Photo by Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images for The Conversationalist
The Year of Sophie Beren
A self-described ‘unifier,’ The Conversationalist founder and CEO is amplifying the Gen Z voice and helping young people break down barriers one difficult conversation at a time
Bringing matzah to school on Passover seems like a nonevent, but for Sophie Beren, whose goal in life is to break down echo chambers, doing so as a teen in Kansas was a first effort at bridging the gap she had long been feeling. Wichita, where she was raised, is not known for its large Jewish presence, however, and Beren’s attempts at dialogue were often left unanswered.
“Growing up in Wichita, even though my whole life I resented [being one of the only Jews], could have actually been my greatest gift, because it taught me what it looks like to be surrounded with people who are different from me,” Beren recalled to Jewish Insider.
Since then, Beren, 27, who like Superman left Kansas to better people’s lives in the big city, has been on a journey to promote conversation between disparate voices, particularly among Gen Zers, whom she reaches through her nonpartisan educational platform, The Conversationalist, which she founded in 2019.
In the last two months alone, that journey has included a new content distribution partnership with Snapchat, a speaking engagement at a “GenZ, the News, and the World” panel hosted by the Italian Embassy in Washington, D.C., and a Forbes 30-Under-30 nod for Beren.
“It’s just another reaffirmation of the incredible support that I have in our community, on our team, and just of this Gen Z ecosystem that we’ve been able to build over the last three years,” Beren, who’s now in New York City where The Conversationalist is based, told JI of her inclusion among Forbes’s 2023 education winners.
The Conversationalist has always been a labor of love for Beren; a purpose she furthered in college to amplify the Gen Z perspective and counter negative stereotypes about her peers in the broader media sphere.
“There is a lot of skepticism and there are a lot of misconceptions about Gen Z, and so I almost feel like it’s my duty to help ameliorate some of those fears and help showcase that this generation really has so much power,” Beren said, citing Gen Z as “the most diverse generation to date.”
“We’re seeing that through a lot of data, and you know, election turnout, that young people do want to make their voices heard, and I just think we have all of the tools at our disposal. Whether it’s the fact that we’re considered the activist generation or whether it’s because we’re considering different career pathways and rejecting traditional institutions, I just think there’s such an opportunity for this generation to disrupt the status quo in ways that we’ve never seen before,” Beren said.
It’s this faith in the generation that attracts many Gen Zers to Beren and her platform.
“There’s a consensus that our generation is disengaged and we don’t care about politics, we don’t want to be involved, but I love how Sophie’s going out there and trying to challenge a lot of the stereotypes and narratives that people like to write about our generation,” said Ian Gates, a senior at George Mason University who serves as a member on The Conversationalist Community Leadership Board. “We’re not monolithic. We’re not lazy. We care about politics, and we are going to change the world.”
Growing up in a Midwestern Conservative Jewish household was a mixed bag for Beren, who felt deeply connected to her Judaism through her family yet isolated from her peers.
“I think a lot of what I do today really resonates with my childhood in that I realized that so much of who I was at my core, being a Jewish woman, was something that no one around me understood,” Beren told JI just before the new year. “I felt like people either didn’t know how to broach that dialogue with me, or didn’t care to, based on a lot of ignorance.”
“Ignorance, even what we’re seeing today in 2022 with this constant rise of antisemitism, I think prevents people from wanting to actually understand where people are coming from. And so for me, that ended up resulting in a lot of harmful jokes and really just made me feel like I didn’t have a voice because I could never be like my peers,” she added.
After living like a self-described “Froot Loop in a world of Cheerios,” Beren immersed herself in Jewish life when she started at the University of Pennsylvania. The chance to finally be around other Jewish Gen Zers helped Beren gain confidence in her identity, until, during a seemingly insignificant walk through campus, she began to realize the benefits of having grown up in a diverse community.
“I kind of realized that every single person on campus was huddled in groups of people who were like them. And that’s when I had to really look within and realize that because I was finally so happy to be around other Jews, I actually only surrounded myself with Jews…and I realized that there was this larger cultural potential issue that I wanted to explore,” Beren recalled.
