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Summit Series: Connecting Young Entrepreneurs

Summit at Sea took place from April 8th-11th, 2011. 1,000 attendees boarded "the Celebrity Century" in Miami, Florida and set sale for several days of fun--and business--in the sun

This past April, one thousand young entrepreneurs, including a list of who’s who in the world of Gen-Y  innovators, boarded a lavish cruise ship bound for international waters. Each guest paid $3,500 to attend the invite-only “Summit at Sea,” where they spent three days doing yoga sessions, drinking, dancing, tagging sharks, taking survival courses, sun-tanning, and playing beach volleyball. Oh yeah, there were some workshops and lectures too.

While drifting at sea in the Bahamas is certainly an alluring way to spend any weekend, the real draw was the Summit’s purpose: To connect innovative thinkers and entrepreneurs. Guests and speakers included Richard Branson, Peter Thiel, and Russell Simmons, as well as countless other entrepreneurs–both established and up-and-coming–young and old alike. But mostly young.

Summit at Sea took place from April 8th-11th, 2011. 1,000 attendees boarded "the Celebrity Century" in Miami, Florida and set sale for several days of fun--and business--in the sun.

Networking wasn’t all of it, of course. No Gen-Y gathering would be complete without a noble cause, or at least the pretense of one. Guests of the Summit at Sea had to look no further than over the ship’s railings to find the philanthropic heart of the conference- the Ocean. According to The Next Web, attendees were encouraged to “collaborate with leading scientists, explorers, and conservationists to understand and address the challenges facing our current oceanic ecosystem.”

Despite all the schmoozing and world-saving, people attending the Summit at Sea had more than a few opportunities to let loose. The vibe of the cruise, according to attendee Lisa Katayama, was “Silicon Valley tech conference-meets-nightclub in Miami.” In a recap of the event she wrote for Fast Company, Katayama explained:

People come on this ship with different expectations–to get funding for their new venture, to make friends and work connections, in lieu of a vacation, to find love. It’s not the most professionally produced conference in the world–Richard Branson’s mic stops working during the keynote, and the “private island” [where the ship made a recreational pit stop] is actually a tourist destination owned by the cruise company–but who cares? The Summit staff makes up for that with the energy of a pack of puppies on a grassy lawn. “Tonight, we leave,” Justin Cohen, the COO of Summit, says during the opening plenary. “You all better be dancing your faces off!”

Business leaders and start-up hotshots are often gathering for talks, lectures, and other gatherings. But what really sets the Summit at Sea apart from similar events is the people behind it. That would be the 20-somethings working at Summit Series. Founded by Elliott Bisnow at the age of 22, “the company’s focus is to build a community in which attendees support and inspire each other to achieve personal, business, and altruistic goals,” according to Wikipedia.

While the Summit at Sea is the company’s most recent event, they’ve been building up their credibility for the last 3 years. According to Forbes, “Past Summit Series planted the seeds for multimedia search engine Qwiki (which got an $8 million investment, led by Facebook cofounder Eduardo Saverin), connected [Napster founder] Sean Parker with music site Spotify and introduced business owners to philanthropists, spurring $2 million in donations.”

It may be a smashing success now, but Summit Series started by doing what new start-ups do best:

Losing money.

According to Forbes‘ great piece on the Summit at Sea, “Summit Series began as a 19-person ski trip at Utah’s Alta resort in April 2008.”

The article continues:

Bisnow had left the University of Wisconsin to cofound a newsletter company with his dad, Mark. Looking for advice on problems like marketing and staffing, Bisnow arranged a trip to Alta to entice such young entrepreneurs as Blake Mycoskie of Toms Shoes and Ben Lerer of Thrillist. Bisnow put the $30,000 cost on his credit card. He got sponsorship money from Jones Lang Lasalle and Valhalla Partners, so he lost only $8,000. His friends thought he was crazy; Bisnow thought it was a smashing success. He set out to plan a bigger event.

Seven months later Bisnow and friend Brett Leve (the pair later added pals Jeffery Rosenthal and Jeremy Schwartz to the team) threw a second meeting, in Playa del Carmen, Mexico, with 65 attendees. It cost $100,000, and even with sponsors like Goldman Sachs, they lost $30,000.

Fortunately, this all culminated with an invitation to the White House. When Obama officials got wind of the event in Playa del Carmen, they contacted Summit Series, asking them to bring 35 entrepreneurs to the White House for a conference on innovation in March, 2009. Summit Series did just that. Among the entrepreneurs they brought along to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue were Twitter’s Evan Williams, Ivanka Trump, and Marc Ecko, a notable fashion entrepreneur.

Few things can help a reputation like an invitation to the White House. Summit’s next event was held at Russell Simmon’s home in Aspen. The next year, their conference was in Washington D.C.and featured Bill Clinton, Mark Cuban and David Rubenstein–all who agreed to speak without compensation, according to Forbes.

Summit now employs around 20 people, with most of its revenue coming from ticket sales to its annual events. They’ve yet to announce their plans for 2012, but whatever they wind up doing, entrepreneurs and innovators around the world will be watching. And to think, Elliott Bisnow started off as an unknown with an idea and a credit card. Today, he’s bringing together some of the greatest minds in business, philanthropy, and technology.

Not only that, but he’s making a living doing it.

Here’s a quick video from CNN Money with Bisnow discussing the importance of having a peer group in the world of business and start-ups, as well as some other tips for young business entrepreneurs.

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