Learning About the New Business Paradigm from Generation Y

In March of 2010 I took a Virgin Air flight from Los Angeles to New York and mid-flight (thanks to Virgin’s on-board Internet access) I sent an email to my friend Max to get some feedback on a couple of projects I was working on. Max emailed me right back and said I really should get in touch with Jeff Rosenthal, whom he helpfully copied on the return email. Jeff is one of the co-founders of Summit Series, a community of millennial entrepreneurs that is redefining the relationship between business, politics, and philanthropy in a way that illustrates the dynamics of a new business paradigm. By the time I landed in New York Jeff and I had traded several emails sharing what we each do and are passionate about and he had put me in touch with the woman who would soon become the literary agent for my upcoming book, The Intuitive Compass (Jossey Bass, Oct 2011) . This experience made me curious to learn more about Summit Series, their goals, beliefs, and achievements, and what lessons they can offer to today’s business leaders.

More than just a random act of kindness offered to the friend of a friend, it turns out that the help Jeff offered me is actually a manifestation of Summit Series’ commitment to creating what Jeff calls “mutually beneficial connections.” For those of us who came of age professionally in a marketplace that divides the business world into a hierarchy of the producers of goods and the consumers of goods, this may look like classic networking. But it’s not. It’s about putting value-based relationships at the heart of business strategy and letting those relationships be the engines of organic growth.

Summit Series is committed to building “a community of young dreamers,” but they also are incredibly busy doers. They produce an annual conference where great minds and creative personalities like Bill Clinton, Ted Turner, and others of that caliber of intelligence and accomplishment share the stage to inspire the next generation of movers and shakers. The Huffington Post wrote that this conference is the only one “organized by and for the young entrepreneur [that] focuses on something much deeper than securing your next round of seed funding,” and The New York Times called it “Davos somehow crossed with MTV’s The Real World.”

Jeff told me that he evaluates prospective members of the Summit Series community based on two criteria: first, does this person do truly awesome work? And, second, is this someone I can care for, someone who I would be friends with if they weren’t successful? He says that Summit Series isn’t interested in short-term friendships, or pure networking; they want to associate with people that they genuinely want to help and spend time with. Summit Series’ co-founders and community members completely embrace the subjectivity of business, that is to say that business is first about people – things done by some people for other people. Because of their truly altruistic spirit they have infused a great sense of generosity and possibility throughout their conferences. Their mantra is “How can I help you?” And the help they have already given is substantial.

In less than two years Summit Series has raised $2,000,000 for not-for-profit organizations and charitable causes. More importantly, Summit Series has connected and keeps connecting the top business minds in the world with some of the best non-profits, helping them operate more effectively, create movements, build websites, and shoot movies about their causes. They’ve established innumerable connections between inspired and powerful change agents, and they’ve even gotten the attention of the White House, which hosted them for their first economic summit in March of 2009, and which was attended by entrepreneurial superstars including the founders of Facebook, You Tube, and Twitter. In addition to helping the non-profit world, Summit Series facilitates positive transformation by helping meaningful for-profit business projects get off the ground. As an example, Qwiki was founded at DC10, Summit Series’ May 2010 conference in Washington, DC. Qwiki is an online destination designed to deliver information in a format that’s quintessentially human – via storytelling instead of search, “a Wikipedia meets YouTube” type of service. Since then Qwiki won a $50,000 prize at a technology competition and is now about to close an $8 million round of funding as this blogpost is being written.

We can expect to see more of these success stories from Summit Series. The number of Summit Series conference attendees grew from twenty in 2008, to approximately a thousand participants in April 2011. What’s remarkable is that they’ve achieved this through word of mouth. No marketing and no social media presence so far. They believe in organic growth, in random possibilities and everything is thought out to remove unnecessary hierarchy and regulations. The way I got involved – an email exchange – is typical.

It is clear that the so-called millennial generation operates from different values than preceding generations – they seek collaboration rather than dominance. They also operate in a world without boundaries or hierarchy that transcends space and time: the Internet. Millennials, born between 1978 and 1999 (also called Generation Y or the Net Generation), is the first generation to use e-mail, instant messaging (IM) and cell phones and to have had access to all of this since childhood or adolescence. What’s interesting to me – and what I believe should be interesting to every business leader who wants to seize momentum with today’s and tomorrow’s consumers – is that Summit Series co-founders and community members represent the aspirations and life philosophy of a whole generation, as the rapid exponential growth of their audience shows.

According to experts five main characteristics of millennials – who, in the United States alone comprise 80 million people – are of note:

  • They are about teamwork and cooperation
  • Their loyalty depends on relationships more than it depends on the name of their employer
  • They say time and flexibility is the most important motivator a company can grant them, the second being benefits and money
  • They are pragmatic idealists seeking to make a difference
  • They value education not for status but for the knowledge that they can leverage to act responsibly and significantly
  • They look for authentic products and experiences

As millennials have now entered the workforce and have come to represent an important share of the market it is necessary, at the very least, to integrate what motivates them both as customers and employees in marketing and HR strategies. If we are wise, we will think more deeply about the message they are sending us.

The millennials represented by Summit Series intuitively grasp something that previous generations need to learn: that when we shift our focus from selling to serving to, finally, leading, the possibilities for spectacular change and growth are endless. So, while we can all look at the list above and think about how we might tailor our marketing strategies to connect with them, what we should also be doing is thinking about the implications their worldview has for the way that we run our companies and create new products. Intuitive Intelligence, which is discussed in another blog post, and at length in my upcoming book, The Intuitive Compass (Jossey Bass Oct 2011), gives us the skills to do just that. Intuitive Intelligence enables us to put our employees and ourselves in the frame of mind to capture and act on new and unfamiliar information and bring it with great effectiveness and integrity into our business strategies.

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