That introspection led Beren to TableTalk, an organization aimed at helping to facilitate meaningful conversations among college and high school students with different worldviews. Beren discovered the group through a camp friend, who had started it at Emory University along with some classmates.
Beren jumped at the chance to bring the program to Penn and campuses across the country. She grew the organization from her own university, founding TableTalk Global and turning it into a fully fledged 501(c)(3) nonprofit that is active at over 80 schools.
Despite the successes she was achieving with TableTalk, Beren realized the organization wasn’t fully addressing the issue she had noticed during that fateful walk through campus.
“I realized that campuses in and of themselves are echo chambers, and as much as I love connecting my local community on campus, I felt like there was this missed opportunity to connect people from our generation across the country,” Beren said. “I really started to notice some differences between my friends from home while they were in college versus what I was seeing on my college campus.”
“That was really what sparked my passion behind The Conversationalist and realizing that there’s so much more I could do to bring our generation together outside of just a singular location,” she added.
Boasting a community of over 125,000 young people, The Conversationalist is made up of two parts: its POVz video content and the larger TC community, which operates from the messaging app Geneva — a platform similar to Discord.
“I think what we’re creating here at The Conversationalist is something that every human being can connect to on some level. Whether it’s having an experience [of ]not feeling heard, whether it’s being in a challenging conversation and not knowing what to say, whether it’s wanting to disrupt the status quo, I think that’s what’s so unique about our generation in particular,” Beren said.
POVz, which stands for the Gen Z perspective, is the first-ever Gen Z talk show. On it, Beren tackles controversial topics with an open mind and an open ear — it’s not about finding an answer, it’s about bringing young people together and merging their diverse perspectives into an honest conversation.
The show produces three types of content that it distributes across social platforms: POVz: The Show; POVz: Exclusivez; and POVz: On The Streetz.
The main show brings a group of Gen Zers together for a roundtable, moderated by Beren, on a timely and/or polarizing issue. Currently only the pilot episode has been released, which sees four 20-somethings discussing whether or not abortion is a human right.
POVz: Exclusivez are one-on-one conversations between Beren and a celebrity guest in the TC’s New York studio, tailored to a particular subject that the guest wants to discuss — for example, one episode saw “Harry Potter” star Bonnie Wright talking about climate change.
“We always ensure that every single person coming onto the show understands why they’re there, how we run the conversation, what the expectations and guidelines are, so that we’re all starting on the same playing field,” Beren said. “That’s really helped us to make sure that we’re achieving our mission and having dialogue for the sake of learning, understanding and growing, rather than belittling, arguing or trying to change someone else’s mind.”
POVz: On The Streetz are short Tik Tok-length clips where Beren, or another TC team member, goes around the country interviewing young people about anything from who they think the greatest musical artist of all time is to if states should have control over gay marriage — think Jimmy Kimmel’s “Lie Witness News,” but substitute Kimmel’s ability to elicit humorous one-liners for Beren’s generation of honest and sometimes controversial opinions.
“We’re meeting Gen Z where Gen Z is at,” said Jourdan Ivory, head of community at The Conversationalist. “I think the real power of The Conversationalist is that not only are we amplifying the [points of views] of Gen Z, but we’re sharing points of views and perspectives that all generations have a perspective on as well. And I think our biggest thing as The Conversationalist is getting the conversation started.”
Ivory, who joined The Conversationalist in March of 2022, applied for his job after having seen Beren’s videos on his social media feeds. Coming from a background in PR, he was hesitant about the change, but grew more sure about his decision after further researching the platform.
“I realized that this was the place that I really felt was meant for me,” Ivory said.
The Conversationalist’s other leg, its Geneva community, is in a way an amplification of the work being done through POVz.
Through the app, which Beren describes as a “perfect marriage between a Slack channel, a Facebook group, and a social network,” Gen Zers from all time zones are able to connect and discuss the issues they’re most passionate about. For more guided conversations, The Conversationalist hosts “And We’re Live” events every Monday night for a 30-minute, no-holds-barred discussion on a surprise topic.
“We let people rant, we guide it with bringing in opposing perspectives and a variety of perspectives, and then at the end of the event after 30 minutes, we close the room so no one else can chat,” Beren described. “So it’s a really awesome format to get people there to get energized about really having these conversations at least once a week, and it’s a chance for every young person to participate.”
