April 18, 2011

Summit at Sea

Monday, April 11, 2011. 9:00AM. I’m standing in a cab line at the Port of Miami, never so happy to be a shell of a human being. I’ve just disembarked from Summit at Sea, the latest event from the Summit Series team, and the experience demands every last drop of energy you can muster. We're all hoarse from impassioned conversations, sore from ocean obstacle courses, and exhausted from three nights of you-can-sleep-when-you're-dead. Surreal is the only word to describe Summit at Sea: a cruise ship full of the 1,000 most influential young entrepreneurs, global leaders, and changemakers in their industries. Fast Company called it "part TED, part extreme sports," while Forbes coined the description "Davos for the Y generation." One attendee called it, “capitalistic Burning Man where everyone wants to change the world.” Summit Series is powered by the energy of its attendees, and the experience pulsates with potential, excitement, solutions, partnerships, house music, bikinis, sharks, hugs, and whistles. Against the backdrop of the massive, M.C. Escher-inspired Celebrity Century cruise ship and a private island in the Caribbean, Summit at Sea — like the Summit Series events before it — is a uniquely awesome accelerator and incubator for friendships. Not just contacts or business partners, but real friends whom I talk to every day.

From the moment we entered the boarding terminal at the port on Friday, we could feel the energy in the air. The check-in line snaked through the glass-roofed atrium, dance music bumping through a sea of reunion hugs and peanut butter cookies. We picked up our Poken devices (the latest iteration in the still-awkward-and-cumbersome world of contact information exchange). I dropped my bag in my impossibly small triple and scoped out the gift bag. Great stuff with some welcome repeats from last year's DC10 (John Varvatos discount, DonorsChoose.org gift card, and the undeniable deliciousness of Sweet Riot chocolate) with some new additions (Yes To Carrots sunscreen, Invisible Children t-shirt, and custom boat sneakers from Creative Recreation).

The first session opened with my buddy ELEW who played an underground after party last year and returned this year to play on the main stage. First up was Sir Richard Branson who donned his trademark wavy white hair and a velvet blazer. When interviewer Chris Sacca — clad in a plaid shirt and a scruffy beard — joked that Branson had launched 14 new businesses that week, Branson pointed to Sacca’s flip flops and retorted, “I'm setting up a sock company for you.”

Sir Richard Branson interviewed by Chris Sacca
Branson's talk had similar content to Russell Simmons’ opening talk at DC10: when asked for examples of failure he said, “If you have not failed, you're not a true entrepreneur,” and cited Virgin Cola and his pass on Trivial Pursuit as examples. When asked how he allocated his day, Branson explained, “I've learned the art of delegation. Many people cling and micromanage to long, but you need to find someone who's better than you and put yourself out of business.” Branson went on to talk about two of his social initiatives: Carbon War Room and The Elders, an elite group of world leaders attempting to create positive change. Desmond Tutu is one of Branson's conspirators, and he ribbed his pal with an impersonation of the Archbishop: “People always say I namedrop. In fact, just last week I was at Buckingham palace and the queen says, ‘Arch, you name drop too much.’” Directly related to Branson's work with The Elders, Israeli model Noa Tishby asked Branson during the Q&A, “What do you say to a tyrant with $100 billion to get him to leave?” Branson laughed and replied, “Offer him $101 billion.

Branson was followed by a short performance by Eclectic Method who spun a house music medley accompanied by, no pun intended, an eclectic video clip mashup featuring Summit attendees like Russell Simmons, Jacqueline Novogratz, and Ray Kurzweil, alongside the likes of Mother Theresa and Congressman Dana Rohrabacher.

Next up was TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie who broke from last year's white oxford shirt and madras slacks to don a denim shirt and artisan-batik parachute pants topped with his trademark moppy haircut.

Blake Mycoskie interviewed by Elliott Bisnow
Blake told the genesis story of TOMS Shoes, citing a proliferation of interns as one of his company's keys to success. “We used Craigslist like you wouldn't believe,” he giggled. Behind him on stage was a TOMS branded “mystery box” which he explained contained the next iteration of TOMS's innovative 1-for-1 model. “We're not just doing shoes anymore,” he announced. The mystery boxes will be opened in June, and Summit Series attendees will get first dibs mailed to their homes. Woot.

