Jeff Rosenthal is standing near the top of his snow-covered mountain wearing a fluffy jacket, fingerless gloves and ripped jeans. “It’s surreal, man!” he says, shivering as he surveys the landscape of newly laid roads and half-built homes. “That’s Ken Howery’s house, the co-founder of PayPal. Awesome house!”
He lists the other investors who are turning this remote Utah community into a crucible of “generational ideology, innovation and entrepreneurship”. Richard Branson will have a house here, and so will the world’s most powerful marketing executive, Martin Sorrell. The Hollywood producer Stacey Sher and the actor Sophia Bush will be their neighbours, as will Miguel McKelvey, a co-founder of WeWork, and the renowned technology investor and author of The 4-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss.
The audacious real estate project – branded Powder Mountain – is becoming a mecca for altruistically minded members of the global elite. “The goal will always remain the same,” says Elliott Bisnow, Rosenthal’s business partner: “To be a beacon of inspiration and a light in the world.”
Bisnow, Rosenthal and three friends, all entrepreneurs in their 30s, dreamed up the scheme after spending years running Summit, an exclusive gathering described by insiders as a “Davos for millennials”.
Applicants to Summit are screened and interviewed to ensure they display the correct “psychographic” (or mindset) for the events. It is pitched as an entertaining ideas festival, comparable to TED and Burning Man, featuring speakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Jane Fonda, Peter Thiel and Jeff Bezos. Guests pay $3,000-$8,000 (£2,200-£5,800) for access to three-day flagship events, hosted everywhere from beaches in Tulum, Mexico, to cruise ships in the Caribbean.
Having finessed the art of persuading rich people to pay to join these getaways, the founders convinced their friends to help them buy an entire mountain in Utah, complete with 10,000 acres of some of the best ski terrain in the US.
They bristle at the idea that they’re trying to build a high-altitude utopia for plutocrats, but then casually refer to a segment of their clientele as “the billionaire set” – and don’t hesitate to mention that their mountain happens to be located between towns named Eden and Paradise.
The beautiful surroundings and unique blend of people, Rosenthal believes, will create the “exponential opportunities of the future”. “I have this whole rap with Gertrude Stein, Katharine Graham, De’ Medici, Bauhaus. There’s this rich history of groups coming together, where the whole is more than the sum of the parts, right?” he says. “I think that’s what’s happening here.”
Such hype might seem detached from reality, but it is much in vogue among the technology sector’s new generation of millionaires and billionaires, who seem keen to distance themselves from the selfish excess of their predecessors from 1980s Wall Street. They show less interest in super-yachts or sports cars; instead they speak about spiritual enrichment, connections to nature and purpose. It is against this backdrop that countless Summit-like festivals, retreats and communities have emerged in and around California, promising to help wealthy clients find a better version of themselves.
Further Future, a gathering in the Nevada desert attended by the ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt, which has been described as “Burning Man for the 1%”, promises a culture of “mindful optimism, wonder and exploration”. Scott Kriens, the chairman of the technology multinational Juniper Networks, recently opened a retreat for self-improvement and introspection in a redwood forest near Santa Cruz, California, recognising that, despite its great advances, the internet “did not help people connect to themselves”. And Esalen, an institute perched on a cliff in Big Sur that has been a magnet for a bohemian set searching for spiritual enlightenment for half a century, is now directly courting guilt-laden tech executives. “The CEOs, inside they’re hurting,” the director, Ben Tauber (a former Google product manager), recently said of his clients. “They wonder if they’re doing the right thing for humanity. These are questions we can only answer behind closed doors.”
Summit prides itself on its progressive “content”, with talks about global warming, inequality, racial divisions and the war in Syria, but there is a celebrity draw, with talks such as “Jessica Alba on defying expectations” and “Andre Agassi on scaling change”.
During the February weekend I attend (a smaller retreat on the mountain, which costs around $2,000), there are only three talks, each lasting an hour; the remaining three days are spent skiing, snowshoeing, eating and drinking, relaxing in yoga or spa sessions, or partying in crowded hot tubs.
For all its intellectual bravado, a big appeal of Summit has always been recreational. Food is provided by Michelin-starred chefs, and top musicians are flown in for dance parties; the Summit crowd contains a dedicated contingent of Burning Man aficionados, known as “Burners”, who are adept at adding fuel to the festivities. (Rick Glassman, a comedian flown from LA for a 10-minute set, prompts howls of laughter when he says Summit had taught him that “everyone does mushrooms”.)
