What it’s like to belong to a secretive network of ultra-rich young executives

People attend Diner En Blanc, the French-inspired secret pop-up dinner, in Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park, in New York, U.S., September 15, 2016. Picture taken…
People attend Diner En Blanc, the French-inspired secret pop-up dinner, in Robert F. Wagner Jr. Park, in New York, U.S., September 15, 2016. Picture taken…
Image: Reuters/Alex Wroblewski
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It’s easy to bash the wealthy—with their paunches of privilege, they are usually soft targets. When they gather, surely there’s endless champagne showers, helicopter rides to exotic getaways and monogrammed sedans. Right? Not entirely.

Meet the Young President’s Organization—or YPO as it is known to those in the know—with a membership of over 24000 very wealthy executives across 130 countries. Collectively, the members’ companies generate sales in excess of $6 trillion annually, which is roughly equivalent to the GDP of the world’s third largest economy. YPO says it is the world’s largest global network of business leaders, and it counts the CEOs of several well-known multinationals among its members.

Never heard of it? That’s the point. YPO is highly secretive, and the organization regularly stages events featuring world-renowned speakers, political figures, athletes and business gurus as part of its mission to foster the exchange of ideas. Everything happens behind closed doors, and members may not post photos, discuss events or “out” other people as members.

As a member myself, I can testify that it’s not easy to get in: New members must be accepted before they turn 45. They must also be able to prove that they hold the very top position in an extremely profitable organization.

YPO was set up in New York in 1950 by US manufacturer Ray Hickock, but has managed to retain its relevance. While other networks like LinkedIn and ASMALLWORLD (though somewhat pickier about their focus and membership base), also provide global connections online and offline, YPO connects entrants to a unique web of industry leaders, who all take the time to help out fellow YPOers. As you can imagine, this is good for business.

One member remarked to me that he joined YPO because he had heard it would be “transformational” for his business, but that the financial benefit has been just a fraction of what he’s getting out of it. My husband and I joined YPO when we moved to Dubai, in order to access a global community and its events.

Much of the YPO member experience happens through your local “Chapter.” That is where you meet others in your area who have also made the cut. And although the organization attracts competitive “go getter” types, our Chapter also offers a sense of warmth and approachability that is usually missing in elite circles. Some conversations in my chapter involve say, trading tips on the best private safari reserves in Africa (Singita&Beyond are fabulous).

But others go above and beyond in an different way. It was in the Dubai Chapter that we received valuable advice about navigating high offices and public policy, and my husband and I have felt free to ask the questions that we wanted to ask—both for our business and for our family—without fearing a judgmental “poor little rich thing” comment.

A guiding YPO principle is idea exchange between members. Within each Chapter are several ‘Forums’, groups of about eight people that meet monthly to discuss issues—both business and personal—in a judgment-free and confidential setting. Because of the focus on confidentiality and discretion, these Forums can become sounding boards for issues that you wouldn’t talk about anywhere else—that last 5% of your life that is impossible to disclose even to your closest family and friends.

Over the years, YPO members have used what’s referred to as YPO’s “collective Rolodex” to push for a better world for all: US grassroots non-profit organization Soles4Souls, for example, is led by CEO Buddy Teaster, a YPO member. The organization has donated 12 million pairs of shoes and 2 million pounds of clothing to people affected by natural disasters in over 125 countries. Teaster is YPO’s Chief Network Officer; he oversees the member network, arguably YPO’s most critical asset, and according the YPO website, says there is “no way” that he could have achieved his success without YPO.

In other instances, YPO members have partnered to grow social enterprises; Arvind Narula, a YPO member decided to go chemical free with his successful rice production business in Thailand and has now set up collaborations with other YPO members, who are setting up similar enterprises in places as farflung as Sierra Leone and Argentina.

Recently, I was browsing through a list of YPO-organized conferences, when one entitled “Conscious Capitalism” caught my eye. It focused on pushing attendees to do more, to create legacies that would reach beyond their profitable businesses, and to use their powerful network for collective good. Of course, the world is divided into the have-nots and the have-yachts, but it has been inspiring to meet people committed to disrupting inequality even as they sail smooth themselves. As Arvind Narula says: “You can make money while doing the right thing. You don’t have to take everything off the table to make a profit.”

“I lost a lot when I founded my business,” he said. “My business grew and grew but my family tree never did. If I had to do it all over again, I would focus more on laying down roots.” It was a simple lesson but one that reminded me that sometimes we all—no matter how wealthy or powerful—just need a shoulder to lean on.