Out To Sea With The Summit Series

The Summit Series is the next big wave in the conference world, thanks to its doing-good-while-feeling-good attitude.

WHAT DO RICHARD BRANSON, a 7-foot-long sandbar shark, and the Dalai Lama's spiritual adviser have in common? They're all going to be at Summit at Sea, a conference of bright-eyed adrenaline junkies being buzzed about as "the next TED" and "Davos for the Y generation." Started by 25-year-old serial entrepreneur Elliott Bisnow and his best friends, the summit offers a weekend packed with big names, big parties, outdoor activities, and spiritual self-help that's designed to scratch every possible itch that an ambitious and self-indulgent group of millennials might have. This year's carefully curated list of attendees is a mashup of suits (Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo; Shona Brown, senior vice president of Google; Beth Comstock, chief marketing officer of GE), technorati (Kevin Rose, CEO of Digg; Caterina Fake, cofounder of Flickr and Hunch), do-gooders (Charles Best, founder of DonorsChoose.org; Blake Mycoskie, founder of Toms Shoes), and music luminaries (Russell Simmons, Dr. Luke).

"We're a Large Hadron Collider for people of our generation," says Jeff Rosenthal, Summit at Sea cofounder. "We help the most epic people in the world do more epic shit." For the most extravagant iteration of the three-year-old event, that means 1,000 summiteers are expected to pay $3,500 each to take a 14-story ocean liner to a private island in the Bahamas. Daily meditation is followed by expert panels on altruism, revelry, and innovation; shark-tagging; and partying in the 24-hour music pavilion, headlined by the Roots. If it seems over the top, that's the whole point.

"It's all work and all play, 24/7," Rosenthal says. "When you have lucid-dreaming gurus and past presidents doing things they've never done before, it leads to crowd-accelerated innovation for everyone involved. Our goal is to catalyze as much change in the world as possible by connecting dreamers and doers."

Last year, in Washington, D.C., those dreamers and doers raised $600,000 for child soldiers in Uganda and for the Conrad Foundation, a program for high-school entrepreneurs. This year, the summit is turning its attention to the sea. The team has been stationed in Florida since October, aggressively recruiting for the event while kiteboarding and tagging sharks with marine biologists at the University of Miami. Natalie Spilger, a past attendee and a professional soccer player who founded the not-for-profit GreenLaces, was hired to lead the summit's environmental initiatives. First up: "We're going to offset carbon emissions from the ocean liner and make sure most of the fish on the menu are sustainable," she says.

Why the obsession with the ocean? "It's the most important issue in the world, and it's on the brink of collapse," says Thayer Walker, the company's director of reconnaissance. "Without a healthy ocean, there's no healthy business." And there's no point to business without a heavy dosage of hedonism.

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  • jed gammell

    Really... The ocean is "the most important issue in the world..."? So you're going to take a 14 story cruiseliner out in it for a spin. It's ok, because, "we're going to offset carbon emissions." So you're going to pay to pollute? Money doesn't make the ocean liner any greener.

    They'll collect $3,500,000 for the cruise, and what will happen of the funds collected? How much is used to pay the speakers? How much is used on bottle service and The Roots? And how much is actually set aside to benefit the "most important issue in the world"?

    I hope Gen Y'ers truly concerned with real issues are embarrassed by association. This is accomplishment? This is the best they can do with those kind of resources?

    If they want to party, call it a party. Don't throw the false veil of "altruism" or "the next TED" over this event so as to clear your conscience and make your parents proud.

    You can do better...

  • Floyd Marinescu

    Hi Jed, I attended the Summit this weekend and I do believe that it is a catalyst for positive change, despite the sensational style of this article.

    Amid the CEO's, VC's and other wealthy people attending were also (in my estimation) at least 30% people doing social cause work spanning everything you could imagine such as a guy I met who is trying to connect western entrepreneurs as mentors and/or investors in african entrepreneurs via a social network, to the architecture for humanity guy who is doing post-disaster rebuilding work in Japan and Haiti, to a woman who's foundation is trying to preserve and promote classical music to a number of companies doing pro-bono work helping other causes improve their visibility through social media and other tools.

    The conference provided a forum where these social causes could connect with entrepreneurs which would both help those causes but also inspire a lot of creative and entrepreneurial attention towards how to address these cause issues affecting us today. I personally intend to get involved (financially and timewise) in a few causes that I was exposed to on the cruise which I otherwise would not have been involved in. I'm sure many other entrepreneurs were likewise inspired. And I'm sure that the organizers must have subsidized the cost for the social cause people as there were simply too many from all strata for them all to have paid full price to attend.

    On a personal note, being at Summit validated and reinforced the notion that you can do good for the world while doing well for yourself; being passionate and focused on a higher purpose from which to drive your company or livelihood is NOT foolish or abnormal, in fact it is a proven the path to unlimited wealth and happiness. This seemed to be an ongoing theme in all the talks I attended. Such inspiration can only mean the unleashing of a lot more energy in the world directed at making it better.

    Floyd Marinescu
    CEO, InfoQ.com, QCon conferences

  • Bette Boomer

    Reassuring that the millennials are picking up the baby boomer's baton of doing good while doing well!

  • John Q. Corporate

    Great Article! This concept is a throw back though to the early days of the corporate revolution where executives from across the globe would meet at an extravagantly isolated locale for the kind of party that rock stars dream about, all on the company dime and no one was the wiser. The only exec that has ever talked openly about it recounted how he sat at a table with Bing Crosby, Harry Houdini, Clarke Gable, the Emperor of Siam, and a gorgeous 6 foot 3 Portuguese belly dancer know only as CheeChow. Not sure how much work got done but he was absolutely giddy for a 92 year old as he told me the story in his cell.

  • Arturo Pelayo

    My name is Arturo Pelayo. I just returned from a month-long trip to Antarctica as part of the 2011 Inspire Antarctica Expedition and the Renewable Energy Expedition organized by 2041: For The Preservation of Antarctica (www.2041.com).

    I am very excited to see events like Summit Series taking interest in the health of our Oceans. Setting aside the obvious networking opportunities of an event like Summit Series at Sea, it will certainly provide an avenue for awareness, inspiration and beyond it, it can set the stage for a tangible ocean-related campaigns.

    - Arturo Pelayo

    more: ArturoPelayo.com