“We have to go to space to save earth, that’s why this work is so important!”
Jeff Bezos, the founder and CEO of Amazon, is on stage at Summit in Los Angeles, a new-age “festival of ideas”, explaining that the most important work he does is pushing forward humanity in the solar system. The vision for his new venture, Blue Origin, is millions of people living and working in space. The company intends to make space hardware more affordable by making it more durable, therefore encouraging more private space exploration.
At this stage, the Brit in me is screaming: “you run a shopping website mate, get over yourself!”
Yet there is something utterly compelling about Bezos’ combination of conviction and audacity. This guy is literally trying to colonise space, and the audience believes he can make it happen because the impossible has been made a reality so many times in California over the past two decades. Let’s take the story of Summit itself…
In 2008, Elliott Bisnow was a bored graduate who had created a successful real estate newsletter company at university. Disillusioned with the prospect of a regular career, he decided to invite 19 people from the Silicon Valley entrepreneur community on a skiing and bonding vacation. The group subsequently founded Summit.
Fewer than 10 years later they have bought the largest ski mountain in North America and are building a town and ski resort (at Eden no less…), with celebrities pouring in to buy property already. Bisnow states: “what Tesla did to cars, we’re going to do to towns!”
I attended the most recent Summit flagship event, LA17, on November 3 – 6. The invite-only event has expanded somewhat since the initial trip, with 4,000 people paying between $3.5k and $6k for a ticket. My back of a fag packet calculation tells me the ticket sales alone are therefore producing $15-20 million.
People are willing to pay (or in many cases expense!) the astronomical ticket fee because of the stellar list of speakers from multiple disciplines. To name a few: Jeff Bezos, Reed Hastings, Malcom Gladwell, Brené Brown, Wim Hof, Kobe Bryant, Andre Agassi, Lena Dunham, Jessica Alba, Tim Ferriss, and Pelé.
This “Ted-style” content is only one part of an event that includes music, art, dancing, yoga, mindfulness, and a food festival. You can rave whilst drinking alcohol infused Kombucha in the coliseum-like LA Theatre until 6am; or you can have a sunrise yoga session with Baron Baptiste. Summit encourages you to take an intellectual, spiritual, and collective journey.
To top that off, practically every attendee is an entrepreneur and starting a lively new venture, so the festival is also 72 hours of frenzied networking.
A bit overwhelmed? That’s how I and the other first timers felt at times. It is amazing how lonely you can feel in a crowd of thousands of people. The dizzying scale and the juxtaposition of seeing many homeless people next to the Summit campus in downtown LA does leave you wondering whether this festival is all a parade of haughtiness. However, it is impossible not to be seduced by the electric positivity of the event.
You are encouraged to go on a “learning safari” and, before you have time to roll your eyes to the sky, you are instructed: “don’t take yourself too seriously”. (It’s like they know me!).
Summit has fostered a culture where people open up and share views about how they can positively change the world. These visions are not always aligned and I am impressed to see the level of debate in a “Silicon Valley” community often slandered for jingoism. Despite the deliberation there is a common goal for the people here: inspiration from exposure to a wide range of experiences and people.
The culture lends itself to non-linear learning and, as such, Summit is the best example of experiential education I’ve witnessed. This experience based style of learning is the antithesis of the Oxford academic rigour. Surprisingly it is little understood because we have become obsessed with producing arbitrary curricula that are bow wrapped with a certificate.
Academia often forgets that people did not learn to hunt or communicate in a linear way. We learned instead through experience, through adaptation, and through discovering fruits and poisons ourselves. We constructed knowledge by storing patterns that worked for us as foundations of behaviour.
Summit gives examples of patterns that work by glorifying success in multiple disciplines. The entrepreneurs in attendance store what they think is valuable and discuss it with their fellow participants. What people choose to take from the experience is unique to each situation, but often it will be multi-faceted, incorporating both the personal and professional life.
What is also clear from Summit is that the LinkedIn and Facebook worlds are converging in the new millennial tech-driven environment. Work e-mails will flurry in the late hours of weekends, just as groups will be digitally socialising while on conference calls.
This new-age culture embodied by Summit is a challenge to the traditional work mentality captured by Dolly Parton: “9 to 5 for service and devotion.”
Factory notions have permeated society. We are still controlled by the metaphors dictated by the industrial revolution. In the modern world there are no fixed boundaries between work and play. Summit celebrates this integration by rejecting the stress and embracing the flexibility that our new interconnected lives can offer in a positive manner.
In Britain we are particularly uptight about the concept of a modern ‘tech utopia’; we will scoff at new companies that are offering services such as co-living (isn’t that just a flatmate?) or cringe at the language of innovation. All the while our country and our continent is falling seriously behind when it comes to creating and funding entrepreneurship.
If we take a quick look at figures in the venture capital industry it is possible to show just how important cultivating an innovative culture is.
According to a KPMG Venture Pulse report from Q2 2017, the US continues to dominate VC investment, accounting for $21.5 billion, followed by Asia ($12.3 billion), and Europe ($4.7 billion). The UK hosts just $1.9 billion of these deals. To illustrate why a lack of innovation matters, look no further than the public markets. Since 1979, venture capital-backed companies have comprised 43% of the US public market by number, 60% by market cap. What is clear from Summit is that the “Silicon Valley” juggernaut of innovation is not slowing down any time soon.
Millennials now represent more than 50% of the work force and they are demanding greater purpose from their careers. Their desire for experience-based learning is driving more people away from traditionally safe professions into start-ups or innovative companies. Their desire for an interconnected lifestyle – where work and play integrate with cohesion – also plays into this trend. This is bad news for Goldman Sachs and good news for Google.
My personal lessons from Summit was to be proud of my ideas and to use the new digital world to cultivate rather than dislocate my ambitions. I’ll also try and open myself up to new experiences and unexpected people on a more regular basis. It is a wonderful way to gain perspective and inspiration. Finally, I shall appreciate intimacy on a whole new level – 4,000 people is just not my bag!
Summit is a symbol of a significant cultural shift away from the factory-like mindset we have become accustomed to. This type of “FacedIn” culture may currently only be available to a privileged few bright minds in Silicon Valley, but it would be presumptuous to assume that it will not permeate greater society. Remember, Google, Twitter, and Uber were once accused of being techie fads.
In short, before you know it your board room will be equipped with a ping-pong table. If this thought scares you then at least Blue Origin will be selling a one-way ticket to Mars for $1,000. On a serious note, however, a cultural shift is creating a convergence between work and social life that is making it more important than ever before to love what you do.
Kydd Boyle, Horizons co-founder