To infinity and beyond, on a party cruise

Meet the Summit at Sea conference, a wildly energetic melange of TED and Burning Man, where entrepreneurs from tech and other fields were encouraged to put their talent toward the greater good--and party hard in the process.

The sun sets over the deck of the cruise ship that hosted Summit at Sea last weekend. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

BERMUDA TRIANGLE--Last Saturday morning, about three dozen people, most in their twenties and thirties, packed into a small meeting room on board the Celebrity Century, a cruise ship floating somewhere between Miami and the western islands of the Bahamas.

They were eagerly listening to a talk by Scott Parazynski, the former NASA astronaut who is, at present, the only person on the planet who can claim to have both reached the top of Mount Everest and flown in space.

Parazynski flipped through a breathtaking slideshow of photos from, literally, the edges of the world with a combination of war-story nostalgia, wistfulness over the end of NASA's manned space program , and enthusiasm about forthcoming ventures in private space flight. "You appreciate the fragility of the planet. You can see the scars of planet Earth," he insisted. Just about everyone who ventures above the Earth's orbit, he added, "comes back an environmentalist."

This was a typical talk at the Summit at Sea, an elite gathering of 1,000 young entrepreneurs and thinkers in fields as varied as technology, venture capital, real estate, marketing, fashion, and nonprofits, all of whom shared a common desire to want to spend three days aboard a Caribbean cruise talking about how to change the world--and party in the process. They'd paid several thousands of dollars to hear from an impressive lineup of speakers like Parazynski (as well as Virgin Group mogul Sir Richard Branson, X Prize chairman Peter Diamandis, and Kiva.org founder Jessica Jackley) who all have in common a melange of entrepreneurial success, adventurous spirit, and the desire to keep fulfilling dreams that the average person ditched after the fifth grade.

A moment by the pool deck at Summit at Sea. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

In the morning, there were outdoor yoga classes overlooking open water and meditation sessions with a spiritual adviser to the Dalai Lama. Throughout the day there was a program of talks tailored to include discussions of business strategy, social responsibility, and environmental protection. On Sunday, the boat docked on a Bahamian island where Summit at Sea attendees could snorkel, frolic on a complex of floating trampolines, take part in outdoor pursuits like a survival skills course, or find their way to a barely-clothed dance party that resembled an MTV Spring Break special more than anything else. By night, the stars above the water were supplemented by hundreds of waving glow sticks as speakers pulsed with live music from hip-hop band The Roots or any one of a number of big-name DJs. The dance floors were packed every night. With open bars galore and almost no access to the Internet, it was a "safe zone" for partying and revelry that normally might have raised eyebrows in the business world (one-night stands were not unheard of)--though occasional banned activities, like when four guys jumped off a sixth-floor deck of the ship for the heck of it, led to mild chastisements and a reminder to please not do it again.

The levels of energy and enthusiasm among those present, many of whom barely slept throughout the three-day Summit, were akin to a batch of junior-high students headed to a co-ed sleep-away camp for the first time. It was, as Summit Series co-founder Brett Leve said in an opening address, "the first-ever temporary floating autonomous zone," a purposeful escape from the real world for a pack of young, confident idealists, a battleship fighting against a world grown cynical. Yet the message put forward by the Summit at Sea organizers was something deeper: You are smart, hardworking, and privileged just to be here. You're going to have an awesome time partying with a group of people who we hand-picked just for you. But you're also here to learn that you're part of something bigger and have a responsibility to do something about it.

"Every one of you is Clark Kent," Shai Agassi, founder of Israeli electric-car company Better Place, told the Summit crowd in a keynote event. "You just don't know that you're Superman."

Dave Gallo, an oceanographer, was a little more harsh about the promises and challenges for Generation Y's brightest minds in his talk about the need to explore and conserve the oceans: "This is up to you guys. We kind of blew it in our generation."

How times have changed. Three years ago, the Summit Series franchise got its start as the brainchild of then-22-year-old Elliott Bisnow, who had founded a business newsletter company and wanted to create a way for entrepreneurs like him to socialize. Bisnow managed to corral sponsorship dollars for small, exclusive, all-expenses-paid trips for high-profile young entrepreneurs--almost all coming from the mostly-white, mostly-male rankings of business magazines' 30-under-30 sorts of lists.

