In 2008 Elliot Bisnow, an entrepreneur with several companies to his name, started Summit Series, an "un-conference conference" that would serve as a mutual aid society for young entrepreneurs. It started with 19 people on a ski trip, and has grown to the more than 750 people who attended their latest event in May. Part networking, part TED, part extreme sports, these invitation-only events have become the epicenter of social entrepreneurship.
And along the way, Summit Series had raised over $1.5 million for not-for-profits. Participants include Bill Clinton, Russell Simmons, Sean Parker, Mark Cuban, Ted Turner, and John Legend. But just as important are the hundreds of young change-makers. Bisnow, 25, with fellow members Jeff Rosenthal, 26, and Justin Cohen, 23, talked with us about Summit's mission, its phenomenal growth, what it takes to succeed. And they gave us a sneak preview of their most ambitious event yet: a Summit in the middle of the Ocean.
What's your big idea?
Jeff Rosenthal: We think of Summit Series as a Large Hadron Collider for the most awesome people and ideas in the world. Our mission is to connect and inspire our generation's top young leaders—the dreamers and doers—to effectively do more. When they collide, in the right environment, ideas and relationships that otherwise would not have formed are created.
What was the inspiration behind your idea?
Elliott Bisnow: Two and a half years ago I wanted to meet other young entrepreneurs. It was about finding a community of people who were young and ambitious. A group that started as just business entrepreneurs has evolved into so much more: astronauts, technology gurus, athletes, film and TV stars, charity founders, tattoo artists, and even a president.
What problem or issue did you first try to answer?
Justin Cohen: How do you create an atmosphere that fosters friendships? Instead of a spectator conference format, we chose a format based on positive shared experiences. Activities like skydiving or paintball fast track friendships—especially when you have a shared experience like a keynote address by Ted Turner to discuss.
What was the first milestone you reached when you knew that it was going to work?
Jeff Rosenthal: After the April 2009 Aspen Summit, when we were following up with our attendees, it really started to sink in. I remember hearing the stories of how people were incorporating public service and altruism into their lives and businesses, forming partnerships with other Summit Series attendees, and shifting their professional track to start new ventures inspired by their Summit experience. People were totally redefining what was important in their lives based on the exposure to new ideas, people, lifestyles and value systems.
What was your initial goal in addressing that problem?
Justin Cohen: At the beginning, the goal was to create a peer group of young entrepreneurs based on principles of positive interdependence.
How did your goals change over time? And what's your goal today?
Justin Cohen: The main goals are still the same, but constantly evolving as the community grows and the world changes. The attendees are the crux of Summit Series; our goal is to expose them to new ideas and aid them in their endeavors, while continuously building a foundation for them to connect and make progress. To accomplish this we're transforming the typical conference model, building the first-ever Summit at Sea on one of the top ships in the world, the Celebrity Century.
Where did you grow up?
Elliott Bisnow: Washington DC.
Jeff Rosenthal: Dallas, Texas.
Justin Cohen: Oceanside, New York.
What college did you go to? Major/minor?
Elliott Bisnow: University of Wisconsin.
Jeff Rosenthal: American University.
Justin Cohen: George Washington & Indiana University.
What's your favorite specific class or teacher? What was memorable about them?
Elliott Bisnow: Believe it or not, the first spark for everything I've done today came down to me meeting one person in college who changed my life. A student named Anthony Adams who lived across the hall from me in our freshman dorm showed me what it meant to be an "entrepreneur" when I saw him launch his own start-up company. It's often these synchronistic moments that change everything. Be open to change and open to the random occurrences and good things happen.
What figures do you most admire? Whose leadership model do you follow? Whom do you seek out for advice?
Justin Cohen: My heroes are my parents and grandparents and my teammates—Elliott, Jeff, Brett, Jeremy, Josh, and Thayer—are my best friends and my teachers. We constantly critique, advise, and look after each other. They have shaped me into who I am today. Oh yeah, and keep an eye out for my boy Shaun Casey—he's doing big things. You'll hear about him soon.
How is your life different now than it was before you started this project?
Justin Cohen: I use to be an event planner in the nightlife industry, thinking the best project I could organize was a performance or a fashion show. Then I joined Summit Series and realized the events we plan—aid missions to Haiti or our yearly Summits, which have raised millions of dollars for non-profits—could have tangible real-world impacts on countless lives. I'm a completely different person now. Summit Series has changed my life—no doubt about it.
What excites you or concerns you about your generation?
Jeff Rosenthal: Millennials are super-collaborative and intellectually spiritually and culturally curious. We have a drive to make the world a better place, not just for ourselves but for our community. And guess what? In 2016, we become the largest voting block in America. The evolution of technology over the last 15 years has ushered in a new power structure. No longer must a person wait until the age of 50 to become a CEO; today 25-year-olds are running some of the most powerful businesses on the planet. For the first time we have the power to drive paradigm-shifting change from the top down.
If you had 60 seconds with President Obama what would you tell him or ask him?
Elliott Bisnow: Entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship, entrepreneurship. It drives everything: Job creation, poverty alleviation, innovation. We need to create a country that continues to empower entrepreneurs and encourages citizens to become entrepreneurs. The United States also needs to invest in "moon shots," as Thomas Friedman would say: big, multibillion-dollar, 25 year-horizon, game changing investments like electric vehicles, high-speed rail, and bio sciences.
How has technology and social media affected your work?
Jeff Rosenthal: Where to begin? To start, we've been fully mobile for the past two years, working and living from a different location around the world for four to six weeks at a time. This simply would not be possible without laptops, wireless cards, cloud computing, cell phones, and Skype.
What was or what is your biggest challenge?
Justin Cohen: I spent my 23rd birthday, the night before our last Summit, leading an 11-hour operations meeting with a staff of 70. I had never directed a conference before and it was the largest undertaking of my life. In a few months we'll have an even bigger challenge—hosting the first-ever global conference on a ship. Challenging oneself is a great experience. It allows you to learn and grow.
What assets or challenges do you have or face because you're young?
Justin Cohen: When negotiating a contract, I'm normally decades younger than the people across the table. People tend to underestimate me, which can actually be an advantage. Our generation is the most proficient when it comes to the tools of today's society: computers, social media, and the Internet. As my friend Bo Fishback [Vice President of Entrepreneurship at the Kauffman Foundation] once said, find your unfair advantage and maximize it.
How would the world be different in 10 years if you had your way?
Justin Cohen: I'd love to see an extinction of social apathy within our generation. People see the problems but don't take action. We're all more wired and informed than any generation, but we don't do nearly enough about the issues we see.
If you weren't doing this, you'd be...
Elliott Bisnow: Dreaming and trying to change the world ... always dreaming...always exploring.
Anything else we should know?
Elliott Bisnow: Wake up. Change the game. Repeat.
David D. Burstein is a young entrepreneur who completed his first documentary 18 in '08 for which he was awarded a $10,000 grant from Nancy Lublin's DoSomething.org. He is the Founder & Executive director of the youth voter engagement not for profit, Generation18. His book about the millennial generation will be published by Beacon Press in fall 2011.
David and Fast Company are producing Change Generation, a new series profiling a young generation of change-seekers. We'll be covering everything from educational activists to champions of political reform, creative entrepreneurs, and outright thrill seekers. We'll be hosting Q&As as well as video profiles with production partner shatterbox.