The 2012 Nexus Global Youth Summit in New York City wasn't just a gathering of hundreds leaders from the business world, the nonprofit sector, and philanthropic circles. It also happened to be a reunion of what seemed like the world's most insane minds -- visionaries of Generation Y who seek to fix all of the problems inherited from Generation X.
Insanity is a loaded word with a variety of interpretations. The dictionary defines it as the state of being seriously mentally ill. Other definitions include "madness," "extreme foolishness," or "irrationality," which seem to be more appropriate applications to describe those in the world of entrepreneurship.
Hundreds of these visionaries attended the summit, some in search of resources and contacts, others with access to those resources -- the scent of which was enough to cause many of the nonprofit leaders to salivate. The foci of the event -- empowering and bringing resources to the world's youth, ending poverty, creating economic opportunity, and saving the world, among other lofty goals -- were the driving forces that inspired the presence of nearly all of the summit goers. The trick for most of the participants was highlighting one's cause in a direct but modest way while forging relationships with others who might serve as useful contacts or partners.
Many speakers came from country contexts that haven't adopted a culture of philanthropic giving. This contrasts greatly with the United States, where people donate $300 billion annually, an amount that exceeds 2 percent of the country's GDP. In many cases where philanthropy is not embraced, this is because the governments have not created tax incentives, or because the public has a negative view of philanthropists who openly donate their resources.
In light of this reality, one of the takeaway messages of the summit rang through, spoken most articulately by the pearl-donning Dame Stephanie Shirley, U.N. ambassador of philanthropy.
"We must give philanthropists a voice," Shirley said. "Philanthropists must be vocal about inverting in charity and social enterprise."
The idea is that if more cultures learn to respect philanthropy and philanthropists, pulling them from the shadows of anonymity into the light, more resources can be directed to address the world's most pressing issues.
Similar commentary extended across speakers, many of whom enjoyed saying things like, "Be the change you want to see in the world," "unpacking" (issues, not suitcases), and "giving voices to the voiceless." The wide-eyed and bushy-tailed were abundant and vocal, with some sharing stories of the college spring break trips and service projects that had inspired them to enter philanthropy and the social sector. Others, like Juliette Gimon, daughter of one of the five Hewlett children, spoke of family foundations that tackle global poverty with millions of dollars in grants per year.
The entrepreneurs were numerous, with some serial entrepreneurs casually mentioning how they have created not one or two, but three, four, or more multi-million dollar generating companies before the age of 40. Some of their ideas and accomplishments were jaw-dropping, while others left many with the simple but lingering question, "Are you for real?"
One young woman, Rebecca Kantar, hit the stage like it was her runway, sporting a white blazer and a pair of form-fitting leather pants. She is the CEO of Minga, an organization that addresses the global sex trade by harnessing the power of teens. She was open about the organization's growing pains as Minga shifted its strategy from one focusing on speaking to youth in schools to finding ways to deter potential exploiters. Kantar's work helped land her a spot at Harvard University, but she ended up dropping out when she became frustrated with the opportunities available to her in the context of traditional education. She is now designing a university of her own that she hopes to graduate from that will respond to the practical needs of students and future entrepreneurs.
Another memorable summit-goer, Philip Joseph Restine III (also known as PjOE), is a vibrational scientist who wears an Om pendant around his neck. One of his inventions includes a laser harp -- an instrument so amazingly bizarre and innovative that would hardly be surprising to find it in Lady Gaga's hands one day. Among PjOE's many goals is expanding sound, utilizing trance rhythms from a shamanic standpoint to impact people's perceptions of their unified and individual realities.
Perhaps shockingly, PjOE wasn't the only summit attendee with an interest in shamanism. One middle-aged woman with glasses and long, peppery hair informed me of her desire to produce a film on human-plant relations. The film will feature shamans who speak to plants and how this speech affects the plants' development and movements.
"I'm not sure if I should go to the jewelry exhibit," the woman told me, referring to a James de Givenchy exhibit Nexus had organized that evening. "I'm exhausted... but it would be great for networking."
Who exactly she would be networking with remained a mystery to me. But my faith in the summit was restored when I thought about PjOE, a likely candidate to take over the film's sound production.
Derek Handley, founder of the Hyperfactory, was one of the more effective speakers. He illustrated by example how people can change the course of capitalism through entrepreneurship and philanthropy.
"The purpose of business isn't just generating income," Handley said. "It's about maximizing social and environmental impact in a profitable way."
The thought challenges the traditional, self-directed notion of business and investment. In addition to making money, business leaders can transform themselves into philanthropists who can effectively address and solve some of the world's biggest problems.
Of course there are challenges to confront once philanthropists assume this responsibility. Finding the right organizations, as speaker Cindy McCain pointed out, is one. She emphasized to several eyebrow-raising attendees that human rights organizations should be a primary focus.
Once the right organizations are found, philanthropists have to make sure that these organizations are properly channeling resources to causes that respond to the realities on the ground. Several speakers brought up the desire to "celebritize" entrepreneurs, but philanthropists have to ensure that the needs of beneficiaries are met before the needs of nonprofit leaders who want to fill their pockets or wind up on Ellen Degeneres' couch. Another challenge is corruption, not only among governments in developing contexts where the practice is rife, but also among non-governmental organizations where questionable financial and ethical practices can and do arise and must be actively be avoided.
Themes of the conference were many. Among the fluffier topics were "Why Does Doing Good Feel So Good," "Finding Your Purpose," and "Fundraising and Friendraising." Others, such as "Trafficking and Violence Through a Gender-Based Lens," brought together global actors who have made serious efforts to change perceptions of masculinity and to reduce gender and sexual orientation-based violence through capacity building, story telling, and mentorship. In "Media for Social Good," Stephanie Brownlee spoke of the creation of Social Impact TV, a new media outlet that will focus on the substantive, impact-based news that is often left out of traditional media. In "Social Impact in Latin America," Lorena Guille highlighted the work of Fundación Cinépolis, the foundation of Mexico's largest ciniplex chain, which offers thousands of cataract surgeries to the poor each year and runs an annual human rights film festival.
The ideas were abundant, with many existing only as unrealized dreams while others are in the process of entering or have fully entered concrete reality. Almost all were inspired by the straight-faced, articulate entrepreneurs whose eyes tend to shift skyward when they reflect on how they can be the change they want to see in a complex world.
There were silly moments, of course -- when a former Nigerian president spoke for far too long when all the audience wanted to do was eat the lunch that was growing cold in the back of the room; Cindy McCain ending her speech on philanthropy by saying that "Social media is simply marvelous!" and coaxing the audience to tweet more; and pretty much whenever Nexus president Jonah Wittkamper got up to speak. But the summit was a success in doing what it sought to do -- connecting actors from the business, philanthropic, and social sectors to generate positive change through partnership and innovation.
Though the extent of the speakers' and participants' sanity remains to be determined, the element of insanity seems to be a necessary one in the world of social entrepreneurship. After all, it was Einstein who said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Perhaps if the Nexus summit continues year after year, in different locations across the globe, it will be able to achieve its goal: forcing dreams into reality that might never have had the opportunity to do so otherwise. If realized, this vision has the potential to impact the world in way that might seem unfeasible to the rational of thought, ultimately proving all of the naysayers wrong.