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M. Sanjayan Headshot

Why Summit Is on Top

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Recently I did something I had never done before: I got on a cruise. But not just any cruise. This was a three-day sail into Bahamian waters hosted by the Summit Series, the latest twist on the new-idea/innovation festival.

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I was invited to give a plenary talk about awakening the environmental movement, at an event where 1,000 mostly young, high-functioning -- and suspiciously good-looking -- entrepreneurs, philanthropists, artists, social activists and scientists mingled.

I admit I was skeptical when first approached. Thayer Walker, the Chief Reconnaissance Officer (yup, that's his title) from Summit Series, described the upcoming Summit@Sea, trying to impress upon me what a sail that featured both Richard Branson and shark-tagging might feel like. He was keen to introduce a theme of caring for the planet into Summit@Sea and he seemed sincere. Still, I dawdled until eventually, frustrated by my denseness he blurted, "Dude, it's like TED... on steroids!"

Now two weeks later, having attended, reveled and finally recovered enough to write without the sounds of Swedish House Mafia thumping through me in waves, I can attest that Thayer's description was in some ways an understatement.

Simply put, Summit@Sea was about as interesting, useful, and heartfelt as some of the best events I have ever attended. It was also the most fun -- by a boat length.

My job is to be an informed evangelist for the modern global conservation movement and I'm thankful to be invited to incredible events, each with its own style and purpose. Summit borrowed from the best of these and added inspiration, tribalism, and fun to the mix.

Put it this way: If I could go to only one event next year, I'm pretty sure Summit would be on top. Here are five reasons why:

  1. Connectors galore: Big ideas events are usually billed as places to meet people and share... well, ideas. The problem? Big names show up and are mobbed; you get a few words in and you're done. Plus I hate when people have cross-eyed conversations while scanning for a more important face to "connect" with. At Summit, sure, there were some famous names; but there were also a ton of young hotshots working directly for the famous names. Would you rather spend a minute talking to Richard Branson while a dozen others wait, or have a 30-minute chat with a person who runs Virgin Unite (his foundation)? In my role, I'll take the latter.
  2. Inspiring mavericks: When did you last meet someone who truly inspired you? Not just made you jealous with their over-achievements, or made you feel inadequate given the mundane minutia of your life, but genuinely made you contemplate taking a U-turn? Summit@Sea was full of such people... Lama Tenzin (a spiritual advisor to the Dali Lama) leading a meditation session; actress Sophia Bush and producer Shauna Robertson talking in the galley at 2 am about why nature matters; Sean Stephenson showing us how to overcome insecurity; and Maggie Doyne's unbelievable story of starting an orphanage and school in Nepal right out of high school because it just needed doing. Damn, now that's inspiring!
  3. Future leaders: Summit gives you a sense of what the future cohort of leaders will look like, what they think, what they enjoy, how they define their sense of community and service. Pay attention to these folks, because some of them will run things around here pretty soon.
  4. Boatload of fun: What Summit does better than any conference I have attended is create a unique culture, a tribe, amongst relatively diverse (ethnically, socially, intellectually) individuals. The bands and music help (Imogen Heap and The Roots for example); the activities help (shark-tagging and parasailing); the all-night revelry certainly helps. The magic, though, is created by the Summit staff themselves. Everyone who attends is vouched for by a core staffer. A social networking site dubbed "the collective" bands people together. And raw emotion pours out. When was the last time you were accosted on the dance floor by a guy who leans on you and yells above the thumping music, "Bro, I don't mean to fan-boy you but what you said on stage this evening was f@#*!^& epic!" Fan-boy is apparently a verb, and the enthusiasm becomes infectious. Bottom line? Summit@Sea makes you feel good.
  5. Social good: Virtually all events today have some social-good element to them. Summit is no exception (helping out in Haiti, trying to protect the Caribbean by creating a marine sanctuary, saving sharks, etc.) but it takes the social-good message a little bit further. Its premise, according to founder Elliot Bisnow, is that what's good for business should be good for the world. Summit embodies this principle. It also tries to personalize doing good by getting attendees to get their hands dirty in the morass of a social project (Kristen Bell is already pitching shark conservation on Jay Leno, for example). Of course, the results are yet to be realized, but I bet it all happens bigger and faster than most of us can imagine.

Folks made it to Summit because they saw a problem and didn't walk by; they tackled the challenge, probably failing many times along the way, but never giving up, and rarely with the expectation of immediate reward.

Do what you can, where you are, with what you have. Teddy Roosevelt said that, and it's a good motto to live by. I bet as a young guy he would have been the first on-board.

Next year, if you catch their eye, you may get a call from a twenty-something-year -old, with a title of "Samurai" or something equally strange, representing Summit Series. Words like "dude", "killer" and "awesome" will be thrown about, and you might be tempted to ignore what will sound at first like a pie-in-the-sky idea.

Don't!

You will want to see what possibilities the future holds. Trust me, it's epic!

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