Sean Stephenson, the 3-foot giant, closed the session with one of the more inspiring talks of the weekend. Sean paced the stage in his wheelchair, exuding an attitude and charisma that immediately captivated the audience. He set the jovial mood right off the bat: “I have some bad news,” he said, “several people have already been taken off the boat...but they were the only ugly ones.” He talked about his life purpose: to rid the world of insecurity. Lamenting the fact that we often “put our glow on low,” he encouraged the audience to embrace self-confidence. “Why am I sexy?" he asked the audience, gesturing to his body: “This good 55-lbs of love — this was built. I wasn't born with some confidence gene. But I want to show you what it's like to see me in a club,” he said before breaking into dance. Sean closed by encouraging everyone to embrace the spirit of Summit and take advantage of this unique opportunity to learn from others. Money quote: “There's lots of alcohol, you're young, and you're here to save the planet...there's going to be some hookups.

Sean Stephenson (photo credit: Summit Series)

After dinner, I attended the women's mixer which was inspiring and exciting. Summit still has a long way to go (note the complete absence of women in the opening session), but women made up 35% of the event this year, which is definitely a move in the right direction. I wrote about Summit Series’ struggle to incorporate more women into the community after last year's event, and over the course of the year, I worked with Natalie Spilger, one of the team's new hires and Director of Community Building, on initiatives to get more young women on the boat. Although the programming we created brought 6 awesome ladies to Summit, I think we missed some opportunities to create partnerships that could really up the ante. Here's how I see it: There are plenty of organizations that purport to support the advancement of young women, but hardly any of them do it well. If I'm a foundation grant-maker or an individual philanthropist, I have very few high-impact opportunities to grow and invest in the next generation of female leaders. That's why Summit is so important. When it comes to creating an environment that truly facilitates leadership and professional development, they're pretty much the only game in town. I really look forward to working with the Summit team over the course of the next year to continue to create these opportunities and build the community.

The night closed with open bars, live music from DJ Cassidy, and enthusiastic usage of the pool deck's four bubbling hot tubs. Crowds died down around 5:00AM, when my buddy Ben Bator admitted that he had a double and no roommate. I immediately moved out of my triple and into his room with a balcony, greatly improving my quality of life. Best roommate ever.

Having quietly left Miami sometime after dinner, we woke up somewhere in the middle of the Caribbean.

A thousand drowsy partygoers were awoken by what the schedule billed as “the world's best team building exercise ever.” Turns out it was an emergency drill, notable mostly because many people were still in their clothes from the night before. My stateroom's emergency meeting point was in the ship's casino where I waited patiently with TED curator Chris Anderson and his wife, Acumen founder and fellow GSB grad Jacqueline Novogratz, until we got the all clear.

I missed the talk by my TED buddy Tony Hsieh (I heard it was his standard content) and spent part of the morning trying to track down some internet access, which turned out to be both elusive and expensive. Upside: everyone was a lot more present than they would have been with access to Twitter and email. Downside: it was difficult to find people for meetings and meet-ups.

At noon, I joined a panel session called “How to drive profits through creative design,” which was one of the highlights of the weekend. Not only were the speakers inspiring (I was especially keen on Kristofor Lofgren, supply chain master and founder of the first sustainable sushi restaurant, Portland’s Bamboo Sushi), but the discussion afterwards epitomized the positive energy we can harness at Summit. Attendees and organizers frequently marvel at the power and accomplishments of Summit attendees, but you don’t always get to actually see this group of thinkers and doers actively thinking and doing in such a collaborative way. After the speakers finished, panel moderator Bobby Chang suggested we leverage the brains in the room to engage in a real discussion about creating sustainable businesses. Although the session was scheduled to end at 1:00PM, everyone stayed almost an hour later to participate in an exciting brainstorming session that left me feeling energized and hopeful.

After lunch, I had a nice coffee chat with Paul Bricault of Greycroft Partners about the future of digital media, and then “Silicon Beach” angel Paige Craig (my pal from TEDx) and I talked about how the internet facilitates everyone's “15MB of fame,” particularly among so-called “lifecasters.” We continued our discussion until the Profounder live pitch event in the afternoon. The Profounder team (my fellow GSB alums and inspiring friends Dana Mauriello and Kiva co-founder Jessica Jackley) won the live pitch event last year and used some of the winnings to pay it forward and showcase young entrepreneurs on the boat. Unsurprisingly, the winner was my friend Alan Chan for his latest venture, Bre.ad.