The gatherings are also notoriously fruitful networking opportunities; Rosenthal had told me I would be immersed in a community of “polymaths” and “savants”, but they would be a humble bunch. “If people are really like ‘oooh’, showing off, showing you pictures of their supercars or some shit at the dinner table? Probably not a cultural fit at Summit,” he says. “What superstars do you know, who you interact with, who are self-aggrandising these days? I don’t know anybody that walks around pumping their own chest when they’ve accomplished something – at least in our generation. It’s just, like, unnecessary.”
Like others, I had been quietly schooled in the unwritten social rules. Asking someone what they do is considered a faux pas (the socially acceptable alternative is “What is your passion?”). Business cards, I was warned, should not be exchanged in a brazen way.
After dinner one night, I meet an investment banker, two venture capitalists, a famous TV host, a sex coach, a cannabis entrepreneur, a man who claimed to have developed a new method for brewing coffee, and Facebook’s head of counter-terrorism. Most of them are talkative, extrovert types, but none of them seems out of the ordinary. The highlight of the weekend is a presentation about the search for extraterrestrial life, led by Kiko Dontchev, an engineer from SpaceX, who explains why his boss Elon Musk wants to “make life interplanetary”.
“Earth is the only place that we have right now, so if we want to guarantee the existence of the human race beyond the next 100 or 200 years, it is really important for us to become a multiplanetary species,” Dontchev says, as his audience, packed into a yurt-like lodge on the summit of the mountain, nods approvingly.
The presentation opens and closes with a video Dontchev shot four days earlier to capture his ecstatic reaction as Falcon Heavy’s rocket boosters successfully returned to their landing docks in Florida. The audience bursts into frenzied applause. “Yeah baby!” one man shouts. Another quietly shows off a text message he’s received from the Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who has a rival spaceflight company. I ask an astronomer, who appears on stage with Dontchev, who exactly might colonise Mars in the event that Earth becomes uninhabitable. “Unfortunately, I think, the same way it always happens,” she says. “The people with power and money.”
Later, I ask Bisnow if he has any interest in living on another planet. “Not in the slightest bit,” he says. “I’m really, really interested in Earth. I mean, Mars is horrible, it is really a bad scene out there. Like, I’m gonna go live in a bubble on Mars?”
The story of how Bisnow and his friends – Rosenthal, Ryan Begelman, Jeremy Schwartz and Brett Leve – came to occupy their bubble on a mountaintop in Utah has become something of a legend. It began in 2008, when Bisnow, with the boundless confidence of a 23-year-old businessman, cold-called entrepreneurs he admired and invited them on an all-expenses-paid trip to Utah. Bisnow shouldered the cost of the 19-strong gathering on his credit card, then repeated the trick with another get-together in Mexico, racking up $75,000 in debt. Bisnow and the others quickly coalesced a sort of “mutual aid society” for young, well-connected businessmen, which in the early days included the co-founders of Twitter and Facebook and the real-estate heiress Ivanka Trump.
Soon, Bisnow and his friends were running dozens of closed-door events dedicated to creating “positive impact” – and hosting their flagship conferences on cruise voyages that sailed from Miami to the Bahamas. Those events acquired a reputation as booze cruises for white, male tech bros, so a few years ago Summit decided it was time for a rebrand. They introduced cheaper tickets for women to improve the gender ratio, and abandoned the Caribbean for a more down-to-earth location: Los Angeles. “Not Santa Barbara. Not Beverly Hills,” Rosenthal says. “But downtown LA – where you’re literally in the throes of gentrification and homelessness.”
For years the team worked remotely in Amsterdam, Tel Aviv, New York, Miami and Barcelona. They would combine work with snowboarding in Montana and surfing in Nicaragua. But by late 2011, the friends were approaching 30 and starting to travel less. They were living and working out of a mansion in Malibu and, Rosenthal recalls, hosting “amazing dinners that became pretty culturally significant in LA at that time”.
It was around this time they heard from a Utah-based venture capitalist that Powder Mountain was for sale and hatched a plan to transform their considerable social capital into real estate.
The plan was enacted months later, after a gathering they hosted in Lake Tahoe. They chartered a Boeing 737 and flew about 75 of their wealthier patrons from northern California to a tiny airport in Utah’s Ogden Valley. From there, it was just a short drive to the top of Powder Mountain. They arrived in time for sunset, lit a bonfire in the snow and laid out their vision.
Each investor who helped them buy the mountain would receive a plot of land – and, assuming the plan worked, their money back at a future date. They bought the mountain for $40m in 2013, but it is only in recent months that the wooden shells of the first 26 properties have mushroomed out of the mountainside, along with roads, bridges and ski lifts.
Much to the frustration of some locals, machines have been drilling wells deep into the mountain in search of water. One day there will be 500 homes on the mountain, and a village with coffee shops, juice bars, restaurants, a sound studio and a five-star hotel.
