Morning meditation with a lama, afternoon workouts with an NFL linebacker and boozy late nights with the world’s most dynamic entrepreneurs. Welcome to Summit at Sea, where future masters of the universe gather to strategize. And rave it up.
The late-night scene onboard the Celebrity Century cruise ship isn’t from your average vacation brochure. The deck of the vessel is awash with sound and lights. On a custom-installed stage, DJ Axwell of mega-act Swedish House Mafia is spinning a set of pop-friendly dance hits.
He is flanked by dozens of 20-something fans who pass bottles of Belvedere vodka and cans of Red Bull among themselves while hyping up the dance floor, which is packed with several hundred more revelers. Concert-grade spotlights and strobes illuminate the party in pulsing colors as high-powered lasers pierce the moonless Caribbean sky.
Above the stage, green beams sketch a flickering image of two upside-down Vs, while dancers raise their arms to make a similar shape with their hands. The logo is that of Summit Series, the three-year-old company responsible for this floating bacchanal that has been going nonstop for the past three nights.
“I knew this was going to be a one-of-a-kind experience, and I was not disappointed." -David Burnstein
But this isn’t a retreat for stressed-out sales hacks or a boozy cougar cruise. Gathered on this ship are 1,000 of the world’s brightest young entrepreneurs from the worlds of tech, investment, nonprofit, music, and the arts. Equal parts Davos and Daytona Beach, Summit At Sea is what happens when a new generation of global leaders drink, dine, dance, and dive together in the only place left on earth with no cell-phone service -- the middle of the ocean.
“I knew this was going to be a one-of-a-kind experience,” enthuses David Burnstein, a 22-year old writer, filmmaker, and advocate whose first book, “Fast Future: How the Millennial Generation is Remaking Our World,” is due out next year. “And I was not disappointed.”
Like many of those on board, Burnstein is what you might call an overachiever. At age 16, he started a film project aimed at mobilizing the youth vote, entitled “18 in ’08.” By November of that year, he was photographed with Barack Obama just days before the election. The photo sits modestly buried on his Facebook page.
Since “18 in ’08,” Burnstein has become a frequent contributor to outlets such as Fast Company and The Huffington Post while living in the United Arab Emirates, where he is working on his next movie, this one about global education. Even with all this experience packed into his young age, Burnstein insists that Summit Series stands out.
“I’ve attended too many conferences to count,” says Burnstein. “And Summit will always be at the top of my list. While it is obviously a networking opportunity, at Summit I’ve never felt like I was merely trading contact information with someone.”
Above: All-night pool parties are part of the itinerary as well, and meant that more than a few future leaders ended the evening in soaked slacks.
The series is exclusive by design, bringing together the best and brightest in Gen-Y and Millennial-aged thinkers and doers. Each and every unfailingly dynamic and youthful attendee comes by recommendation from a former Summiteer, and is personally interviewed by one of the heads of the Summit staff. Yes, big-dollar business deals are done there, and the guest list is chock-full of online innovators and marquee-name entertainers from the worlds of sports, movies, and music. But what makes Summit stand out -- beyond the mere age of the average attendee -- is the careful mixture of self-improvement, business opportunity, and partying that is fundamental to its mission statement.
“People didn’t sleep that much,” boasts Justin Cohen, Summit Series’ chief operating officer, who the Summit handbook notes is the youngest person ever to charter a major ocean liner managing all of the operations for the weekend-long voyage. “But at an event like this, why would you want to sleep? You want to be out there learning and having a great time.”
In place of sleep, Summit At Sea offers all-night partying with world-renowned talents such as The Roots, Pretty Lights, and Imogen Heap entertaining the crowd. But no matter how late the party goes, meditation starts at 7 a.m. with Lama Tenzin, and leads into morning seminars with the likes of PayPal co-founder and CEO Peter Thiel, and X-Prize founder and chairman Peter Diamandis.
Workouts are conducted by NFL linebacker Dhani Jones and MMA champion Tiki Ghosn, and those less physically inclined can learn about lucid dreaming from yoga guru Ken Von Roenn, or meet Scott Parazynski, the only man to have flown in outer space and summited Mt. Everest. Yet, despite all of the scheduled activities, the real draw for most Summiteers isn’t the itinerary, but the attendees.
Above: Grammy winners and “Jimmy Fallon” house band The Roots took up temporary residence on the pool deck over two nights of the series. Drummer and band leader ?uestlove was also an attendee at discussions, asking questions of Russell Simmons during the hip-hop mogul’s talk.
