Craft By Zen

Mary's information on a cocktail napkin
Mary's information on a cocktail napkin

15 min read

🔖newsletter   🔖season_3   🔖letters

Seven Degrees of Strangers: Fourth Separation

7 Degrees of Strangers Letterhead
7 Degrees of Strangers Letterhead


Last week, I wrote about my interview with Joe Lazzara, owner of Joe’s Butcher and Fish Market. This week, we’re reviewing the core theme of the series: connection. If you’re new to this newsletter series, I’m interviewing strangers one degree of separation at a time to chronicle connections. And there’s no one better to talk about connection with none other than Mary Aipoalani.

Enter Mary Aipoalani

I had no background on Mary when I asked her to be my next interviewee. I called her a few days before our interview to schedule the meeting, and immediately, I knew I was going to enjoy our conversation. She exuded a lot of energy in her voice. It’s as if she was ready to take on the world and ready to jump on any opportunity.

Mary met Joe through work. Mary is the VP of Product Development at Renaissance Food Group. She met Joe on a business trip to Indiana. Although her company does not sell their products at Joe’s butcher shop, she struck a great conversation with Joe. Mary knows the who’s who in the food industry. When Mary’s work brought her to Indiana, and she could tell the city’s placed a lot of capital building their downtown. She spoke to Joe for two hours about her products, about his shop and life, and the competition he faced. Mary has an eye for marketplaces that sell well.

Mary came from humble beginings in Michigan. She grew up on a farm and her food was her family’s language. She and her husband travel around all over the US, selling and managing food products. From what I can access, Mary is a busy person. Yet, as I find out, Mary makes time for people. Case in point, during our conversation, she was driving her daughter to an appointment.

Storing Contacts

If you’ve read Malcolm Gladwell’s book, “The Tipping Point”, Mary’s a prime example of a super-connector. A super connector is someone who keeps a record or memory of a lot of different people. They connect people who don’t know each other but have mutual benefits. The average person keeps tabs with about 150 people, also known as the Dunbar number. Mary keeps tabs with so many more people. She’s able to do this by her system on how to connect with people.

I was super interested in Mary’s system of recording contacts. Mary explains it to me with Joe as an example. After Mary finished talking to Joe, she writes down additional information about him. She may write, “Joe’s Butcher Shop and Fish Market. Spices and seasoning blends. Carmel, Indiana.” The description can inform Mary that Joe knows how to season meat, and if Mary needs help, she can call him. She may also synthesize later other vendors that might want to work with Joe based off the store name.

Entrepreneurs work on connecting, Mary tells me. They figure out people’s capabilities. At the end of chatting, I mentioned some opportunities I’m looking for. Mary was able to take that information and come up with a few names I could collaborate with. She connects people with head hunters. She elects them to be advisory board candidates. She pairs them with a founder. Mary’s theory is when the student is ready, they have to find the right teacher. If you’re past step one of identifying your problem, step two is to talk to Mary. Check with her if she knows someone in her network. Mary works like a matchmaker and marries the student with the teacher.

I’ll admit, I’m not the best at keeping notes or tabs on people. I try for a little while until I’m discouraged from making any headway with others. I am pessimistic in trying to get people to do things. But I can reframe my position. I can think, “how would Mary approach this?” I would try to get people together who don’t know they need to reach out to each other. If nothing comes out of it, that’s that. But for the few times it does, innovation can happen.

The World is Ripe with Opportunity

Mary sees opportunity. She can’t help it. Her family is a group of entrepreneurs. When I asked Mary who I should speak to next, she recommended her brother, Ed Dominion. It was amusing she referred to her brother as D6, the first letter of their last name followed by their birth order. He runs his own company in Portland, Oregon. Mary runs businesses on the side. For example, she has a high performance camera company. She is starting another venture called Animal Bacon.

