"I want to make sure that no one should have to eat dinner alone if they don’t want to”, says Ben Stokes about the core vision of his social dining service, SocialTable.
Through SocialTable people can book a single seat at a group table at a restaurant to meet strangers. While the pandemic has halted full functionality of the service, the goal is to one day have users be able to browse various SocialTable gatherings, peruse set menus and check out the profiles of other diners who have booked their seat. Once you're in, you're sent fun facts about the other diners to help the sparks fly.
Stokes was in San Francisco when he came up with the idea. He was working on startups and rubbed shoulders with entrepreneurs and creative minds, but realised real connection was missing in his life. “Most of my friends were getting married and having kids; which was great for them, but I missed our time together just catching up over dinner and connecting personally,” he says.
Relying on friends who had different priorities was not a sustainable way to feel connected to the world. Intention is important. "It isn’t even about having a drink [with someone]," says Stokes. "It’s about connecting with someone who is there for the same reason that you are."
Stokes says that the isolation brought on by the pandemic has made the need for services like SocialTable even more pressing. Stokes adapted SocialTable for online delivery last year. Virtual parties can be tricky in a world of Zoom fatigue, which is why SocialTable tries to design an atmosphere for connection rather than simply host events. “For our events, whether for a business or conference, or a team meeting, we facilitate conversations by noting down questions people can ask one another”, says Stokes.
One of their online experiences is the ‘Digital Wine Down’ - a virtual party of curated strangers where bottles are shipped to your door.
“Adapting our model to meet the obvious need (to socialise during lockdown) has actually increased our growth during a period of time when we should have shut down,” says Stokes.
Ben Stokes returning to the orphanage he was adopted from. (Provided by: Ben Stokes)
Stokes’ own story begins in a complex mix of love and disconnection. He was left as an infant in a Sri Lankan hospital, and was adopted by Australian parents who raised him on a dairy farm in Tasmania. He mostly avoided conversations around his adoption, but after moving to bigger cities, people prodded at his sense of identity. "I definitely see myself as Australian,” he says. “But when people started questioning where I am ‘really’ from, I started questioning myself.”
Those questions motivated Stokes to visit Sri Lanka several times. Through those experiences he became more comfortable sharing his adoption story and his passion for facilitating deeper conversation emerged.
In an address to the United Nations General Assembly, Stokes shared his gratitude toward his birth mother. “In 1985, when I was just 2-months old, my birth mother set me down in a blanket in a hospital cafeteria, turned around, walked out the door, and left me behind. In her mind, not knowing what the future held for me if she kept that baby, she looked out for me one last time.”
For Stokes, taking the risk to spark meaningful conversation is also an act of kindness that can propel a journey toward meaning and purpose. After opening up about his adoption, Stokes established a connection with the orphanage where he was adopted from and eventually raised funds for the construction of a newborn baby wing for the facility.
"My purpose is to show that single acts of kindness reduce social isolation and loneliness, and that meaningful connections are created when we share our experiences with others,” says Stokes.