Alan Chan pitching Bre.ad at the live pitch competition
You'll hear a lot more from me about Bre.ad in the coming months, but suffice it to say it's a disruptive new take on cutting the noise in online advertising. I really liked some of the other pitches, too, including Gobbler (a data storage tool that facilitates cataloguing, versioning, and collaboration), Hendricks Park (a virtual personal shopping service for men), and Hindsight Con (a conference for entrepreneurs focused on sharing and exploring failures).

After the Profounder pitch event, I spent some time at the pool with some of the most inspiring people I know, people who are changing the world whom I'm proud to call my friends. Typical Summit moment with Kiva co-founder Jessica Jackley, Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell, DonorsChoose.org founder Charles Best, and FEED Projects co-founder Ellen Gustafson:

Before Summit, I was asked by the lovely Shira Lazar to be a special correspondent on the boat for CBS’s new online hub and interactive show “What's Trending.” For my content, I interviewed 7 amazing Summit attendees who I believe are changing their industries and the world around them. I hope to see all the interviews published sometime in the next week, and I may republish them here on my blog as well. The highlight of the interviews was definitely Charles Best, who — in addition to having the surprise six-pack of the century (see above) — regaled me with an exclusive on the genesis of Stephen Colbert's performance of Rebecca Black’s “Friday” on Jimmy Fallon's show. During the performance, a dancer held up a QR code that linked to a secret video about DonorsChoose.org. Since the video had just gone viral the work before, it was pretty fun to get the back story.

After a dining room dinner with two of my favorite Mikes — Fast Society's Michael Constantiner and Misson Motors’ Mike Rosenzweig — I broke away for a shark tagging info session with the lucky few (~3% of Summit attendees) who would head out into open waters the next day to wrangle sharks for science. The Summit team selected the group based on submissions to their open sourced project Shark Tag You're It, which was picked up by National Geographic in the weeks preceding Summit at Sea. The shark tagging group included “regular” people like my TED homie and oncologist Krupali Tejura and winemaker Loren Trefethen, and some fancier folk like Imogen Heap and Kristen Bell. While clutching an actual shark tag in his hand, Neil Hammerschlag from the University of Miami shared some shocking statistics (“270,000 sharks are killed every day”) and then explained the process of shark tagging.

Neil Hammerschlag holding a shark tag
The short version: we catch a shark, pull it onto the boat, put an oversized hose in its mouth to flood its gills with sea water to keep it from “drowning,” take measurements, take cartilage and blood samples (to test for toxicity), attach the “tag” (a little beacon that transmits the shark’s location to the scientists studying migration, reproductive, and extinction patterns), and then return the shark to the water. The whole process takes about 10 minutes. At the info session, I finally ran into my “Four Hour Body” pal Tim Ferriss who was a plate deep into a “cheat day” meal that looked suspiciously like a healthy day for someone like me.

Energized with shark anticipation we returned to the main deck where The Roots had just taken the stage.

After some drinks and socializing, I headed back to the room around 1:00AM to go to bed early before shark tagging at 6:45AM the next day. Before calling it a night, I stepped onto the balcony to take in the ocean air, when I heard Russell Simmons’ distinctive voice. I looked up and found him one floor up, peering over his balcony. We chatted briefly about shark tagging and he invited me up to hang out. What followed was a typical Summit experience in that it was totally extraordinary and surreal. I arrived at Russell's room just in time for his nightly meditation. When I told him I'd never meditated before, he offered to teach me, and I proceeded to have a 30-minute private meditation lesson from Russell Simmons followed by a discussion of veganism, yoga, and how he's overcome his past life of gangs and drugs. After that, I certainly couldn't go back to sleep, and I knew my roommate — one of Russell’s biggest fans — would love to hear this story, so I returned to the pool deck to play with my Summit family. Favorite interaction of the wee hours was when Sophia Bush found out my roomie Ben was responsible for Texts From Last Night and began quoting her all-time favorites. I noshed on pizza, stopped by the afterparty in The Roots’ suite, and had a hallway heart-to-heart with my friend Sean, and left myself just 45 minutes of shut eye before reporting for shark tagging duty on Sunday.

Checking in for shark tagging was a blur of sunscreen and tater tots, procured from the breakfast buffet, along with 4 hardboiled eggs I snagged for Tim Ferriss who made a personal request for some protein (per his “30 grams of protein within 30 minutes of waking up” rule).

