In the middle of a warm June afternoon, on a picturesque lawn surrounded by a white picket fence just steps away from Harvard, 70 or so of the brightest minds on the planet were running around like maniacs, playing a massive game of rock, paper, scissors. The handpicked group of innovative do-gooders came from a broad spectrum of industries: startup founders, venture capitalists, a handful of Googlers, TV producers, bloggers, politicians, designers, Pulitzer winners, and the like. It may as well have been a gathering of the Illuminati-lite.
The image of dozens of very intelligent people darting around like deranged summer campers speaks to the weird but enviable influence wielded by Spark Camp, which is sort of like a conference, but more fun, and slightly more description-defying. In particular, the rock, paper, scissors tournament was billed as a “leadership” exercise–if you lost a game to someone, you were asked to cheer them on in their next match, and then the next match, and so forth, until everyone was cheering behind an undisputed winner, Game of Thrones-style. But really, it was an icebreaker designed to get high-functioning strangers out of their shells.
Spark Camp is the brainchild of tech and media veterans Amy Webb (CEO of Webbmedia Group), Amanda Michel (Guardian U.S.), Matt Thompson (NPR), Andrew Pergam (most recently of the Washington Post), and Jennifer 8. Lee (formerly of the New York Times), and funded by generous donations from the Knight Foundation, Google, and the Nieman Foundation, among others. Attendees pay for board and travel only; booze and food–lots of food–are provided.
The camp was born in 2011 out of a frustration with the conference circuit, which was built around buzzwords and speaker panels while doing very little to facilitate meaningful conversations between the people who paid to be there. “The five of us go to a lot of conferences,” Webb tells Fast Company. “One of the big challenges is making sure that the conversations stay fresh. You have to consistently be on the lookout for new people.”
Its creators bristle when you call Spark Camp an “unconference,” but that description isn’t too far off the mark. But unlike other conferences, there is no $500 admission fee to gain entry. Spark Camp is invite-only, kind of like a big, four-day dinner party in which leaders and visionaries forge new connections–or “sparks,” as its creators like to call it.
All of the conversations are off the record so as to encourage #realtalk, and you aren’t allowed to tweet after the first night, which lends Spark Camp a vague “the first rule of Fight Club is…” vibe.
Curating a diverse list of attendees is a central tenet to Spark Camp’s mission. The thinking goes that the wider the breadth of experiences–not just by gender and age, but also by experience level and industry–the more “sparks” that will be generated that weekend.
The team starts with hundreds of potential attendees, and aggressively whittles that invite list down to about 70, based partly on recommendations from previous campers. Those who get invited tend to fall within an amorphous nexus of, in their words, “humility, curiosity, and generosity”–and an invented characteristic that the five cofounders refer to tongue-in-cheek as “sparkliness.”
“The sparkle quotient is a core value,” says Webb, with a laugh. “For us, we know how great the conversations can be when you have a variety of people represented . . . you never know the kind of conversations that will come out of it.” Its creators say that 90% of the work behind the scenes goes into figuring out who to invite in the first place.
The camp’s sessions–which are basically just small-group sessions–are each built around a central theme like “leadership” or “storytelling.” On the first night, session ideas are individually pitched by the 70 or so attendees, and voted on using a scale system. (At this particular Spark Camp, attendees voted using a small bag of tchotchkes, which were then tallied up.) You are then invited to attend whatever sessions tickle your interests, like “Do you have to be liked to be respected?” (Short answer: it’s easier for men!) And “How do you be the mentor you wish you had early in your career?”
The team places enormous emphasis on staying nimble, allowing the tone of each camp to evolve as organically as possible. “We’re constantly iterating,” says Michel, whose focus is on event programming. (The cofounders divvy up responsibilities, and meet once a week, every week, via a Google Hangout when they are not at their day jobs.) “We’re going to be changing stuff up for the next one. But the basic chemistry has been set: introducing people and conversations directed by other topics, which is a way of facilitating interruptions, conversations, and collaboration.”
Indeed, partaking in Spark Camp requires nothing less than a small leap of faith. More than a few other attendees–myself included–introduced ourselves to one another with, “I honestly have no idea why I’m here.” That initial confusion speaks, perhaps, to the curiosity pre-requisite Spark Camp’s creators look for, and why there seemed to be an almost contagious willingness to, say, open up in front of a room full of strangers with stacked resumes. (Interestingly, one of the most popular sessions consisted of just two words: “Impostor syndrome.”)
In between sessions there is plenty of downtime, which is where most of the “sparks” seemed to take place. The hope is that, with any luck, those conversations lead to new ideas that crystallize into new, collaborative projects. “As you’ve seen, we’re really the genesis of that action,” says Webb. “We’re not project managers . . . The whole point of doing this is we want to evoke change in a radically different way.”
Sometimes, that happens to involve screaming for a stranger at the top of your lungs.