Nexus: Minds and Money Meet, Pushing the World Forward

07/24/2015 05:35 pm ET Updated Jul 24, 2016

It's hard to talk about money and not get squeamish. Whether you have it or you don't, there's something innately vulgar about bringing wealth up in casual conversation. Nexus, a global network that strives to bridge "communities of wealth and social entrepreneurship," thinks that this shouldn't have to be the case. Rather than veering conversations away from money, Nexus offers it a seat at the table. After all, everything has a cost, even social good.

And so it was at the 2015 Nexus Global Youth Summit, while Hamdi Ulukaya, the Founder of Chobani, passionately encouraged listeners to think about world issues with a business mindset, that a woman walked by carrying a purse that costs more than my rent for the year. While some, perhaps even including myself at times, would see this as precluding her from being capable of truly altruistic intentions, Rachel Cohen Gerrol and Jonah Wittkamper, the Founders of Nexus, disagree. Instead, they see that purse or, more accurately, the young woman carrying it, as an opportunity. Built on the idea that Millennials are more likely to see money as a means through which to accomplish good than any recent generation before them, Gerrol and Wittkamper designed Nexus to put some of the best minds in social entrepreneurship and non-profit work, and some of the oldest money in the world, in a room together. Now four years into the experiment, the results are starting to speak for themselves. Massive donations and investments, long-term partnerships, and meaningful collaborations have been born from the stuffy halls of the United Nations Headquarters in New York City.

We live, it seems, in an era of events. If a non-profit founder went to every event she was invited to, I imagine that she'd rarely find herself getting anything done. Thus, we have to ask ourselves "what happens here that couldn't happen online?" What is, in the most distilled sense, the value of being in the room? TED and the broader TEDx family have answered this question by making much of their content freely available online. Nexus has taken a different stance. While there are twice daily plenaries and a plethora of breakout sessions, it is the rowdy hallway conversations that truly make it memorable. And, if they happen to be running 15 minutes late, it can be forgiven if the reason why is that people are just too inspired by the person they are talking to to quiet down and take a seat.

Tardiness aside, Nexus' flagship event, the Nexus Global Youth Summit, is not without it's growing pains. It has struggled, it seems, to build a recognizable brand outside of it's limited sphere. The venue, the UN Headquarters in NYC, is impressive in theory, but room layouts limit collaboration and one is always stuck with the feeling of being a mouse trapped in a maze. A more open and collaborative space might also make attempts at group participation more enjoyable, with fewer chairs to trip over and more space to stretch.

Yet somehow, people used to private jets and luxury events are clamoring for a ticket, all trying to get into an event that has become the unlikely frontrunner in the race to transition optimistic conversations into real actions. Speakers like Alessandra Orofino, the Founder of Meu Rio, and Jack Andraka, the high school senior who created a faster, cheaper, and more accurate test for pancreatic cancer, are two of the many reasons why Nexus has found success. By putting ernest people on stage who spend more time doing good than talking about it, Nexus makes their priorities clear. It doesn't matter if you're the most eloquent (although both Orofino and Andraka are great speakers), what matters is that you have a story to tell. Nexus' participants have proved more than happy with this mindset, willing to stomach occasional awkward pauses in exchange for raw and candid stories that are seldom shared.

Currently a project of The Giving Back Fund, Nexus is in it's adolescence - still finding itself among the mess of social good events, but steadily cementing it's spot at the top of the heap. Co-Founder Rachel Cohen Gerrol puts the reason for their success simply, Nexus is "not just about ideas, it's about impact." And while longevity of impact has yet to be seen, so far things are looking good.

(Disclosure: I was given free admission to the Nexus Global Youth Summit as a member of the press)