The entrepreneurial elite are preparing for a “Davos meets Burning Man” conference on a giant ship

Forget TED. Davos is old news. The next generation of thought leadership, Summit at Sea, takes place in international waters. And instead of the old-fashioned inspiring-talk-to-an-adoring-audience setup, Summit involves chefs, spiritual leaders, yoga instructors, and musicians to create an immersive experience while cruising from Miami to the Bahamas.

This isn’t some small-fry networking event. Alphabet chairman Eric Schmidt will be there, as will activist Erin Brockovich, jazz musician Herbie Hancock, skateboarder Tony Hawk, poet Sonia Sanchez and Anne-Marie Slaughter, president of the New America Foundation.

Though Jeff Rosenthal, co-founder of Summit, has heard the event described as “Davos meets Burning Man,” he doesn’t agree with the portrayal.

“It’s just something people say who haven’t experienced it,” he says. “It’s like reading about dancing. You can write eloquently and beautifully about dancing but the experience in person is hard to break down.”

But why does such a meeting of minds have to happen on a ship?

There’s something about sailing the ocean blue that creates an inspirational setting for discovery, explains Rosenthal. Plus, the very limited cell service and wifi while at sea forces the 3,000 guests and 200-odd speakers to put away their phones and focus on being present, he adds.

Rameet Chawla, founder of Fueled, Blake Mycoskie, Founder of TOMs, Elliot Bisnow and Jeff Rosenthal, founders of Summit, talk at last year’s event. (Summit at Sea/ Ben Henretig)

Summit at Sea is pricey—last year’s event cost $1,995—and those who want to go have to apply. What do those cleared to attend experience? Fireside chats and artistic performances as well as more traditional talks throughout the Nov. 9-12 cruise, says Shira Abramowitz, director of content at Summit. (I’m planning to attend this year’s event, so expect more details on the experience in November.)

Chris Sacca interviews Edward Snowden during the 2015 Summit at SEa.
Chris Sacca interviews Edward Snowden during the 2015 Summit at Sea. (Summit at Sea)

The event is built around sweeping themes. This year’s include “Origins” (“how do we begin to understand our past to better understand our future?”), “The Great Divide” (“what can we do to connect with ourselves and each other in realizing we can achieve abundance and less separation internally and as a community?”) and “What About God?” (“because what we believe drives everything we do”). There’s also “Trojan Horses” (“the ultimate hackers are changing society, culture, and consciousness through stories, art, and action”) and “Corn and Soy” (“How we feed our bodies, minds, and machines”).

It’s an undeniably ritzy experience, and so might seem like a strange setting for discussions on economic inequality. But Rosenthal says conference conversations won’t focus on the concerns of the 1%.

“I think the way that society treats those who have it the worst is reflective of the entire society,” he says. “You can believe you live in your own singular experience of reality and have a more selfish outlook, but we see that interconnectivity. If making money is your pure desire then this isn’t really the community for you.”

Diversity, he adds, is a key focus for Summit, which will launch this year’s event with an all-women panel and ensure a 50-50 gender split among guests and speakers. Summit keeps no data on the racial breakdown of its participants.

No single focus dominates Summit, but Rosenthal says the mixture of people and discussions is exactly the point. Just as TED was seen as highly innovative for bringing together technology, entertainment and design, Summit at Sea plans to unite seemingly disparate fields, such as athleticism, jazz music, and entrepreneurship.

Artist Alexa Meade at work on the ship. (Summit/ George Evan)

This is because “we’re in the age of the polymath,” says Rosenthal.

“We incorporate all of these different bleeding-edge disciplines in a shared space so they can cross-pollinate through the parallel innovations occurring in these different fields,” he says. “We think we create one of the best environments for these things to come together.” Well, yeah. A cruise ship headed to the Bahamas is a pretty tough environment to beat.

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