Rosenthal takes me on a driving tour of the mountain, to explain how they plan to create a community that is different from exclusive resorts such as Aspen, Colorado. Restrictions prevent anyone from building a home larger than 4,500 sq ft, and residents must use vetted architects to ensure that their home is “subservient to the land” and in a style that has been called “heritage modernism”.
“None of the architecture should express taste or wealth,” Rosenthal says, nodding to the spot that will become a central promenade. “That is a very walkable main street – we will have soft Italian kerbs.”
I steer the conversation to the subject of how utterly detached from the real world elites seem to have become. “Elitism, the way I would define it, is obtainable,” he replies. “All that stands between you and being elite is your own investment in yourself.”
I tell Rosenthal that I’ve met many people in America who work as hard as him and his friends – harder, in fact – but struggle to make ends meet. He acknowledges that he’s benefited from considerable advantage, but insists we now live in an era in which “the internet is the great equaliser”.
“What are you doing to create the utility for yourself? Are you introducing people so they can collaborate?” he says. Struggling Americans, he adds, might want to “host a dinner. Invite 10 strangers. See what happens.”
Rosenthal presses on with his thesis, telling me there are just not enough people in the world who will “excessively commit their lives to something. Journalism, cheese, automobiles, whatever. Rocket ships – perfect example. Everyone wants to work at SpaceX, no one wants to go to engineering school.”
We drive to the top of the mountain. Rosenthal reflects on its future. “Is a great album going to be recorded here?” he asks. “Is the film-maker of our time going to think of the movie they’ll make? Will a company get formed that becomes the next Google?” He adds: “It’s just sort of an endless pool of opportunity for the world at large.”
Altruism is a powerful marketing brand, and Rosenthal and his friends have become experts at using the idea to promote their business. But when I ask exactly what they’ve been doing for the public good outside of their conferences, little appears to be happening.
Summit is quick to say that it raised $500,000 to help the Nature Conservancy to protect marine life, but that was partly an effort to compensate for the damage caused by their Caribbean cruises. Now that their flagship conferences are being held in LA, Rosenthal tells me the company provides “50,000 meals to the unfed” in the city. (When I look into this claim, I discover the donation actually involved 30,000 meals for families displaced by California wildfires – and they were paid for by the LA Chargers football team, not Summit.)
Four years ago, Summit created a much-touted not-for-profit company, to be “more intentional” about its social and philanthropic action. The Summit Institute helps fund scholarships for people who could otherwise not attend events, and hosts workshop events for NGOs and charities. The institute’s co-director, Kathy Roth-Douquet, declines to tell me her budget, but estimates it is “maybe around the couple of hundred thousand-dollar level – if that”. The Summit Action Fund, by comparison, which is a “boutique venture capital fund” for the friends to invest in startups such as Uber and the sunglasses company Warby Parker, was valued at $25m.
Still, several Summit aficionados tell me that the community’s professed commitment to improving the world is the very thing that sucked them in. Rameet Chawla, the chief executive of an app-designing company, told me there’s “definitely a Kool-Aid” around the notion of impact at Summit. “I would say I’m happy to drink it.”
Chawla is a minor celebrity on Instagram. Several years ago, he created a stir with the launch of an app called Lovematically that automatically “liked” every post on a user’s feed. He’s also an accomplished technologist who has designed software for companies such as Coca-Cola, American Express and Porsche.
When I hitch a ride in Chawla’s SUV, he tells me how he came to invest in Powder Mountain. He had just been on a disappointing trip to Verbier, a resort in the Swiss Alps where the food was “not that progressive”. Utah, he says, made for a refreshing change. “I bumped into 30 of my friends. I didn’t have to do anything. The food was amazing,” he says. “There was a moment when they served coconut water.” Coconut water was the very thing he’d been craving in Switzerland. At that moment, he thought to himself, “These guys just get me.” He adds: “I thought, you know what, I’d love to support this project.”
But it was an experience on a Summit cruise ship that Chawla says made the biggest impression. He was on the deck, casually talking to the founder of a not-for-profit company whose career had been devoted “to building schools in Africa or something like that”. “I felt so embarrassed to say, ‘Oh, I run a technology company, I build apps.’ It was just so purposeless. It felt so selfish, what I was doing.”
Chawla says the first thing he did when he got off the boat was set up his own (now defunct) not-for-profit company: Charity Swear Box. It was a website connected to Twitter that would monitor how often a user swears in their tweets, and recommend they make a donation to charity. “I would have never spent the time and effort to do that had I not come to Summit,” he says.
