“Most people don’t know ‘how to ask.’ What if I put you on the spot and said, what can I help you with right now? Is there anything that you are working on – professionally, personally, emotionally, spiritually – that you need help with? Imagine sitting with twenty four strangers and having to answer that question. It’s such a beautiful thing. We should all do a better job of asking.”
Marika Frumes is working to create authentic human connection – by spreading the art of the ask. After a long career in hospitality at Standard Hotels, Marika is now bringing women around her own table. As the co-founder of HER USA, Marika believes the gatherings we attend should nourish, not exhaust us.
“HER started with small six person dinners in Stockholm. Before my co-founder Babba [Canales] and I hosted our first dinner in New York, these dinners were casual post-work meetups in someone’s home. There was no format, no ethos, no [defined] idea of what this was. It was just a name and a bunch of women who got together to support each other and talk.”
“Babba and I got linked up when she moved to New York. We got 25 women together for our first dinner. We come from very different networks, so our mix of people was really cool, but we had no format. One guest touted her own accolades, getting everyone in the mindset to do the same.”
“When we left that dinner, we said, that was amazing to have twenty five powerful women at the table, and we feel cool, but we didn’t really accomplish anything. That was just an ego fest. So, for [our] second dinner, we asked ourselves, how can we do this differently? That’s when HER, as we know it today, was really born.”
Marika understands that every organization’s ethos stems from its founders. Coming together with Babba, she saw that they could raise the bar – simply by hosting the kind of event they personally would want to attend. So they encouraged guests to take a deep breath and bring their most authentic selves to the table.
“[At the second dinner,] we lit Palo Santo, we did a three breath meditation. This was four years ago – the Wing wasn’t here and meditation was not a thing. The format that followed is what HER is now known for: everyone had to put out an ‘ask.’ Instead of introducing yourself by what you did, you had to ask for what you needed. That completely changed everything. Instead of peacocking about all the amazing things in our lives, we actually started unzipping and removing the filters. The tears started to come. The release started to come. That’s the moment HER became HER.”
“We thought, ‘Woah, we have a format.’ So we stuck with it. This is now how HER dinners work all over the world now. We’re not trying to pull out your vulnerabilities, but it often happens. That’s what HER is known for: for facilitating an experience of people getting vulnerable and putting out their asks.”
This year, Marika has transitioned to working on the art of the ‘ask’ full-time, applying her learnings and experimental methodologies – acquired from two years of building the HER community – to corporate workshops and team-building talks. As it turns out, even when we are willing to ask for help, we don’t always know how to do so correctly.
“I’m trying to formally study why we have such a hard time asking. So far, my report is this: when an ‘ask’ is driven by something you need for yourself, we struggle to say, ‘Help me.’ Especially in America, we’ve been ingrained to take care of ourselves. It’s a subconscious brainwashing we have all gone through. But when you ask people in your life for help, you are actually giving them the truest, most sincere compliment. You are trusting them to take care of you.”
“When we do ask for help, it’s almost always a professional ask. We need a contact, a recommendation, a referral. We are looking to elevate ourselves. We feel more comfortable asking [for these things,] because they are less unveiling of [our vulnerabilities.] The funny thing is, even when we ask for something professionally, we [hardly ever] do it the right way. We babble, or don’t provide enough information or don’t say what we want. So my big mission right now is to encourage people to ask for help for themselves – and when they are asking for business help, to do it properly. To be more thoughtful with people’s time.”
Everything that Marika does to give others a voice – by inviting them to the table or giving them the tools to ask for what they need – stems from a personal understanding of what it feels like to be voiceless.
“The reason I care about people having a voice is because, at a young age, I did not. When I was a kid, my family immigrated from the former Soviet Union to the United States. We lived in a low income area; a really harsh neighborhood. I had a difficult time surviving, thriving, or making friends. I couldn’t speak English. I looked different from the other kids. I stuck out. And for quite a long time – a period of years – I was extraordinarily bullied and didn’t have many friends. Everything I do now is because of this total pain point of not being included, of not fitting in – because, for so long, I didn’t.”
“I try to create experiences where, first of all, everyone is welcome. On a deeper level, I want the people at my table to bring their true selves. Not their insecurities. Not their egos. Really authentic environments are really rare. I hope they become more common.”
While building the HER community, Marika realized she was spending all of her time with women. Looking to bring some masculine energy into the mix, she joined a co-ed Manhattan social group whose description and events calendar sounded similar to HER. The first dinner, however, left Marika disappointed – and exhausted from navigating a night full of “What do you do?” and “Where do you live?” questions.
Standing on a Lower East Side corner, she pulled out her phone and wrote down the idea for US: a dinner series that would bring men and women together around energetic connections and the same vulnerable conversation that happens during HER gatherings.
“I thought, wait a second, why am I trying to go search for these other communities? I can do this myself. I create experiences. Why am I so scared about bringing men to the table? To be honest, I was totally scared. I know women. I know how we gather. We are a little more predictable in the sense that we open up. But I don’t know how men think.”
“So I started experimenting in larger groups. I’d host these dinners, but didn’t tell anyone what I was doing at first. I wanted to acknowledge that we are all vulnerable, we are all going through things, and we can all learn from each other. There would be a group of fifteen men and women at the table, talking in separate corners, and I’d say, “Can I ask the table a question? First date. Who pays?” Then I’d watch to see what would happen. It was fascinating.”
“That particular discussion [of who pays for a date] went on for two hours. At first, the women said they absolutely didn’t expect to be paid for – and the men said they wanted to pay, they just didn’t want it to be expected. Towards the end, one of the guys said, ‘You know what? I want to pay. I want to take care of my friends and my girlfriend. In a dating scenario, that means spending $150 two to three times a week. But here’s the deal. I’m an entrepreneur – and I’m struggling. Money is really hard and I have so much anxiety about it.’”
“He almost shed a tear. It wasn’t about dating; it was about his anxiety. That opened Pandora’s box for every other guy at the table. All of a sudden, they all woke up and started chiming in about their own anxieties, about money, about living in New York. And you could see every single woman, myself included, sit back in her chair and just let them go – because they had so much to say.”
“At that moment I realized: we need to do more of this. We need these environments where men and women can get to such an open, connected space. It’s not fair that men don’t have access to these [conversations and events.] If we are going to move forward together, let’s put away our preconceived notions. Let’s not lead with our grievances. Let’s invite men to the table.”
Marika is less prescriptive with the US dinners, but continues to host the unofficial series as she builds the HER movement across the world. She sees US as a crucial complement to HER, because the only way we will ever move forward is by first coming together.
“By the way, let’s talk about me being a hypocrite for a second. I preach this “ask” thing, but when I got to the first trimester of my pregnancy this year, I was totally depressed, feeling isolated, and starting to spiral. I was the first of my friends [left in Manhattan] to go through it, but I couldn’t tell anyone because I didn’t think it was going to stick. I’ve had miscarriages before. I was in my own little corner and didn’t want to see anyone. Physically, it was extremely hard for me to walk up the stairs – and I live in a fourth floor walk up. I couldn’t be around food, because it made me sick, but I needed to eat.”
“But I didn’t know how to ask for help. I didn’t even realize [my hypocrisy,] because what was I supposed to ask for? For someone to help me walk up the stairs? Yes. Ask someone to help you walk up the stairs. I talk about [asking for help] all the time, but when it comes to being vulnerable yourself, it’s still hard. It was a powerful realization: the girl that talks about “the ask” all time was stuck in her own silo.”
“We all should do a better job of asking.”