When it comes down to it, Mary’s journey reminds me of the protagonist in “The Alchemist”. Mary’s journey is wandering, yet focused on goals. And at the end of goals, that’s not the end of the journey, but the beginning. We talked hypotheticals. If Mary wanted to go to the White House, she’s pretty sure she could go with little to no credentials. That’s because she thinks that in her mind.

Mary learned a long time ago the importance of connections. When her father died, the funeral was packed. People came all over to visit her father. Her father was a man who could walk up to anyone and strike a conversation with them. He would listen to them and try to help in any way. Because the paper wrote about his passing in the paper, people picked up on his passing from all over and came to visit him. That made an impact on Mary, and it’s shaped her to be the way she is today.

And she doesn’t believe in coincidences. Life is nothing buy coincidences. And that’s led to successes. Action comes first. Things are not handed over to you. She gave me some strategies in optimizing the search for opportunities.

The Game

Mary travels a lot for work and could spend her time eating alone. But she refuses to. Instead, she’s come up with a game.

Mary enters a restaurant and looks for the bar. She scouts the bar to see if people are there eating alone. This has to be someone who’s eating alone who’s towards the end of their meal. She will sit next to this person and wait for the bartender. When the bartender comes over and asks Mary what she wants to eat, she turns to the person next to her. This is the same person she scouted for when she entered the restaurant. She asks this person, “Oh, that looks delicious. What are you having?“. The person responds with the name of what they’re having. Then, Mary asks the ultimate question, “Can I have a taste?“. Every single person has given her a sample, if not the rest of the plate, of food. Inevitably, this turns into a conversation.

The goal is to have a better experience than to eat alone. If Mary can have a conversation with someone, she will try to. She’s proven to friends and family this game works. She’s even had her daughter do it once. Mary’s daughter isn’t embarrassed by her mother, as I thought. Instead, her daughter has a role model who is brazen and bold to approach strangers.

Mary told this to an Uber driver once. He said, “You inspire me.” He is sold on the experience. I am sold on the experience. The next time I’m traveling and am hungry, I’ll run through the game.

Mary’s pitched this idea to television producers and they say she could get a TV show deal. It sounds appealing because it acts on our human tendencies to want to connect. And she doesn’t do it to flirt with strangers. Mary’s more interested in the stories people have to tell.

Takeaway message

Take the opportunity to reach out to people. And Mary has a saying to go along with this. “Stop looking at your glass, get off your ass”. Her daughter was listening to the conversation, and told me she couldn’t say that last word.

Mary says in the younger community, boys are always on their glass. It is important to move your ass. It can be exercise, smiling and making eye contact with other people, or working on body language. That’s how she sees life.

Side Tangent

Years ago, I visited Budapest and hung out with a friend of a friend. She surprised me by bringing me to the river across from the parliament building during sunset. It was the most magical moment of the trip, and we attempted to open a bottle of wine. We clicked glasses took a sip, and she asked me, “So, Jeremy, what’s your story?“. The question confused me.

“You mean, what do I do?”, I asked.

“No, like what’s your story. Everyone has stories.”

I understood, and told her about the beginning of my trip, the tragedy that had befallen my family. I started to cry. Both for the tragedy as well as for my friend who listened to my story. That was one of many turning points I found in the power of conversation and of listening.

My journey so far has been to listen to others’ stories, to listen to what matters to each of us. If there’s anything I’ve learned from my friend in Budapest is the power each of us has to listen. When Mary tells me the opportunity to reach out to people, I remember this period of my life I didn’t do it. I lived oblivious, not connecting to the people around me. Mary’s takeaway is reinforcement for me and invigorates me to continue this project. I’m glad each stranger I’ve talked to has given me something special, and I hope you have enjoyed this series so far. See you next week for more stories.

Author’s Notes

I lost half of our conversation. Mary was driving through poor cell service areas, so the call dropped many times. For the last part of the interview, I couldn’t record it so I transcribed notes. As my luck would have it, my notes were stolen along with my backpack. I’ve chosen to omit this conversation because my memory is impartial. And to be frank, I can’t remember what we talked about.