A confab craze that's attracting Bezos and other Silicon Valley titans

  • Summit started in 2008 when five friends cold-called entrepreneurs they admired and invited them to Park City, Utah.
  • Admission to SummitLA 17 begins at $3,700 and includes 150 workshops.
The Summit Series beach dinner
George Evan Andreadis
The Summit Series beach dinner

When Reed Hastings, Jeff Bezos and other titans gather with 3,500 invited attendees at next month's Summit Series ideas festival in Los Angeles, they're as likely to be questioned about stock performance as they are about the value of a daily meditation practice or even which Korean taco truck they like the most.

Founded nine years ago by five entrepreneurs, Summit has come into its own as an innovation confab that skews younger and less-buttoned-up than TED or Aspen Ideas but is equally high-minded. Picture Davos weekend at Burning Man. The organization's mission "to catalyze entrepreneurship, creative achievement and global change for a more joyful world." It draws on a worldwide community of some 20,000 invited members ranging from the likes of Richard Branson and Google chairman Eric Schmidt to magicians, athletes, chefs and Instagram influencers.

Carving a niche in the crowded realm of "thought leadership" conferences takes connections, savvy and more than a little chutzpah. Summit started in 2008 when five friends in their 20s — Ryan Begelman, Elliott Bisnow, Brett Leve, Jeff Rosenthal and Jeremy Schwartz — cold-called entrepreneurs they admired and invited them to Park City, Utah, for a weekend. Later that year, the group held a similar gathering in Mexico.

In 2009 the Obama administration asked Summit to curate a meeting at the White House between senior officials and 35 young entrepreneurs. The following year, Summit held DC10, a three-day conference in Washington, D.C., for 750 people, with participants including former President Bill Clinton, Ted Turner and John Legend.

Esther Perel, relationship expert and therapist, on stage at Summit at Sea 2016
Daniel Fox | Summit Series
Esther Perel, relationship expert and therapist, on stage at Summit at Sea 2016

From the beginning, Summit's invite-only "Have you heard about this?" vibe drew a highly selective audience full of Silicon Valley heavyweights, venture capitalists and others looking to expand already expansive horizons. Blue Bottle Coffee CEO Bryan Meehan, an early Summit supporter, says, "it's easy to get stuck in a bubble. Business people stick with business people. Tech people with tech people. But at Summit, you're as likely to have lunch with an architect or surgeon or hip-hop artist as you are with someone doing what you do."

He says he appreciates the emphasis on meaning over networking and deal making. "I don't need to be at Yellowstone Club hearing about how much money someone has or how much they love their new Tesla," he says. "I'd rather have my mind stretched by listening to a human rights campaigner."

Disrupting the thought leadership model

The Kool-Aid flows like a waterfall at Summit — so much so that the converted — including Branson, Meehan, The 4-Hour Workweek author Timothy Ferriss and Toms Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie — invested to help the organization buy and develop Powder Mountain in Utah. Summit crowdsourced the purchase of Powder Mountain in 2013 for $40 million.

The location, the largest ski resort in America, is being built-out as a kind of utopia for the interesting with a capital I. The plan is to have Powder Mountain fully operational by 2022. That will include 500 single-family homes for members, Summit meeting facilities and a headquarters for the nonprofit Summit Institute, which presses for movement on issues such as ocean conservation, social justice and arts education. Its charitable arm has raised more than $2 million for partnerships, including the United Nations' anti-malaria campaign.

"Our North Star is connecting the thought leaders of our time and exposing ground-shifting ideas to the next generation of thought leaders," says co-founder Jeff Rosenthal. "For us success isn't about résumés, it's about dynamic shared experiences and relationships."

That may be so, but Summit also needs to bring in money, and plenty of it. Next month's flagship event in L.A. features its own campuslike setting, with a 75,000-square-foot outdoor lounge, marketplace and experiential space. Talks and music events are scheduled across four locations, and the organization is "taking over" 12 downtown restaurants for attendees over the three-day event. Admission to SummitLA 17 begins at $3,700 and includes 150 workshops — "learning sessions" in Summitspeak.

Lena Dunham and meditation advocate Bob Roth are discussing mindfulness and creativity. Pimco founder Bill Gross' talk is titled, "What we can learn from the economy from the 'King of Bonds.'" The November conference is one of four types of events Summit produces, along with pop-up events in major cities, "immersive" group trips and two-night weekend adventures at the Powder Mountain location.

All are invite-only, and none come cheap.

Kendrick Lamar, co-founder Jeff Rosenthal and Quentin Tarantino behind the scenes at Summit at Sea 2016
Marshall Birnhaum | Summit Series
Kendrick Lamar, co-founder Jeff Rosenthal and Quentin Tarantino behind the scenes at Summit at Sea 2016

Anand Sanwal, CEO and co-founder of CB Insights, says the Summit party can thrive as long as the economy remains robust. "The recipe for successful events tends to be a mix of top speakers, engaging content, high-end audience and a unique or desirable venue," he says, and Summit scores high on all those elements. But the pitfalls are that it's expensive. Last year's Summit at Sea, which featured speakers such as Quentin Tarantino and singer Kendrick Lamar on a three-day Caribbean cruise, ran $3,500 a person. "That's fine in a strong economy but an economic downturn would make it very difficult for the event organizers," Sanwal says.

"Our North Star is connecting the thought leaders of our time and exposing ground-shifting ideas to the next generation of thought leaders." -Jeff Rosenthal, co-founder Summit Series

For the moment, Summit is still where the cool-kid entrepreneurs flock to. Gayle Troberman, chief marketing officer for iHeartMedia, who bought real estate on Powder Mountain, says, "Two things happen every time I go to Summit. I meet someone I'll be friends with for the rest of my life and I do something I've never done before." At a Summit retreat in Kenya this year, she met a TV industry executive and put together a partnership that "never would have happened in a New York conference room," she says. "We were in tents out there under the magic of it all, and saw a possibility we might have written off on a regular work day looking at our to-do lists."

She has her eye on upcoming Summit events later this year and next. No matter which she attends, there will as well be live music, late-night talks and meals served at long communal tables overflowing with big ideas.

"We talk so much about technology, but the greatest technology ever create d might just be the dining table," Rosenthal says. "Breaking bread together is an opportunity for amazing people to do impactful work around the world, and we want to create that at scale in perpetuity. It has no boundary as far as we think this can go."

— By David Hochman, special to CNBC.com

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