We set sail away from the boat as the sun was coming up, and it was a beautiful sight to take in this magnificent cruise ship in the warm, orange dawn.

I staked out a lovely spot on the aft of the ship with nightlife and talent management mastermind Carl Choi where we had front row seats to the 4 sharks we caught that morning (an 8-ft tiger shark, a Caribbean sand shark, and two small black-nosed sharks).

We each had a job on the boat, and after the tissue sample was taken, my job was to administer some shark first aid and smear Neosporin into the wound.

Ready to administer some shark first aid
After the morning on the water, we docked at Imagine Nation Island, a private island somewhere in the Bahamas, populated with beach chairs and a lot of beautiful white sand.

Imagine Nation Island
Inflatable aquatic playground, Imagine Nation Island
Activities included an inflatable ocean obstacle course, jet ski tours, 80s-inspired beach volleyball, a 3-story waterslide and a dance party in the tradition of Spring Break. My beautifully-coiffed LA pal Jake Strom (we used to share the same hairdresser) learned to hula hoop:

Jake Strom, hula hoop king
After a few hours on the island, it was a short boat ride back to the ship. Another fascinating Summit connection: I shared the journey with Steve Cohen, the "millionaire's magician" who's had a running show at the Waldorf-Astoria in NYC for years. When I returned to the room, I peeked over the balcony into the absurdly clear Caribbean waters where I saw a HUGE shark just below my balcony. It had to be at least 12-15 feet, as I was many stories up and it still looked massive. Wish I had a picture. I did some balcony bonding with Qwiki COO Navin Thukkaram, who turned out to be my neighbor.

The final session of Summit at Sea was “Curating Life 3.0,” the sequel to last year’s session in which the now 19-person Summit Series team shared their philosophy on life, their vision for the Summit community, and some of their new initiatives.

Summit Series team - Curating Life 3.0
They started by sharing their lifestyle: there's no division of work and life when they all live together in a massive-but-still-not-massive-enough house in Miami (the latest team member lives in a tent in the carport). They harness their greatest resource — their “collective intelligence” — to create nonstop dynamic shared experiences. They have a private chef that serves family dinners every night. Members of the Summit family come to visit and they host speakers throughout the week. “It’s like mini business school,” they explained. Co-founder and Chief Creative Officer Jeremy Schwartz talked about The Collective, the Summit community’s new platform that aims to be the “smallest, most curated social network in the world.” Attendee Bo Fishback was invited on stage to share the story of founding Zaarly, and how he couldn't have done it without the experiences he'd had at Summit. On the topic of altruism, a pervasive theme at Summit Series, co-founder Elliott Bisnow said, “In the blackjack game of life, if you get a queen or a jack instead of a 2 or a 3, there's a great responsibility.” His teammate Jordan Brown then introduced Summit Series Impact trips, a new initiative to create opportunities for Summit community members to travel with non-profits to developing countries to get involved on the ground. Inspired by last year's trips to Uganda hosted by Invisible Children, the initiative kicked off with a video. The team went on to talk about their work style, reiterating that they have a no-follow-up policy. “We do business based on trust. Everyone is the CEO of something. Entrepreneurship is a lifestyle.” Summit's COO Justin Cohen, theself-proclaimed youngest person ever to charter an ocean liner, closed with the advice, “Some people say you should never go into business with your friends. I say you should only go into business with your friends." Summit co-founder Jeff Rosenthal chimed in: "If it's not fun, it doesn't count.” A thirty-second dance party rounded out the session.

I snuck in interviews with two men changing course of history in Africa (Invisible Children co-founder Jason Russell and Falling Whistles founder Sean Carasso) before dinner with a rag-tag group of awesome including fellow GSB alum Darren Bechtel, serial entrepreneur (currently working on a line of luxury sex toys) Michael Topolovac, author and ray-of-sunshine Mei Mei Fox, and Google VP of Business Operations Matt Stepka. We drank some wine, ate some food, and did the wave before sneaking away to catch the last part of Imogen Heap's intimate performance on the boat. She, as expected, was moving and graceful and lovely.

The next part of the night embodied nothing short of a small miracle, as a small group of secret squirrels successfully executed a delightful exhibition of revelry. In the months leading up to Summit at Sea, 40 people from across the world were selected to participate in a flash mob on the boat (I know, I know, it seems passé, but trust me, it was awesome). Gaby Poler-Buzali , executive director of the Limon Dance Company in NYC, choreographed an aggressively complicated 2:30 dance to be performed live with The Roots, and we rehearsed in earnest before getting on the boat.

