, the fictional religion in Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle. They got the word out through Facebook. Their recollections vary on the attendance: Kurfirst said seven, Zumtobel said five.

But the professor came prepared, and they learned something. The event proved, on the smallest of scales, that it was feasible.

“[We] drank beers in Dave’s living room and talked about Vonnegut with a professor,” Zumtobel said with a big smile at the recollection. “And we were like, This worked. This is awesome!

Since they were studying at a business school, the two co-founders did the obvious thing when starting a business: They searched for money. And even though there was absolutely nothing technical about Think Olio, the way to raise money in 2015 was to sound as much like a tech company as possible.

“Think Olio: Airbnb for Learning” is the sub-headline of the company’s page on AngelList, a platform for startups. The company goes on to describe itself as a peer-to-peer “marketplace for in-person learning.” Zumtobel and Kurfirst joined an incubator program at CUNY’s Baruch College and, in June of that year, won $20,000 at a startup competition for New York City college students.

But during those few energetic months between their first Olio in Kurfirst’s living room and winning tens of thousands of dollars, the two co-founders had to interrogate themselves. What did they want their business to be? What did they want to accomplish? What did they want their lives to look like while running it? Advisors at Baruch were telling them to think big, make the business as hands-off as possible, and expand to other cities.

At first, growing rapidly and being hands-off sounded great to the college students. They got “wide-eyed” about it, as Kurfirst put it, as they envisioned Olios being held around the country or even the world: lifelong learning at an affordable price, reigniting people’s passion for education. The liberal arts—literally defined as “skills of the free people”—returned to the masses. They could, dare they dream it, change the world.

But by late summer, the two co-founders did something increasingly remarkable in the business world: They resisted the pull of the modern, expanding economy and stayed true to their vision. Remembering the simple joy of seven (or five) people in a living room, they realized they weren’t ready to be a platform, a peer-to-peer network, a global movement. They were only ready, and only barely ready, to be an Olio.

They circled around a core group of 10 to 15 instructors, including Klock, to teach at about a dozen rotating venues. Since the summer of 2015, they’ve held Olios on topics ranging from loneliness, civil disobedience, addiction, and universal basic income to Paris’ Jazz Age, the movie Barton Fink, and string quartets. They’re held in bars, coffee shops, outdoor spaces, art studios, co-working spaces, and one of the city’s great rooms, the Strand Bookstore’s rare book room. Many event spaces even pay them for the exposure, or the Olios will be sponsored by companies with event budgets and the desire to break the monotony of after-work happy hours. Adult beverages are often provided by sponsors.

Much of the necessary labor for running an event is provided via the barter system. Volunteers get to attend Olios for free as long as they greet guests or distribute beers. Photographers volunteer their time in exchange for free entry. Kurfirst and Zumtobel almost never miss an Olio; at least one of them has been present at about 300 of the 350 they’ve organized. The day they don’t want to attend Olios anymore, they say, is the day they will shut it down.

Along the way of trying to build a business, they accidentally built a community of lifelong learners: the professors, the volunteers, the repeat students. Unlike almost every other adult education organization in the country, this community skews overwhelmingly young. “We really didn’t think our audience would be as young as it is.” Zumtobel shrugged. “It started with our friends, then the friends of our friends, and then their friends, and it’s just grown from really our network of people we know.” They estimate 75 percent of their paying customers are 25 to 40 years old. The business itself, thanks to almost zero overhead costs, is more successful than they ever imagined, especially considering they are, by their own admissions, totally uninterested in profit maximization.

Neither of the co-founders know exactly how they managed to accomplish this; they certainly didn’t set out to be a lecture series for millennials, and they happily welcome all ages. But the likeliest explanation is the simplest one: They work with professors they find interesting and craft their events the way they would want them—from the beers to the unpretentious, off-the-cuff, slightly tipsy introductory speeches—and, since they’re millennials, it only stands to reason other millennials might find that appealing as well.

Klock, who is pushing but not yet 40, isn’t a millennial but has a related theory, which he explained to me by way of anecdote. In June 2017, Klock taught an Olio on Neutral Milk Hotel, the indie-rock band with an intense fan base, where he dissected the band’s lyrics like he would a poem. Then, he made everyone turn off their phones and played the entire 40-minute album In the Aeroplane Over the Sea beginning to end, which he said was a beautiful experience, “like a prayer.” Afterward, someone came up to Klock.