At its core, The Conversationalist’s Geneva community truly is a community; members will just as soon have a frank discussion about race as they will get together over Thanksgiving for a friendly game of Kahoot!.
“It’s a community. It’s where we bond, it’s where we get to know each other, it’s where we have difficult conversations, but also it’s a network for us too,” described Bella Santos, president of The Conversationalist Community Leadership Board and head moderator on Geneva.
“We’re dealing with this tension, but we’re also like goofing off and having fun and sharing parts of our lives,” Santos added. “I think that that is just as important to me as these people breaking their echo chambers and following our mission.”
Beren’s efforts to create The Conversationalist, which began as more of a blog, were bolstered by the social limitations put in place by the COVID-19 pandemic, when many turned to the internet for social interaction.
Santos, who is a sophomore at Simmons University, joined in 2020, during her senior year of high school. At that point, only 1,000 or so people were in the Geneva group.
“We were all just talking 24/7. There was all these different Gen Zers of different backgrounds, different political beliefs, etc., and I just found it to be super enticing,” Santos said. “That was like the most connection I had with people my age for a while during my senior year.”
Of those early years, Beren said, “Young people needed a place to go.”
“It wasn’t just that they were feeling that their stories and their voices weren’t being heard, but there was no place that would connect them with other people to voice them,” Beren said. “Once we built that community through COVID, we realized that there was such an opportunity to actually now foster more of these conversations in a public way. So building the show I think really helped us achieve scale. Now, instead of just having our community located on the Geneva app where young people are chatting internally, we’ve now been able to bring those conversations to millions of people. Even just the ways in which we’re seeing scale on social media, I think we’ve garnered well over 50 million views on Tik Tok, and we only started posting this content about a year ago. so it’s been a crazy, crazy whirlwind.”
Bringing people together is only half the battle; the true difficulty lies in making everyone comfortable enough to open up, an area in which Beren, who describes herself as a “unifier,” excels.
“Sophie takes great notes, she’s a great listener, and she really knows what she’s talking about when she’s talking to you because she’s genuinely in the conversation with you,” Ivory said. “Second to that is that Sophie is a phenomenal relationship-builder, and I think it’s because she really cares.”
As a self-identifying “Zillennial” — a generational cusper straddling both millennial and Gen Z identities — Beren’s identification with both generations, along with her upbringing in Kansas, gives her a best-of-both-worlds perspective, enabling her to better understand others’ viewpoints.
“It’s really just about learning what someone is and is not comfortable speaking about and kind of just guiding the conversation from there, and knowing how to really make someone feel seen and heard, because at the end of the day I think that’s really what we all want,” Beren said.
Beren’s ability to understand people’s boundaries and foster safe spaces has made The Conversationalist a place that is truly special.
“It’s pretty much the only place that I can think of off the top of my head where there is diversity at a different level,” Santos said. “There are different racial categories and different religions and different sexualities and genders or whatever it is, but there’s also a diversity of thought… it’s just a heightened level of diversity, because the only thing that’s uniting all the people in The Conversationalist community is wanting to have difficult conversations.”
“Her personality and what she gives to the team and she gives to our community and that she gives to the world, is so overwhelmingly positive and I think so many more people need to be like her,” Santos added. “I also just think that, despite being such a hard worker that’s so accomplished, I definitely think she’s one of the most vulnerable people, which I really appreciate because I feel like a lot of bosses and CEOs don’t open up quite as much as she does about how she feels and what she’s struggling with and and what she wants and what her visions and goals are.”
More than anything, Beren wants Gen Zers to know the true power they hold.
“I’m a Gen Z super fan, and I think it’s personal to some degree in that I know what it feels like to feel silenced or to be a young person that feels that their voice doesn’t matter,” Beren said. “I think more than anything, I want to make sure that every young person out there can really harness the power of their unique voice, because I think when we do so, we can then help other people break outside of their echo chambers and use their voice for good.”
“I hope that The Conversationalist can really be the incubator to that, so that young people can go out and help unify the world,” she added.