Pre-Summit at Sea flash mob rehearsal
The aforementioned lack of internet and cell service on the boat made it almost impossible to coordinate, and it seemed as though our months of practice may be for naught. But in the clutch, a critical mass assembled in a quiet corner of the ship and set a time to execute: we conspired with The Roots and they agreed to play “The Seed (2.0)” as their final encore. 11:20PM on the dance floor, we'd form a circle, clear some space, and break into a coordinated dance.

I broke away to my stateroom to pull out my secret weapon: glow bracelets. Our biggest concern had been whether people would see us dancing amidst all the hubbub of the concert, and I figured this was a surefire way to attract attention. At 11:15PM, I slipped through the crowd and met my fellow secret squirrels on the dance floor. I started quietly strapping glow bracelets onto their wrists, and we began to create our circle. We heard the first few notes of the song begin, and as I tossed the remaining glow sticks into the air with a final attention-grabbing flourish, Gaby began the dance. Within moments, a coordinated symphony of glowing arms moved in synchrony across the middle of the dance floor and the surrounding Summiters went nuts.

I can't describe the energy on the dance floor as we created this moment of pure bliss where everyone rejoiced at being part of this collaborative display of fun — truly the “dynamic shared experience” the Summit team spoke of earlier in the night. After one cycle through the dance, we pulled onlookers into the fray and closed out The Roots’ set with a glee-filled dance party of epic proportions.

I recovered on a couch with The Roots's producer Richard Nichols, introduced to me by my beloved friend-cum-mentor Nicole Johnson. Despite the lasers and glow sticks and pounding house music, I had one of the most personal and reflective conversations of the weekend. Truly delightful.

The final main stage performance was DJ Axwell, one third of Swedish House Mafia, which may replace Girl Talk's 2009 show at Treasure Island as one of my favorite dance parties of all time.

DJ Axwell at Summit at Sea
Tim Dybvig embodies Summit energy
After hopping through a gyrating crowd of people I love, I was eventually pulled up on stage with DJ Axwell where I danced my face off until he shut the pool deck down.

DJ Axwell at Summit at Sea
My foresight on the glowsticks for the flashmob was quickly proliferated as hundreds were tossed into the crowd until it seemed everyone was glowing inside and out. Between the lasers, the beat, and the overwhelming energy of Summit, it felt like we might just dance forever. Money quote from DJ Axwell: “Should you fail to become geniuses, should you fail to become CEOs, you can always become dancers.

The party continued in the ship's nightclub where ?uestlove spun until 4:00AM, a reasonable time to go to bed, but not for a family trying to squeeze every last drop of energy out of the weekend. When I eventually went to bed, the sun was just coming up on the Port of Miami, where we'd come full circle after a truly magical adventure at sea.

Wake up time came too early for a ship full of sleepy entrepreneurs, most of whom did not get the memo about our 8:30AM departure time. Loud speakers into the rooms corrected any misconception that we'd have a leisurely disembarkation, and the voice-less, energy-drained masses tumbled off the ship into the interminable cab line. Except for Peter Thiel. He had a driver waiting for him:

Before hitting the airport, we made a quick stopover at the Mondrian Hotel in Miami Beach for stolen brunch and naps by the pool.

Tammy Camp, ping ponging in Miami Beach
In a display of mass exhaustion, we draped across lounge chairs and cabana benches, mentally invigorated but physically drained. The once rambunctious crew of revelers, eager to explore the power of being at sea with 1,000 new best friends, was noticeably quieter, having given every last ounce of energy to the surreal experience that was Summit at Sea.

My view from the pool chair at the Mondrian hotel


Alan Chan said...

woah..that was awesomely thorough :) woo hoo .. Summit Series hangover

DC said...

fantastic recap & what an AMAZING summit!

Leith said...

Awesome recap! It was my first Summit, and I cannot wait to go again. Shame we didn't meet up, but am sure now that we are part of the Summit family, I will one day soon!

James said...

wow, I would give the naming rights to my first child in order to attend a summit series!!!

David R said...

After writing such a comprehensive review, I can see why you dropped CS106a.

Jon Vidar said...

Glad I made it in! I'm in red touching the shark ;-) What a great trip!

Cheril N. Clarke said...

Incredible. I think I would sell a kidney to attend this event!

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