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Young entrepreneurs bond on the beach

Sure, the Young World Leaders Summit was at a luxury resort in Cancun. But that doesn't mean attendees weren't thinking about the dire economy.

The coastal resort that hosted the Summit Series event last weekend. Caroline McCarthy/CNET News

PUERTO MORELOS, Mexico--They kept their Twitter feeds quiet and their iPhone cameras dormant. Most of them didn't want their names to be used.

There was more than a little bit of paranoia in the air as the guests arrived at last weekend's Summit Series event, formally the Young World Leaders Summit--not the most modest of names. It was a gathering of about five dozen under-35 entrepreneurs and executives at a beachfront luxury resort outside the glitzy vacation city of Cancun. Among those present at the retreat, which was fully paid for by sponsors, were a handful of executives from Facebook and other Silicon Valley start-ups, media and publishing entrepreneurs, young venture capitalists, edgy youth marketers, and jet-setting global issues advocates. As for an itinerary, there were snorkeling lessons, ample pool- and beachside chill time, and plenty of parties.

"We want to create the Allen & Co. retreat for young people," Summit Series organizer Elliot Bisnow said in an interview overlooking the Caribbean Sea, referring to the annual gathering of tech and media moguls in Sun Valley, Idaho. Bisnow had previously put together the inaugural Summit Series event in Park City, Utah, last spring, with 19 young entrepreneurs meeting for a ski weekend. He said it was so successful that he and fellow organizers Ryan Begelman and Ben Hindman decided to expand it for the Mexico edition. "It took us awhile to figure out the messaging, but we want to create an environment for the top young people in the world to get together in a fun place and talk ideas, business, challenges."

What can also take awhile, for that matter, is convincing the notoriously look-at-me young digerati to turn everything off. But for the Summit Series, they complied without protest. Given the dire financial climate, they knew that the vicious gossip-blog culture could make this all look really bad.

But why did they risk it in the first place? After the American International Group spa resort scandal and, closer to home, last month's blogospheric revulsion at a YouTube video of young dot-commers dancing poolside at a mansion in Cyprus as the markets crashed, scrutiny of executive excess is at an all-time high. And the young folks at the Summit Series event aren't stupid: they knew what investors, partners, and shareholders would think if they should, gasp, be outed having a good time.

Some said they came for the networking, and the promise of meeting interesting new people with whom they might not otherwise cross paths--or even cut a deal or two. Others said they honestly just needed a few days to get away from the business world and get a much-needed refresher during difficult times. The offer of four expense-free, breezy days in coastal Mexico was too good to pass up. (Disclosure: I paid for my accommodations.)

"The way young people do business today is much more relationship-driven than it used to be."
--Elliot Bisnow, Summit Series organizer

"The way young people do business today is much more relationship-driven than it used to be," said Bisnow, an energetic 23-year-old who was a nationally ranked tennis player before dropping out of college to start his company, a D.C.-area newsletter start-up called Bisnow on Business. "I think it's so valuable to be able to create friendships in special places, not in a stodgy boardroom." It's not quite a novelty: that's what golf courses, Ivy League alumni clubs, and Elks lodges have done for years.

So, in order to maintain a level of image control and to ensure that attendees were comfortable talking openly, the few reporters present were asked beforehand to agree to keep most of the goings-on off the record. Photographs were not permitted during the tequila-soaked evening hours.

And indeed, a brief flurry of nerves surfaced during Thursday night's dinner reception when one prank-minded marketer in attendance decided to float a rumor that a poolside photograph from the Summit Series had surfaced on gossip blog Gawker. Due to the international locale, most people there had spotty or extremely expensive mobile data access, and nobody wanted to admit to being paranoid enough to run back to his room and check the Web. Luckily, before too long, the prankster had admitted to his joke, and after that, the only thing close to mass hysteria arose when some people realized they couldn't always access Wi-Fi from their rooms.

