In 2013, Esther Perel, a Belgian psychologist who explores how human sexuality intersects with culture, was invited to a private gathering in Eden, Utah. There, she would have the opportunity to mingle with 850 thought leaders from the worlds of science, art, business, philanthropy, and sport.
Perel was intrigued. She had been thinking about how to make her research relevant to people outside the therapy community; this would be the perfect opportunity to work through her ideas with a more diverse group. “When it comes to sex, there isn’t much education out there,” Perel says. “There’s smut and titillation, but not much else. I wanted to start having discussions in the public sphere about how sexuality relates to life and culture.”
At the event, called Summit Outside, participants stayed in tent villages. Between workshops and talks, they spent their days hiking and playing on rope swings, while their nights often involved eating s’mores. Perel gave a little talk about her work at the opening ceremony, but the other attendees didn’t want her to stop there. She soon found herself conducting impromptu workshops with hundreds of people while standing in the middle of a field or a dirt road.
“There I was in my shorts and my hiking boots on the top of a mountain, leading a workshop on sex, and I had no idea who was talking to me,” Perel recalls. “To me, they were just regular people grappling with the dilemmas of love and desire. But then I found out that these were the founders of major companies and leaders of important organizations.”
Perel believes it was this unusual context–in the middle of nature, surrounded by people whose backgrounds weren’t obvious–that made the conversations so frank and open. Outside boardrooms and without cell phones, people wrestled with whether they brought a consumer mentality to relationships; what happens when you feel attraction to someone with whom there is no opportunity to integrate sexual intimacy; and whether parenthood changes your sexuality.
These kinds of spontaneous, deep, enlightening conversations are exactly what the Summit Series is trying to achieve. The series, conceived in 2008 by Jeff Rosenthal, Brett Leve, Jeremy Schwartz, and Elliott Bisnow, who had all made their fortunes as entrepreneurs, was meant to convene people who had big plans to change the world, but who weren’t yet established enough to find a place at Davos or TED. With the help of family and friends, the founders raised a reported $40 million in 2013 to buy the ski resort in Eden to host events like the one Perel attended. But since then, Summit Series events have taken place everywhere from Mexico to Washington, D.C., convening over 10,000 people. The Series is invitational and participants pay several thousand dollars, depending on the event, to take part.
The next event, called Summit at Sea, is taking place on a cruise ship between November 13 and 16 this year. This will be the second Summit Series to take place on the water. Perel will again be among the speakers, as will New York Times columnist David Brooks, Rwanda’s senate president Jean-Damascene Ntawukuriryayo, John Forté of the Fugees, National Geographic’s explorer-in-residence Wade Davis, Change.org founder Ben Rattray–the list goes on and on.
M. Sanjayan, a scientist who serves as the executive vice president of Conservation International and also hosts the National Geographic Studio’s television program EARTH A New Wild, is a regular at Summit Series events and will be a speaker at Summit at Sea. As part of his work, Sanjayan frequently finds himself on the conference circuit, running from TED to SXSW to Aspen. He was initially a little skeptical of the Summit Series concept, partly because other participants had described it in such hyperbolic terms. “People used terms like epic,” Sanjayan says. “They said it was like TED meeting Burning Man.”
Sanjayan eventually decided to attend the first Summit at Sea in 2011 because he heard that the Roots and Swedish House Mafia would be the house bands. And now he is a full-blown convert, excitedly describing what sets the Summit Series apart from other conferences–and employing all the hyperbole he once dismissed. “It was revolutionary,” Sanjayan says. “It kind of changed my life, a little bit.”
Part of what he finds so compelling about Summit Series is the ambiance at the events. He says participants tend to be somewhat younger than at other prestige conferences, but the context also contributes to the experience. Out in the middle of nature, participants are compelled not to focus on themselves or on their personal career objectives. Instead, they can focus on the world around them and on one another.
He also points out that the interdisciplinary background of the participants makes for very diverse relationships. Often, people don’t start conversations by discussing their work; they are too busy skiing together, tagging sharks, or listening to music. When discussions do veer into the professional sphere, participants are genuinely impressed by each other, since they do such different work. “When you go to other conferences, there is a diversity of ideas, but they are organized in streams,” Sanjayan explains. “At Summit, everything is more blended. The last event I went to, I was snowboarding with a guy who designs rockets for Elon Musk.” He believes that this is partly due to the fact that the four original founders have different backgrounds and interests. When Sanjayan has gone to Summit events, he hasn’t necessarily gravitated toward other scientists, although there are plenty in attendance, but instead forges relationships with people who are very different from him.
People don’t tend to go to Summit Series events with particular business goals in mind, but the multidisciplinary interactions sometimes lead to very productive outcomes. Take, for instance, Soma, a water filter company that has developed a much more aesthetically pleasing and environmentally sound alternative to the ubiquitous Brita filter. Mike Del Ponte, Soma’s cofounder, first attended a Summit Series event in Washington, D.C., in 2010, and has since been to over 20 different events, from Summit at Sea to casual dinners organized by people who met at Summit.
It was through the Summit community that Del Ponte met his three other cofounders–Ido Leffler, Rohan Oza, and Zach Allia–as well as the people who would become the company’s investors and advisors. “Soma’s commitment to donating to charity: water was inspired by meeting the organization’s founder, Scott Harrison, through Summit,” Del Ponte tells Fast Company. “Soma’s branding and our aspiration to hydrate the world is a byproduct of getting to know other entrepreneurs who build global brands that give back. It’s impossible to leave a Summit event without being inspired to dream bigger.” He says Summit’s informal rallying cry is “Make no small plans.”
Sanjayan has left Summit with a similar conviction. “I love my job. I am so lucky to do what I do, but I always leave Summit feeling like I am not doing enough,” he says. Yet this feeling doesn’t get him down; instead, the culture of Summit is to be as supportive as possible of other people who are part of the community. This might be partly because Summit attendees tend not to interact with many people from their field, thereby eliminating some of that typical sense of competition. But Sanjayan also thinks this might be a product of the kind of people who are invited to participate. “Summit selects for optimistic people,” he says. “These are people who really believe they can change the world.”
You can learn more about Summit at Sea here.