One evening in October 2015, an Irish bar in midtown Manhattan hosts a mixer for Wall Street executives, though it more closely resembles a hippie-commune reunion.
The venue’s wooden bars and stained glass windows are covered in glow sticks, lava lamps, Beanie Babies and framed portraits of rock gods from a bygone era. Known as Tir Na Nog, or “land of youth” in Irish folklore, the aptly named establishment begins to fill with mostly middle-aged patrons grinning with an expression of youthful excitement.
The dress code ranges from tie-dye to black tie, distinguishing the out-of-towners from those who rushed over directly from work. A Grateful Dead cover band, the Deadbeats, tunes their instruments on a small stage typically reserved for Irish folk singers, in front of a hula hoop ready to be twirled once guests have time to swarm the open bar.
Between hors d’oeuvre–carrying waitstaff, a crowd of hundreds chat about their first, favorite and most recent concerts — conversation broken only by the occasional whisper of serious business.
This is the site of one of Wall Street’s most exclusive networking events, populated by a group of 350 who made the cut ahead of 500 more eager to break in. Every patron has two common traits: They’re involved in financial services in some capacity, and they’re utterly obsessed with the Grateful Dead.
Though the founding fathers of hippie culture formally disbanded following the death of Jerry Garcia in 1995, their spirit is alive and well amongst perhaps the least likely of group of torchbearers.
The Wall Street Dead aHead networking group is like no other in music or finance. The group takes cues from both cultures, helping its “family members” find clients, customers, partners and concert buddies, but ultimately striving to build meaningful connections between likeminded people.
“I started Dead aHead because I needed to meet new people in the business world,” said Deborah Solomon, weeks later in her office in midtown. The immaculate reception area steps away is surrounded by televisions flashing business headlines and scrolling stock tickers, but inside Solomon’s office, nearly every inch of wall space is covered in Jerry Garcia portraits, tie-dye banners and a large framed photograph from former Grateful Dead bassist Phil Lesh’s Phil and Friends concert in Central Park.
The Wall Street investor known to most as “Deb” started the group three years ago in an attempt to overcome the usual frustrations associated with networking in New York’s financial community.
“I’m trying to teach people how to network again,” she said. “We’re in this age of blasting out emails and texting and not spending the time to develop relationships. I’m finding that even the older generation forgot how to do real networking.”
By rallying around a single, common interest, Dead aHead gives members the ability to connect on a more personal level, she explains. Instead of starting conversations by asking about work or talking about the weather, most conversations among members begin with their favorite Grateful Dead song, concert or story.
When Solomon began the group in late 2012, she never imagined it taking off in popularity. As it grew into one of the most unique and effective networking groups on Wall Street, however, she implemented a number of policies to ensure that only those who belonged gained access.
Prospective members need to fill out a form by hand that includes their contact information, employer, position and favorite Grateful Dead song, and send it by mail to her office along with an $85 check. “If it’s too difficult, there’s not much I can do about that,” she said. “I only want people to come to the event that really want to be there.”
Registration for each event is on a first come, first served basis, though Solomon only admits a certain amount of lawyers, accountants, hedge-fund managers and other Wall Street types to maintain the group’s professional diversity. Family members also suggest that she has covert methods for determining whether a would-be member is a true Grateful Dead fan.
“I think it’s really beautiful how she asks everyone their favorite song on the registration form, and will figure people out based on which song they write down,” said Martin Bispels, the owner and managing director of a startup advisory firm called Vendre Innovations, who joined Dead aHead in 2013. “There’s real Grateful Dead songs, but if you list one of a couple, she’ll know you’re not really a Dead fan.”
Solomon maintains that the only response that resulted in a declined membership was the applicant who listed their favorite Grateful Dead song as “Eye of the Tiger” (by Survivor), and that some family members are less passionate about the band than others, but all demonstrate an appreciation for its community-based culture.
As someone who fondly remembers falling in love with that culture during his first Grateful Dead show at age 17, Bispels, now 47, was immediately fascinated by the prospect of a professional networking group that shared those ideals.
“If you really love the Dead, you get the spirit of the music and what the community is all about, which is being kind and looking to help each other, and not just being in it for the immediate return,” he said. “Whether I’m at a Grateful Dead concert or Deb’s event, people are looking out for each other, and that’s really special.”
“People that work on Wall Street understand relationship management quite well, and anybody that understands the band and communities around live music knows it’s the same exact overtone — the ability to connect and build relationships where you can provide value to people from a sincere place,” said Jesse Guglielmo, a Dead aHead family member and vice president of business development for Modern Guild, an online career-readiness platform. “The wrong people don’t understand that; they’re looking to take advantage of the situation for themselves, and I think Deb has done an incredible job hand-curating a group of professionals that are only interested in finding ways to connect and provide value for each other.”
The ultimate show of faith comes at the end of the night. As patrons make their way towards the exit, they’re handed a backpack imprinted with a peace sign, which serves as the organization’s official logo. In it, they find promotional items such as T-shirts and notepads, donated by sponsors ranging from LinkedIn to Headcount, a non-profit that works with musicians to register voters.
The bag also contains a laminated book, the “set list,” as it’s referred to. The book features a cover designed by Tony Reonegro, who was also commissioned by the Grateful Dead to design the band’s backstage passes. In it, he depicts a bear and a skeleton, two iconic Grateful Dead symbols, riding the Wall Street Charging Bull, who sports a peace-symbol earring while carrying a rose in his mouth.
Behind a few pages dedicated to sponsors is a list of 350 names, along with their employer, position, mailing address, phone number, email address and favorite Grateful Dead song.
“With the set list, you have so many different ways to break the barrier of networking,” said Solomon. “You can call someone up and ask them how they heard about the event; you can call everyone who has the same favorite song. There’s all these other ways to start a conversation before getting to business.”
“I’m trying to teach people how to network again.” —Deborah Solomon
Only those who attend the event have their names listed, and only those listed are permitted to have a copy, according to Solomon.
The rest of the rules are clearly defined on the last page of the book: “Please be respectful of the kind people in this list. Please DO NOT reproduce and report any SPAMing activities.”
“She’ll tell you, you can use it to contact people, reach out to people and make connections, but if she hears that you’re spamming people or sharing the list with anyone else, you’re out,” said Bispels. “She makes it clear that this is not meant to be abused.”
Solomon goes so far as to call all 350 members to inform them of their successful registration, and to outline those rules. In doing so, members feel that the group can remain a community of likeminded individuals, with Solomon at the helm ensuring it maintains its integrity.
“Deb is impressive, and really careful about who she lets into the family,” said Bispels. “She really takes it personally. That’s a huge difference from attending a conference where all you have to do is buy a ticket.”
One member added, “there’s nothing she wouldn’t do to protect the authenticity of the community,” and another believes “you need to have someone like Deb at the epicenter” for the group to work, but Solomon refuses to take full credit.
“It’s not me creating it; it’s the family creating it,” she said. “We’re all doing this together. We’re really being accepted in the Wall Street community, and we’re also being accepted in the Grateful Dead community. It’s all coming together in that respect.”