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VBI Family: Interview with David Wolfish
David Wolfish is a second year student at Harvard Business School. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania in 2009 with a BA in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. He has worked at L.E.K. Consulting, Beal Bank, and Deutsche Bank, and is currently the CEO and co-founder of Dry Thru LLC. He volunteered as an Advisory Council Member and a mentor/judge with the Boston Debate League for three years. In high school, he debated for the Greenhill School and was the champion of the 2005 Tournament of Champions.
You were the champion of the 2005 TOC! How did you prepare in the weeks leading up to the tournament, and how did it feel when you won?
I honestly can’t tell you what I felt the moment I won. I don’t recall the decision being announced, receiving the trophies, or hearing the RFDs. At a time of such intense focus, you’d think I’d remember more about the moment, but I can’t. I remember arguing with my coach about which affirmative to run. I remember feeling embarrassed that I didn’t know what “physiological” meant. I remember my heart dropping after losing the coin flip, because I had lost every single coin flip at the TOC. There is a psychological bias to remember bad things more vividly, and even on that day, my strongest memories concern what went wrong.
In retrospect, I think my exceptionally strong aversion to losing motivated me much more than a desire to win. Prior to the tournament, I wrote a quote on my expando that said, “Second place is first loser.” That’s a high bar for a teenager, and I put a lot of pressure on myself. The quote also just sounds like something from Talladega Nights. I worked 40+ hours a week for the duration of the TOC topic, so the month before the tournament, I was spinning my wheels. I had six affirmative cases and only ever ran one—the one I had written back in February and had saved for TOC. I had eight negative cases and only used one—the one that I had run at prior tournaments. At the TOC, numerous teams scouted my rounds, but I remember not caring. If a team could out-prep my cases in a weekend better than we (Aaron Timmons, Neil Conrad, and Tisha Vaidya) could prepare in four months, I deserved to lose.
My strong, positive memory from that day was when I climbed into the team van and the rest of the Greenhill team cheered for me. Our talented policy debaters had lost in Octos, but they were still so genuinely excited for me. The positive memory wasn’t having won or the attention, but the feeling that I had loyal and committed teammates. The seniors on our policy team, Shawn Hiner-Leamon, Nathan Baum, and Jessica Stolbach, are all still among my best friends.
You're the CEO and co-founder of Dry Thru LLC; what inspired you to found the company?
Prior to business school, I worked for L.E.K. Consulting in Boston, where I helped Fortune 500 companies develop strategies to create new ways to capture value from customer foot traffic. I wanted to bring some of the skills and insights I learned to help small business owners as well. I tested my new product and service ideas for small businesses through Dry Thru LLC.
Do you think your experiences with debate have helped you with your current endeavors?
Honestly, I have no idea whether debate enhanced or hampered my entrepreneurial ventures and consulting career. I would guess that for me that it has helped me more in consulting, which requires heavy research, synthesis, and communication skills.
Tell us about your experiences with the Boston Debate League! How was it different from debating in high school, and how do you think debate has helped the students that you worked with?
I pretty much dropped off the LD map while I was at Penn, which gave me more time to make new friends and integrate into my new community. I felt burned out and needed some time to distance myself and reflect on what I had taken away. I coached a bit on the side, which I enjoyed, so when I moved to Boston I wanted to give back to the activity that gave me so much.
Working with the Boston Debate League (BDL), and specifically Steve Stein, has been one of my best experiences in debate. Steve possesses great drive, and he quickly turned Boston into one of the premier urban debate leagues. I’ve volunteered for the BDL for over four years, working as a consultant, Young Professionals Committee co-chair, judge, coach, and fundraiser. I feel that working with the BDL was a natural transition back into debate.
Coaching is drastically different from competing, and I honestly don’t know if having done debate makes me a better or a worse coach. In my limited experience, empathy and patience matter much more in coaching than competitive experience does. My non-coaching work has dealt more with conducting new research, analyzing strategies, and recruiting judges. I learned a lot from debate but not these skills. I’d give credit here to my employer, L.E.K. Consulting, and my mentors.
What did you learn from VBI that helped you most going into your senior year?
I left VBI with immense respect for the diverse styles, interests, and capabilities of my labmates, but I also felt different. I remember Tripti Bhattacharya’s quiet intelligence and Petey Gil’s willingness to experiment with new types of argumentation. I remember Katie Poulos’ work ethic and Daniel Sheehan’s humility. But most of all, I remember questioning whether I should change my style and approach to debate. Kritiks and spreading had become the trendy things to do, and I had always been more of a stock debater with a heavy focus on technical strategies. Amidst lectures on European intellectuals, my coaches, and especially Mike Bietz, were very encouraging of me sticking to the basics. I certainly ran a few one-trick ponies and went fast, but I thought of these as tools in the toolbox than standard approaches. I thought of myself as a student of debate and not as a student of philosophy. My coach Aaron Timmons obviously had the largest role in helping me develop my style, but that summer helped me appreciate different styles and approaches to debate.
If you could give a single piece of advice to a young debater, what would it be?
This is more than one piece of advice, but here’s what I think is important:
If you want to reach your absolute potential in debate, change your mindset. First, never argue with judges. Ask questions, whether you win or lose, and seek to understand how they think and why they made their decision. Judges are never wrong. Second, approach every debate as if you need to win without question. As you improve, your bar of what “without question” means should be absurdly high. Leave nothing to chance. The biggest turning point during my senior year was not clearing at St. Mark’s after winning Grapevine (perfect ballot count) and the Greenhill RR (one ballot lost). I went 4-2 with decent speaker points and thought it was stupid that I had not cleared. The turning point in my debate career was realizing that 6-0s always clear, and leaving close rounds to chance risks too much.
If you experience great competitive success, be humble and grateful.
Lastly, what was your favorite memory from VBI as a student?
My favorite simple memory from VBI was eating ice cream sandwich cookies from Diddy Riese. Ice cream is still my favorite treat.