“The energy on the boat is unbelievable,” says Lana Volftsun, a pretty 24-year-old Virginia native who runs a charitable organization of Jewish professionals. Like many aboard, Summit At Sea is Volftsun’s first experience with Summit Series. And like every person onboard, she is stunned by the open-minded attitude of her new peer group. “Not only is every single person doing amazing work, but every single person is genuinely interested in helping each other,” she says. “A network like this has unfathomable potential.”
Beyond the potential for professional connections, three days at sea also offers the chance for the young attendees to connect on a more personal level. “There’s gonna be hook-ups, let’s just say it,” inspirational speaker Sean Stephenson told his full-capacity audience -- although with a male-female ratio of 2-to-1, the chance of onboard liaisons certainly favored the fairer sex.
“You’ll never hear me complain about a party that’s 65 percent dudes,” jokes Volftsun. “But I will say that the women I met onboard were as tremendous and inspiring as the men. I did notice that none of the mainstage speakers were women, but there are always areas for improvement.”
At the rate Summit Series has grown, improvements are measured in weeks or months, rather than years. The company was started in 2008, when then-21-year-old founder Elliott Bisnow assembled a relatively modest ski-trip gathering for 19 young entrepreneurs, meant to bolster his own college-based start-up that provided newsletter and conference services to business gatherings.
“We were good kids going in the right direction, but it was still self-centered in our whole attitude,” admits Bisnow, a D.C. native with a million-dollar smile. “We said, let’s do this fun ski trip, and let’s go to Mexico and meet [other] entrepreneurs.”
Such traditional networking is still part of the package for Summit Series, where under-30 chief financial officers from tech start-ups stalk venture-capital investor peers around the open bar. But such opportunities take a back seat when discussing the purpose of Summit Series with those who created it. Words like “nonprofit,” “philanthropy,” and “altruism,” compete with more predictable concerns like “funding,” “start-up,” and “business plan.”
Above: Beth Comstock holds court at an intimate gathering of attendees. The chief marketing officer of GE was just one of the multinational executives within arm’s reach at the Summit Series.
Of particular pride is Summit At Sea’s shark-tagging expedition, done in conjunction with the University of Miami’s R.J. Dunlap Marine Conservation Program. A limited-capacity activity -- yes, an exclusive event inside an exclusive event -- participants had to submit applications explaining how hauling an 11-foot tiger shark onto the back of a marine-research vessel and tagging the creature with a scientific tracking device could be utilized in their own endeavors to help protect the oceans.
Results of this mini-event are already evident, with participant Blake Mycoskie, founder of charity-driven footwear company TOMS Shoes, announcing a “Shark Shoe” to be sold next year, with $5 from every pair going to support further shark research. Summit Series is also working with The Nature Conservancy to investigate how to turn the Caribbean waters where the trip takes place into a marine-protected area.
When fellow shark-tagger and actress Kristen Bell appeared on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” to promote her movie “Scream 4” two weeks after Summit at Sea, she spent a full segment talking about her adventure with the aquatic carnivores. She didn’t mention the conference by name, but the message of shark conservation was conveyed to millions of viewers.
On the penultimate day of Summit Series, the ship is anchored just off the shore of a private island near the Bahamas.
On the beach, Summiteers grunt and groan through an endless series of sprints, crawls, and wheelbarrows, their torsos caked in sand and baked in the sun. This workout is run by Jones, the Cincinnati Bengals linebacker, and former professional soccer star and Summit team member Natalie Spilger.
Above: They have what it takes to grow a business, but can they handle a grueling workout program led by UFC veteran Tiki Ghosn (right) and NFL linebacker Dhani Jones? Considering the decadence of the nights before, probably not.
Once the 60-minute regiment is over, Jones surveys the blue waters and takes note of one female attendee’s excellent, um, form. He laughs when asked if the Summiteers lived up to his expectations of physical fitness. “I was just happy people showed up,” he replies. “I heard that some people threw up afterwards. They pushed the limits and they went all in, which is the essence of what Summit Series is about.”
Jones is a media star whose “Dhani Tackles the Globe” program on the Travel Channel finds him competing in high-impact sports from around the world. He is also a founding entrepreneur behind brand-development firm VMG Creative and the creator of Bow Tie Cause, an organization that produces high-end bow ties to be sold in support of causes such as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
He is, in practice, the ideal Summit Series attendee -- combining personal excellence with business acumen and philanthropic activities. Jones plans to help cultivate the latter by bringing in more athletes to participate in future Summit events: “I think there are a lot of athletes who want to engage in philanthropy, but don’t necessarily know how, or who to talk to,” he muses. “What I’m doing is helping athletes open more doors to understanding.”
