Women Entrepreneurs Infuse Events With Passion

April 25, 2014 6:04 am Last Updated: April 24, 2014 10:00 pm

NEW YORK—It takes a lot to make history lectures or business presentations exciting. Yet two aspiring New York City businesswomen, Danielle Oteri and Deborah Asseraf, are taking it upon themselves to transform the mundane into something gripping.

Oteri is Italian. She grew up a few miles upstate, but her family had a food shop in Little Italy in the Bronx, and she spent much of her time in the city. After majoring in graphic design, Oteri spent a few years in Silicon Valley, only to see her job disappear as the dot-com bubble burst around 2001.

She had two choices: Look for another job, or get back to her studies. Weighing credit card bills over student loans, she chose the latter, engaging in graduate studies at the Studio Art Centers in Italy.

Using the opportunity to travel the country of her origin, Oteri discovered that famous dishes of many areas have deeper cultural connections. The island of Sicily, for example, has a Middle Eastern spiciness to its cuisine, because of the Muslim invasion in the ninth century.

And so the idea of the Feasts on History was born—to tell the tale of history through pleasant dinner conversation, an immersive food and wine experience if you will.

Oteri knows how to work her crowd. She shows pictures on her tablet while scattering the discussion with historical anecdotes, sometimes connecting the food on the table to its area of origin, its culture, and its historical events.

A one-day trip with a brunch and a museum tour goes for approximately $40. Custom-made events may climb into the hundreds or even thousands of dollars per person, depending on how lavish the clients want it to be.

Oteri’s dream is to recreate the Zodiac Club dinner—a secret meeting of 12 of America’s rich and powerful dating back to 1860. The tradition continues to today. “[The participants] learn the history of the Zodiac Club as they actually go through the experience,” she said. Alas, she has yet to find a dozen interested enough to pay $10,000 each for the occasion.

Popcorn Productions

Asseraf started her journey from Paris, France. She moved to Miami at the age of 3.

Her parents were always advocates of hands-on learning, said Asseraf. When she was 12 the family moved to New York. Her mother gave her a subway map and a granola bar, and sent her off to “learn the city.” “I literally spent the day traveling on subways, figuring out the subway system,” she said.

Her father had his own gimmicky approach of creating learning experiences. He would assign her science projects and use whatever was at hand to explain his point, even if it was a handful of crackers. One time, Asseraf remembered, her father used an orange and a flashlight to illustrate for her the mechanics of the solar system.

Probably thanks to such an upbringing, Asseraf has a knack for hands-on ideas. After three years of event planning for ABC TV, she set up her own company, Popcorn Productions.

She now focuses on enhancing presentations of experienced businesspeople—adding something extra so as to make their sales pitches more interactive and understandable. It may be a little game, a quiz, a prop, or some other interactive activity.

Her ideas are simple, yet they work. One time she even used skittles to help her client pitch financial investment services. “I’m about getting people to listen and interact with each other, and having my clients shine in the spotlight and actually get heard,” she said.

One of her hallmarks is originality. “I don’t ever reuse one of my ideas,” she said. “If you are really trying to convey the person’s message … the technique is different every time.”

Feast on Innovation

Both Oteri and Asseraf have been in business for about a year, long enough for the initial hiccups to be worked through. Now they’re aiming bigger, thinking about how large corporate clients can use the extra push they provide.

Their first joint event, part of the Feast on Innovation series, will focus on the Italian Renaissance sculptor and painter Michelangelo, and the inspiration he can provide today’s innovators. It will launch on May 1 at Science House in Manhattan’s Murray Hill Historic District, and will feature workshops and a wine reception. A smaller group will enjoy dinner inspired by 15th century Italian cuisine.