“I’ve never listened to music without doing anything else.”

On a Wednesday night at the end of October, Zumtobel hosted a get-together for Olio volunteers at his apartment in Brooklyn. He called it a brainstorm for Think Olio’s future, but emphasized there would be nachos.

Zumtobel was slicing eggplant to toss into the topping and sipped on a Budweiser. “This nacho party was a weird idea,” he admitted, “[but] we always have to be different.”

Not long after, a new volunteer named Bianca showed up. She had responded to the call for volunteers after her first Olio by writing, “I love the concept of continued learning over a beer.” She said she’s attended many adult education-style lectures, but they tend to be mostly women. She thought the beer was the reason for Olio’s relatively even gender ratio.

Over the next hour or so, an impressively diverse group of 16 people trickled in. (One stylishly dressed guy from Portugal was just visiting New York but happened to meet Kurfirst that day, who extended an invitation.) The only area the group wasn’t very diverse in was age. Everyone was right in that 25 to 40 range.

In typical Olio style, the social hour went on for longer than expected as Zumtobel and Kurfirst either couldn’t peel themselves away from their conversations or didn’t care to. Finally, around 9 p.m., about an hour later than planned, the brainstorm began. The group gathered in a circle around the low coffee table stuffed with books. Zumtobel sat on the edge of the couch with Kurfirst on the floor next to him, cross-legged, adjacent to the acoustic guitar and the vinyl player and record collection.

After they made their introductory speech, during which they asked the volunteers for their suggestions on Think Olio’s 2018 road map, both the co-founders realized they didn’t have anything to take notes with. Kurfirst jotted on the reverse side of a photocopy of book pages. Zumtobel scrambled for a notepad.

After some discussion, one of the volunteers turned it back on the co-founders: What are their goals for 2018? They exchanged glances before Kurfirst rattled off a series of initiatives, including expanding their “seminars”—Olio series that go more in-depth into subjects over multiple sessions such as the link between technology and loneliness (which sold out) and a close reading of Simone de Beauvoir’s landmark 1949 publication, The Second Sex. Zumtobel nodded before cutting in with a quick fact check. “2018’s the next one, right?”

Soon, another volunteer inquired if they considered branching out from the humanities. They’re certainly open to any subject, Kurfirst replied, but he added, “Our motivation in a lot of ways is the humanities.” This, he explained, is based on the country’s university structure where the vast majority of a student’s curriculum is within their major. “And it’s supposed to lead to a career and then you’re just like: Wait, what just happened to the last five years of my life?” Maybe you never got to take a poetry class even though you like poetry.

“And you know what?” the volunteer, who works in advertisement and marketing, replied. “I love that. So much of the world is like, ‘Oh, get into a STEM career where you’ll have a stable job and you’ll make money.’ But like so many of us nowadays, we want to be entrepreneurs but we also feel like we need a sense of purpose that’s bigger than just crunching numbers for a living.”

The room nodded along, and the co-founders took notes. Over the hour-and-a-half discussion, lots of ideas were thrown out, some contradictory to what Zumtobel and Kurfirst had previously said they wanted to do, others right on track. (One idea that seemed to spark the imagination: Think Olio as some kind of dating service.) But they were thrilled to have new ideas. Zumtobel and Kurfirst know a good Olio if they walk out with more questions than answers. By that measure, the evening’s brainstorm was another success.

One topic that came up was expansion. Did they plan on holding Olios outside of New York? They’re excited about the possibility—they haven’t given up on changing the world—but they need to figure out a plan. They recently traveled to Mexico City and Berlin where friends are eager to launch local Olios. They joked (or was it a joke?) that they should expand to their favorite cities first.

Zumtobel outright rejects the suggestion he sometimes hears that Olios can work only in New York. “I’m just, like, so sad to hear that,” he moaned. “So this is the only place people care about learning?”

Aaron Gordon is a former staff writer for Vice Sports. Share your own scholarly stories with him at aaron.wittes.gordon@gmail.com.

Photography by Sally Montana

Originally Published February 2018