There were a few organized activities. On one day, the young creators of socially conscious shoe brand Toms, which gives away one pair of shoes to a child in a developing country for each pair it sells, took Summit Series attendees on a road trip to donate shoes in a nearby village. Another featured a cave-diving outing. There was also a presentation from business guru and Twitter heavy-hitter Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week--"Some people really get misled by the title," Ferriss told me as we all walked to a nightclub in nearby Playa del Carmen one night.

A second presentation came from Scott Harrison, founder of Charity Water, a nonprofit bottled water company that donates all proceeds to the construction of clean water facilities in developing countries and uses Google Earth to prove it. Harrison's graphic images and his tale of transformation from hard-partying club promoter to impassioned philanthropist left some of the younger Summit Series guests--particularly the ones still cushioned by Valley venture cash and a Web 2.0 bubble that has yet to fully pop--a bit shell-shocked. After the talk, they left the room and returned to the pool, looking sheepish but eager to order another round of margaritas.

Beyond that it was mostly an unstructured gathering--and considering many of the entrepreneurs had never gone to college, this was probably the closest they'd come to Spring Break in Cancun. That said, the Summit Series' five-to-one male-to-female ratio probably put the kibosh on most legitimate debauchery--other guests at the quiet resort must have thought it was some kind of fraternity reunion or bachelor party.

Getting down to business
But business was inescapable, and that was the point. During the day, many of the Summit Series' pale 20-something men shuffled about in swim trunks by the pool, a BlackBerry in one hand and a pina colada in the other, and a copy of the latest bestselling business-productivity book under their arms--like Malcolm Gladwell's The Outliers, a just-released title about what makes some people wildly successful while others pass by unnoticed. The more outgoing ones hopped from beach chair to beach chair, making introductions. A few of the dreamier, ideas-oriented types scribbled away in Moleskine or Muji notebooks as they looked out over the beach. One young publishing entrepreneur shared his favorite beach drink recipe with some new friends: blended ice, bananas, and rum. Then they talked ad strategies.

"Dozens of deals have been done this weekend. People have sold companies," Bisnow boasted, smiling broadly. He declined to say which ones, but I could confirm at least one small deal: that one of the new-media CEOs in attendance had offered ad inventory to another guest's nonprofit organization.

The sponsorships were important, too, Bisnow added. They'd turned down plenty of requests, he said, before settling on office giant Staples, real estate firm Jones Lang LaSalle, the wealth management division of Goldman Sachs, and investment firm Charles River Ventures. At the previous Summit Series event in Park City, Bisnow told me, 6 of the 19 attendees had ended up doing business with sponsor Jones Lang LaSalle.

"This is, in my opinion, one of the best sponsorships in the world," he added, and said that the dates for the next Summit Series event were already on the calendar. They'd be back in Park City, with 250 attendees and a flagship sponsorship by men's magazine GQ. Bisnow, whose broad-shouldered build and neatly trimmed haircut give off a vibe of bold, frat-president confidence, expressed no concern about financial issues getting in the way.

But still, no amount of money talk or margaritas could drown the presence of the ongoing economic crisis. One of the CEOs at the Summit Series, who runs a public company, was worried about the perception that he was at a beachfront retreat while his company's stock--like so many others'--had lost 30 percent of its value. Another left abruptly on day two of the four-day retreat, reportedly due to a "business emergency" involving funding that was in danger of falling through. And by Saturday afternoon, two or three of the investor-dependent dot-com founders, one of whom complained that the event had been too "cliquey," were vocally itching to get back to their fledgling companies.

I wondered if maybe some of them had wanted more structure, a more concrete networking plan that would make them less nervous about skipping town for a few days. "I don't like structure," Bisnow told me with a grin. "I'm young and eccentric and I want to hang out."

Over breakfast on Sunday, shortly before vans started to arrive to take the Summit Series-goers to the Cancun airport for their flights back to New York, D.C., San Francisco, and elsewhere, co-organizer Hindman, who founded an offbeat walking-tour company, said to Bisnow that some get-to-know-you activities would've been good. The Valley guys didn't spend enough time meeting the eco-entrepreneurs, for example.

"Yeah," Bisnow admitted, nodding and taking a bite of food. "That might be cool next time."

The other suggestion: More women, please.