Sunday, May 16, 2010

Summit Series 2010

This year's four-day Summit Series conference -- 24-year-old social entrepreneur Elliott Bisnow's invitation-only, GenY-focused, $3,500-per-head networking event for under-40 social entrepreneurs that ends today in Washington -- has once again lived up to its hype as one of social enterprise's newest gatherings-to-watch.

The New York Times described the first two national Summit Series events, in 2008 and 2009, as "MTV meets Davos" -- and this year's mostly Millennial gathering stayed true to form, with tracks on innovation, business, altruism, personal growth, arts and revelry (no kidding). Many of the estimated 650 CEOs, authors and start-up founders in attendance, some clad in T-shirts and Vans, used MingleSticks along with serial-texting and power-pitch networking to keep pace with who was who among them.

One attendee, consultant Pat Kane, the author of The Play Ethic, blogged that his "average Summit Series day this year has been something like a 360-degree civilizational radar search to find almost every possible opportunity for American enterprise ..." On Friday, he said, "I was faced with three possible morning sessions: one called Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, where the extraordinary Ishmael Beah was telling his inspirational story to a packed house of developmentally-oriented social entrepreneurs; another session was featuring two ex-NASA guys promoting commercial space travel, and a third session right next door, called The Greenest Economy, was all about new business models for cannabis production."

But not all sessions offered new take-aways, as speakers from Bill Clinton to Russell Simmons to tattoo artist Scott Campbell weighed in on topics ranging from rapid technological change to the stubborn challenges facing Haiti, the urgent need to invigorate the business world with innovation and the importance of keeping fit, mentally and physically, through it all. ["I don't like to hang out with old people if I can help it," Simmons told an opening-day panel, "and certainly none my age. Old people (expletive) things up." As if to underscore the point, authors Keith Ferrazzi (Never Eat Alone) and Tim Ferriss (The 4-Hour Work Week) -- along with MindValley CEO Mike Reining -- recommended that attendees work hard "to keep yourselves blissful" because, said Ferrazzi, "happiness breeds productivity." [These messages weren't lost on the over-achieving crowd: conferee @luxlotus tweeted Saturday that "every #simmitseries person I meet seemingly has eight nonprofit projects, a VC firm & plays in a band."]

Unique about this #socent gathering (other than its profound shortage of mingling elders) was the urgency with which both speakers and attendees discussed the accelerating pace of Web-fueled social change and the unprecedented levels of cross-sector collaboration needed to harness it for good. Numerous attendees agreed, too, that exclusive, face-to-face meet-ups of top, NextGen executives are sorely needed, especially since most work in post-industrial work spaces that are more commonly centralized via Skype connections than common floor space.

Among program highlights:

* Former President Bill Clinton said the definition of citizenship is being altered dramatically "by the level of interdependence that we have" -- like it or not. Our growing, Web-driven adjacency with people from different nations, demographic groups, religions and value systems carries both promise and unprecedented challenge, he said. "The mission of humanity and the mission of America in the 21st century is to build up the positive and reduce the negative forces of our interdependence," Clinton added. Government cannot do it alone; record budget deficits have left many agencies and states too weak to adequately help the under-served, and philanthropy isn't enough, either. "In the best of all worlds," he told conferees, "you will have a continuous interface with what is done by the government, the private sector and the NGOs. We will always need citizen action and that is where social entrepreneurs can really take hold."

Clinton also said that communitarian values "are more important today than ever before, yet very much in debate" in recent months due to prolonged economic woes and ideological and political bickering -- what Clinton called "the psychic landscape of many people" who would stifle social innovation and collaboration. Clinton urged his listeners not to get discouraged. "Those of us with more yesterdays than tomorrows ought to be spending our time trying to figure out how to make more opportunities available to you to create the future," he said. Meanwhile, he concluded, "keep working with NGOs, keep aiming for social good (and keep working to make sure that) government gets into the tomorrow business." [An iPhone video of his speech, shot by Kane, can be watched here.]

* Kiva cofounder Jessica Jackley, a founder of the crowd-funding start-up ProFounder, won the Summit Series' pitch competition and the $50,000 prize that went with it. She and her new venture were chosen by the audience, not by voting but by a smartphone-powered "Live Market Venture Competition" game in which attendees traded shares of competing companies' stock on a mock social enterprise market. ProFounder is a site that helps new businesses crowd-source funding from among its social networks and communities of supporters, engaging them as micro-investors who share both risk and profits.

* Cameron Sinclair, founder of the nonprofit Architecture for Humanity, likened sustainability to survival and urged all NGOs to share their failures and successes so that the sector can collaborate and do far better to help those in need. His push for what he called "open-source best practices" is especially critical in global hot spots like Haiti and Nashville, he said, where "chaos" has replaced common sense and coordination. "The status-quo of cross-sector crisis management is not acceptable," he said.

* Craig Newmark (craigslist) spoke about how the Internet can facilitate representative democracy; social media, he said, will determine the outcome of November's mid-term elections. Newmark later said that lately, Facebook "may be stumbling a bit" around privacy issues but urged participants not to delete their accounts but to "work with them" at Facebook to "get the privacy thing right."

* Inventor Ray Kurzweil -- the man that Bill Gates considers the world's most brilliant and accurate futurist -- warned that the exponential evolution of technology is about to fundamentally change the human experience in irretrievable ways. "In the future, technological change will be so rapid and its impact so profound, that ever aspect of human life will be irreversibly transformed, so that there will be no distinction between machines and humans," he said in a dinner gathering. By 2050, he said, "we will be a hybrid of biological and non-biological intelligence. Technological change feeds on itself and gets faster and faster, and in 40 years, the pace of change will be so quick that you won't be able to follow it unless you merge with the technology that humans have created to keep up."

Kurzweil's message for social entrepreneurs? Businesses that aren't solidly organized as collaborative structures, highly networked across sectors and guided by leaders who understand the critical need for group-sourced innovation, won't survive. [For more on Kurzweil and his singularity theory, see this trailer of the upcoming film, Transcendent Man, shown at the conference.]

Were you at the Summit Series? If so, please share what we missed.

-- Marcia Stepanek

[This post first appeared on and is reposted here with permission.]

(iPhone Photo, above, by Cause Global)

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