And that’s not the most ambitious goal hatched at Summit At Sea, either. Panelist Robert McKnight, co-founder of legendary surf-clothing line Quiksilver, was hesitant to come (“usually you don’t learn too much”), but since coming, he has hatched a plan he hopes will bring his love of surfing into the realm of international arms negotiations.
“[I met] this guy from North Korea who wants to do a trip with some action-sports stars. Not many people know this, but Kim Jong Il has a wave machine in his palace, and every morning he boogie boards. So we’re trying to connect with a few people to go up there with [pro-surfer] Kelly Slater and present him some board shorts, and try to do détente through surfing.”
As an “elder tribesman,” McKnight was impressed by what he saw from the Gen-Y and Millennial entrepreneurs he met on Summit At Sea, who reminded him of his salad days founding Quiksilver back in the ’70s, but with a thoroughly modern grasp of what it takes to succeed. “They’re engaged in all of the aspects,” he says. “The financing, going public, maintaining credibility in the market place. What about retail? What about e-commerce? You can see that wild-eyed fascination of youth that we had when we were starting our business.”
Above: Hip-hop pioneer and mogul Russell Simmons, on stage in the cruise ship’s theater, talked about building a successful record label, pre-Twitter and Facebook, before musing on the spiritual side of success.
“Wild-eyed” might be the best way to describe Summiteer Tyler Kellogg, when he and a group of fellow “overly hyper, highly caffeinated, thrill-seeking go-getters” decided to one-up the Summit schedule by planning -- and then executing -- a seven-story jump off the stern of the cruise ship.
“There comes a moment in every person’s life where they find themselves on an edge, whether literal or physical. And in that moment, you must make the decision to either jump or live in regret,” explains Kellogg, a self-described “do-gooder” who once drove from upstate New York to the Florida Keys, bestowing random acts of kindness on 115 strangers along the way. “Jumping off the ship was an idea that I became involved in because a guy who designs, builds, and operates submarines proposed the question ‘Why not? We chartered the boat?’.”
“Why not?” could be the unofficial motto of Summit Series, and will continue to drive the organization’s optimistic future. Plans are being made for smaller “impact” adventures, where attendees will travel to far-flung spots to perpetuate Summit’s current altruistic ambitions. The organizers insist that the new focus came from listening to the goals and dreams of the Summit community. Bisnow credits three particular early Summit attendees with helping him find the company’s current path: TOMS’ Mycoskie; Timothy Ferriss, the author of “The 4-Hour Work Week”; and Scott Harrison, a jaded former nightlife promoter who founded the nonprofit Charity Water.
“[Blake] was selling shoes, but every pair he sold, he gave a pair away to poor children. That blew our minds,” Bisnow says, his enthusiastic voice gaining even more excitement. “Number two was reading a book by Timothy Ferriss called ‘The 4-Hour Work Week’,” he rapidly continues. “It talks about how you need to make sure you’re not waiting to get older to get healthy, to be nice to your family and friends, to become a better person. The third person was Scott Harrison from Charity Water. He quit the nightlife industry and started Charity Water, which is now giving clean water to 10 million people in the world.”
Above: Three days of partying, workshopping, and networking come to an end as the Celebrity Century cruise ship once again docks in Miami, unloading its payload of hollow-eyed Summiteers clutching baggage and action figures packed with one another’s contact information.
It’s telling that Mycoskie, Ferriss, and Harrison are all attendees at Summit At Sea, demonstrating the sort of long-lasting, community-building goal that is a pillar of the Summit foundation. On boarding the ship, each attendee is given a keychain-sized plastic figure -- if you meet someone you want to trade contacts with, simply press your figures together to register a “connection,” which then appears on The Collective, Summit Series’ social-media website -- no need for business cards or clunky iPhone “bumps.”
“We want to share the community Rolodex in a responsible way,” Bisnow explains. “We want to make Summit a continued part of people’s lives. Push them in a good positive direction.”
On Monday, a large contingent of Summiteers disembarks and makes their way to South Beach’s Mondrian Hotel to kill time before heading to the airport. A few dive into the pool or mingle by the bar, but most want nothing more than to find a shady spot to take a nap. Tomorrow, there are deals to draft, connections to secure, and e-mails to catch up on. But for now, that will have to wait for the one thing that makes even these elite and ambitious youths just like the rest of us: the need for sleep.
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