They were easy, and perhaps deserving targets for ridicule. The second Summit Series, a beachfront boondoggle outside of Cancun, Mexico, had the misfortune of taking place in November 2008, just about eight weeks after the financial crisis had really set in. Sitting by the beach in Mexico as sunburned Summit-goers strolled around with pina coladas in hand, Bisnow boldly said that he wanted to " create the Allen & Co. retreat for young people ," in reference to the investment bank's annual gathering of moguls and elites. With the economy tanking and the Summit Series crowd consisting largely of entrepreneurs who were so paranoid about being seen partying on a beach that restrictions were placed on photo-sharing, it didn't look like Bisnow's vision had much of a foundation.

Glow sticks were everywhere late at night. Caroline McCarthy/CNET

He proved everyone wrong. Thanks to the connections that the early events had brought in and a heavy dose of hustle, Summit Series events began growing bigger and more high-profile. Last year, Bisnow and his growing team made national headlines when the keynote speakers at a Summit Series event in Washington, D.C., were Ted Turner and former President Bill Clinton. Its credibility in Silicon Valley circles has risen. At this year's Summit at Sea, prominent employees of Facebook, Google, Twitter, Microsoft, and eBay were on board, as well as a smattering of early-stage VCs and buzzed-about company founders--and they hadn't even been lured in by speaking engagements. Gone is the will-this-look-bad paranoia, as a camera crew was on the boat to film a documentary about the whole experience.

Bisnow, still just 25, is quieter and less prone to hyperbole these days. He's handed most of the Summit Series stage presence to his colleagues--the enthusiastic Leve, former pro soccer player Natalie Spilger (who was tasked with making the faces at Summit more diverse in terms of gender, ethnicity, and economic background--she succeeded in achieving a 35 percent ratio of female attendees and piloting a scholarship program to "crowdsource" the ticket fees for attendees in the nonprofit and academia worlds), and a cast of about a dozen other full-time Summit employees. They're all unusually good-looking, tanned, and fit from having spent three months in the Miami sunshine getting ready for Summit at Sea. They preach a gospel of "investing in experience," eagerly talking about how they downsized their living situations and took to traveling the world instead, stopping along the way for community service projects and meet-and-greets with entrepreneurs.

In a very meta way, Summit at Sea (and presumably future Summit Series events) is an expression of its own ideals: Nobody thought Bisnow, in spite of his stratospheric energy and ambition, could pull off what he did. On board the Celebrity Century, he and his team used the existence of the Summit Series itself as proof that the 1,000 like-minded people thinking and drinking and dreaming together could do the same thing with a lot of determination and an eye for altruism.

There are, of course, still problems. Some attendees took offense at the fact that an event dedicated in part to bright ideas about changing the world, many of which were environmentally-focused, took place on a cruise ship--ocean liners don't have a pretty record of eco-friendliness. The fact that the event was 35 percent women, a laudable rarity in the world of big-ticket entrepreneurial events, wasn't enough for some, and others complained that there weren't enough options at night for people who didn't want a dance floor. An attempt to replace business cards with electronic contact-swapping devices proved buggier than expected. And with the team's insistence on making each event more exciting and hyperbolic than the last, keeping up the momentum is Herculean indeed. (There were plenty of jokes about whether a "Summit in Space" would be next.) The maxims of the Summit Series, hanging on banners around the boat--"LEAVE NOTHING UNATTEMPTED," "MAKE NO SMALL PLANS"--will only have a real impact if those on the trip turn them into concrete action.

But what the Summit Series team has accomplished so far--though it still, invariably, will bring out some snark and cynics--is something truly impressive. The leaders of nonprofits were abuzz with the news that they'd met potential sponsors on board; start-up entrepreneurs excitedly recounted meetings with VCs; attendees grown accustomed to living in a privileged, moneyed bubble were invigorated by the powerful call to social action. There was plenty of ego, but it was tempered by a feeling of camaraderie perhaps best personified by Bisnow himself on Monday morning, giving a warm hug to every guest as they filed off the ship and back into the real world. It was one part thank-you, one part go-forth. It's Bisnow's gain too, after all, when a Summit Series connection or idea turns into something successful, inspiring, or even just quietly magical. It's up to the attendees themselves at this point.

The wheels could be turning already. On Saturday morning, when attendees were filing out of astronaut and explorer Scott Parazynski's talk, one Summit-goer paused to ask him a question: "Scott, have you ever been in a sub?" Parazynski responded that he really hadn't.

In an only-at-Summit-Series moment, the flip-flops-clad thirtysomething pulled out a glossy brochure for his own company--a nonprofit that promotes ocean exploration in manned submersibles--and handed it to Parazynski.

He said, with that blend of confidence and giddiness that was evident everywhere on board the ship that weekend, "We'll get you on a sub."

This post was updated at 11:20 a.m. PT on Wednesday to note the fate of the four Summit members who jumped off the side of the boat.

 

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