There is no denying that Robby Mook is a force to be reckoned with. The political campaign strategist secured key victories in three states during Hillary Clinton’s bid for the Democratic nomination in 2008. In 2016, he went on to command Ms Clinton’s presidential campaign from start to finish. Mr Mook also made history as the first openly gay manager of a US presidential campaign. He has achieved all of this at the age of just 37.
But what brought such an influential figure to speak to a room full of St Andrews students at Hotel du Vin on a snowy Friday evening? The answer is nothing more than the tenacity of two university undergraduates: Arabic and history student Daniel Rey and Spanish and management student Benjamin Thrasher.
Mr Rey and Mr Thrasher started the LaFayette Club this September after they returned from a year abroad. As the club’s Facebook page states, the LaFayette Club is a society that aims to deliver “simply great talks.”
Mr Rey told The Saint that the name of the LaFayette Club has a “personal resonance” for both Mr Thrasher and himself. It stems from a project that the two worked on involving the reconstruction of a French ship called the Hermione.
He explained,“[The Marquis de Lafayette was a] French general in his early 20s who essentially had a huge influence on the outcome of the War of Independence. He won some crucial battles and basically we just thought, because he’s an inspirational figure who achieved a lot at an early age […] this was a sort of inspiration for us, and an inspiration for people that came to our talks. It’s kind of pretentious, but we just thought it was a nice sounding name.”
In addition to making use of the marquis’ title for the name of their club, Mr Rey and Mr Thrasher have also adopted Lafayette’s motto, “Cur Non?,” which translates to “why not?”
The Marquis de Lafayette is famous for his courageous decision to help the Americans fight against the British in the American Revolution, and the two students took on this attitude in their quest to bring speakers to St Andrews. They are not using personal connections to find interesting speakers, only sheer determination and persistent emailing. After all, as Mr Thrasher points out, “It can’t be that hard to get very good speakers to come to speak to us.”
The ambitious spirit of Lafayette really is at the heart of the club’s concept, as Mr Rey and Mr Thrasher are the first to acknowledge there are two large challenges created by the nature of what they are trying to achieve. The first of these is the difficult task of scheduling a date for busy figures such as Robby Mook to visit St Andrews. The second is arranging the transport to get speakers to our somewhat remote town. It is this second issue that is one of the biggest setbacks for the organisation of LaFayette Club events.
“If we were in London we would tenfold increase our opportunity to get great speakers in because people would be in town for business,” Mr Thrasher said. “But there aren’t any big business meetings that go on in St Andrews. So we always have to fly people up or fly people across.”
He cites these two hurdles as a reason why societies have struggled in the past to get top-level speakers to St Andrews. Although both Mr Rey and Mr Thrasher enjoyed the society events put on in St Andrews in the past, the internship they undertook last summer totally changed their perspective.
Mr Thrasher said, “The project that we worked on in the summer in the states was all about event management, again with very high-level people. And we learnt about event management from that and we really enjoyed it. […] We were not able to see St Andrews events through rose tinted glasses any more. Instead of the good things of the event, we’d just see this was done badly, that aspect was done badly.”
Mr Thrasher attributes the pair’s disillusionment with such events to the fact the organisational teams behind them failed to address all three of the things that make a good event: the venue, the marketing, and the speaker.
On returning to the University, the pair found that it was the speakers who were particularly lacking. Many of the speakers who give talks are academics from St Andrews or Edinburgh. Although these individuals are undoubtedly interesting, their talks can be similar to the lectures already on offer to students.
When asked whether the club had a certain type of speaker they would try to contact for future events, Mr Rey said, “We wanted to set up a society which just brought great speakers from any discipline, from any background, anyone really who was interesting.”
However, he was keen to point out that quality, rather than quantity, was the prime concern for the club going forward, adding, “Our aim is to get the better speaker rather than more events, so if it’s only one or two events a semester, as long as they’re high enough profile that’s our main priority.”
So far, the two students have had a very positive response from the high-profile figures they have approached. Although they have received rejections, many of these have been due to logistical inconveniences. The potential speakers have not been disparaging of the club’s aim, but rather the opposite.
“They don’t think we’re ridiculous. They appreciate what we’re doing, and people are up for it,” Mr Rey said. The two have even received a few personal letters of rejection from directors of the biggest companies in the world.
The LaFayette Club has also been met with a positive response from the student population. The club’s inaugural event, “A conversation with the Hillary Clinton 2016 Campaign manager,” sold out. There were even students posting on the event to try and buy last-minute tickets. This is a feat that is made even more impressive a lack of strong promotion.
Prior to the event, Mr Rey said, “We’ve only just posted it on a few Facebook groups and we’ve nearly sold out, so the fact is if the event’s good enough you don’t need to put that much into the advertising element of things.”
This lack of advertising was partly due to the fact that the LaFayette Club is not currently associated with the Union, meaning the event could not be promoted in the library, Union events listings, or Union website. However, this clearly did not pose any great problem to the success of the event, and Mr Rey said the club currently does not have any plans to seek affiliation with the Union. Its independent status allows Mr Rey and Mr Thrasher to arrange events “more simply and how we want to do it.”
The way that the LaFayette Club does things is not the same as the typical St Andrews society. In addition to not being Union-affiliated, it is one of the few societies that does not have a membership scheme. Instead, students can just pay to attend whatever events take their fancy. Linked to this is the decision made by the two students not to put on LaFayette Club socials. There will be no wine and cheese events, champagne receptions, or pub crawls. Instead, “every now and again we will just be holding talks and that will be as much as people get from the LaFayette Club,” Mr Thrasher said. Moreover, the LaFayette Club is managed solely by the two founders. The benefit of not having a large committee, such as those that are behind so many other society events, is that the two students can steer the direction of the club in any way they want.
Another unique aspect of the LaFayette Club is that it can offer something to appeal to every student. Not all students would associate with a society named the St Andrews Politics Society, “whereas with this it’s so broad that there’s no one who can not like it,” Mr Thrasher said.
The club has already confirmed that Peter Brabeck, the chairman of Formula 1 and Nestle, will speak at an event next year. When asked about other potential speakers, Mr Rey and Mr Thrasher assured The Saint they have some interesting names in the pipeline. The LaFayette Club’s events will certainly be the ones to watch in coming semesters.