Prayer beads and vegan jerky: Inside L.A.’s elite hippy tech conference

Prayer beads are a fashion must-have for a certain type of Professional. You know the kind. They don’t drink alcohol for reasons relating to “energy,” probably worked in private equity at some point, and “practice” meditation and fasting.

They were out in force at Summit LA: an ideas festival-meets-rager that has a reputation for extravagance and exclusivity, although the company says it’s trying to become more diverse.

Summit has been putting on events since 2008, but  Summit LA is its largest, flagship event, now in its third year. 

Summit attendees embrace during a session on 'The Power of Human Connection.'

Summit attendees embrace during a session on ‘The Power of Human Connection.’

Image: rachel kraus / mashable

As the tech industry has spread beyond Silicon Valley, so has its aspirational way of being rich. This mode of affluent hobnobbing involves “community-building,” not Cecconi’s dinners; marijuana and Teslas, not Range Rovers and cocaine (at least in public).

But even if Summit is a little cringey, that might not be such a bad thing.

Five friends, including co-founder and board member Elliot Bisnow, co-founded Summit in the late aughts by paying for tech execs to party on exclusive retreats.

Now, Summit hosts smaller getaways in places like Tulum, put on Summit At Sea (yep, a techno festival cruise), and even purchased a mountain in Utah for billionaires and celebrities.

As the flagship event, Summit LA is the largest of the gatherings, and brings together the man bun set, as well as professionals in tech, finance, and marketing, all of whom have been screened make sure they’re a cultural “fit.”

The weekend is comprised of talks and activations in art, music, wellness, fitness, and business. A large, plush tent filled with pillows and blankets was shoes-off only. Attendees could sample the finest in all-natural wellness food fare, take in a Qi Gong or acro-yoga class, view an interactive sculptural exhibit, and wake up to more speaking sessions. During the Saturday 9:15 a.m. slot, attendees would have to choose between celebrity mystic Sadhguru and the CEO of ClassPass.

Bare your soles to bare your soul.

Bare your soles to bare your soul.

Image: rachel kraus / mashable

Summit said it’s trying to make its lineups more diverse. This year’s headliners included Uber’s Dara Khosrowshahi and SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell, along with leaders in areas like food, activism, and wellness, including Bricia Lopez, the chef and founder of L.A.’s iconic Guelaguetza restaurant and visual artist Takeshi Muraka. One of the forefathers of hip-hop, Grandmaster Flash, would be DJing from 12-1:30 a.m. on the festival’s closing night.

When retired pro skier Lindsey Vonn took the stage for her Q&A with Beyond Meat CEO Ethan Brown, she said, bemoaning her (amazing) red suit, “I didn’t realize this was Burning Man-chic.”

“Its a new kind of festival,” Bisnow told me as he ate a piece of soggy fried chicken. A lot of festivals are about mistreating your body, Bisnow said. But he wants Summit to be a healthy and nourishing experience.

Introducing Khosrasawhi at a Q&A, Bisnow noted that Uber has a long history with the event. Some of the earliest Uber funding deals were apparently made in the “hallways” of Summit.

It was a somewhat uncomfortable fact to bring up, since much of Khosrowshahi’s talk centered around his managerial differences from Travis Kalanick. The Kalanick-esque, pompous, white party boy image is something Summit, too, is seeking to distance itself from in its attempts to improve (and emphasize in its lineup and promotional materials) gender and racial representation.

This is Summit’s central challenge, though, as the brand grows. Is it possible for an event to laud and cater to tech and finance bros while also being socially responsible? Put more bluntly, how can an event predicated on exclusivity become inclusive? 

Summit did not respond when asked how much it costs to attend Summit LA, or for statistics that showed the event had become more diverse. A spokesperson did tell me, however, that with 3,000 attendees, she didn’t think Summit LA could get much bigger. 

Summit attendees chat in the lobby of the Orpheum Theater after a Q&A with Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.

Summit attendees chat in the lobby of the Orpheum Theater after a Q&A with Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi.

Image: rachel kraus / mashable

Who actually pays to go to these things, anyway? My immediate impression was that it was full of extremely beautiful bohemians, who could be found hugging in a session on “the power of human connection” or removing their shoes for yoga and meditation. 

But when I approached people in the (highly brand-saturated) lounge areas — Downtown Los Angeles parking lots transformed with astroturf and floor pillows — I found they were mostly normal business and tech folk, removing their jackets after a long flight to lay on Mexican blankets.

So what about the more conspicuous spiritual CEOs? Hard-working capitalists who affect chill vibes might grind the gears of people opposed to, ya know, hypocrisy. But a little reflection on “human connection” or environmental stewardship might not be such a bad thing for a person in charge of other people’s paychecks.

Again and again, attendees of all types told me they wanted to “connect with people.” Blatantly networking is looked down upon at Summit. Forget business cards — the festival holds a speed networking session called “Fast Friends.”

Just a few 'fast frineds' hangin' out.

Just a few ‘fast frineds’ hangin’ out.

Image: rachel kraus / mashable

During the Q&A with Beyond Meat’s Ethan Brown, the packed crowd listened attentively to the intricacies of supply chain logistics, and the urgency of replacing animal meat with plant products for the sake of the planet. One question from the audience was about the viability of soy; it became clear that the question was a ploy to plug the man’s product, vegetarian Perky Jerky, when the man ran up the aisle and handed Brown a bag of the vegan snacks to try.

And that interaction, to me, was Summit: cringey, self-promotional, self-aggrandizing, but also earnest. 

Foreground: Puppy for adoption. Background: Networking.

Foreground: Puppy for adoption. Background: Networking.

Image: rachel kraus / mashable

If businesspeople are going to get together to pat themselves on the back anyway, Summit seems preferable to staid corporate conferences and parties straight out of Wolf of Wall Street. Eat the rich, sure. But let them eat gluten- and sugar-free cake. Maybe they’ll taste better.

Read More

Leave a Reply

Close Menu