I tell Chawla I’ve heard he’s opening a secret hotel in the Hudson Valley, New York state. “How did you know that?” he asks, a little startled. “It’s not so secret if everyone starts talking about it!” He tells me about the 250 acres filled with “cute cottages and homes and greenhouses and plants and vegetables” where guests can stay for about $525 (£380) a night. He wants them to learn about food, farming and nutrition, and plans to be “diverse enough” to appeal to a wide array of clients. “I’m going for the corporates, and then I’m going for the yogis,” he says.
The secrecy, he explains, is intended to “play with the idea of frustration … There’s no published photos of the hotel. The public can’t book it. So you have to email and mention who you know that’s connected to the property. Then you can come.”
Bisnow invites me to his cabin. It is the only finished property, a chic, minimalist space with a stove suspended from the ceiling and a ladder that Bisnow asks me to climb so we can talk in his favourite spot: a cubbyhole tucked into the ceiling.
The five Summit co-founders describe themselves as equal partners, and all have equity in the company that bought the mountain, but Bisnow is the linchpin – only he sits on the board. “It feels very womb-like when you look out of the window here,” he says, watching wind turn the snow into dust. He points to a wooden structure cloaked in tarpaulin beyond the trees. “That’s Martin Sorrell’s house right there.”
Bisnow wonders aloud what will happen when his neighbour moves in. Perhaps Sorrell and his wife will just treat the place like a second home, he says. But Bisnow envisages “another path” in which Sorrell, one of the highest-paid chief executives in the UK, “really gets the mission” and rents out his home for a few months a year – or maybe even allows low-income artists to stay in it for nothing. “Suddenly this becomes a really incredible place that’s accessible, open, affordable,” Bisnow says. “It could go in either direction.”
His other close neighbour will be Richard Branson, who he calls his “hero”. Much like Branson, Bisnow benefited from supportive and well-connected parents. His mother, Margot Machol Bisnow, is the author of a parenting guide entitled Raising an Entrepreneur. His father, Mark Bisnow, gave a real-world example of how a parent might go about doing just that when he made Elliott, who dropped out of college, a co-founder in his business. (The family business, Bisnow, which produces real estate trade publications and events, was sold to a private equity firm in 2016 for a reported $50m.)
I ask Elliott Bisnow if he has any regrets. He replies: “Just so much of my life being part of the problem. For so many years, just going through the world in a kind of ignorant, not thoughtful, not present way. Not listening. Not learning. Not caring about my surroundings. Just caring about me. And my success. And being like the prototypical capitalist. It’s, like, so lame.”
He tells me he’s “still evolving”. He’s been meditating, reading, learning about ecology and sustainable farming. If Bisnow is committed to altruism, why is the Summit Institute, the not-for-profit wing of his empire, so minuscule, with an annual budget that is a fraction of what it cost to build his house?
“We’ve just been so busy with so many things, we thought there’s no rush,” he replies. “Why not just slowly ramp it up?”
I tell Bisnow that his alpine town for wealthy elites could be perceived as dangerously detached and exclusive. He says he’s “really not into exclusive communities”, before taking a few moments to mull the meaning of the word exclusive. “It is one of those words like ‘luxury’ or ‘utopia’,” he says. “It is one of those words that is very charged. Maybe there’s a yoga retreat for people who are really great at yoga, and I can’t get into it. Does that mean that it’s exclusive?”
He tells me he’s open to the suggestion that his community is elitist – “these criticisms, there’s a truth to them” – and insists that he strives to make authentic connections with people from all walks of life. For example, he says, earlier in the day he met a worker at the ski resort who was taking guests on a tour. “I literally could have said, ‘All right, have an awesome tour,’ and instead I was like, ‘So, you’re here all year?’ And he goes, ‘No, I’m actually from New Orleans.’ And I’m like, ‘Really?’” Bisnow says he behaves the same way with servers in restaurants. “[When] you start to engage with these people you realise the humanity in everyone and how unbelievable they are.” Then he explains how he always sits in the front seat of Uber taxis, talking to dozens of drivers a week, hearing “the most remarkable stories”. He ends up hanging out “with a significant number” of his drivers. I ask how many Uber drivers he’s invited to Summit. He doesn’t say, but instead tells me an anecdote about a chef he invited to Summit after meeting him “at this dilapidated castle in England”.
The conversation reminds me of so many I have had in and around San Francisco, in which millennials made rich through technology relay snippets of revelatory conversations they’ve had with Uber drivers, some of whom live and sleep in their cars. It is as though the taxi-sharing app is one of the last remaining cords keeping the new elites connected to everyone else’s world. When Uber rolls out its self-driving cars, even that fragile connection will be broken.
There is shocking stratification in places such as San Francisco, I say; cities that seem increasingly detached from the real world.
“It is a big problem,” he agrees. “That’s why a lot of successful people like living in New York, because in New York you’re just always in it. You just go down to Manhattan and you’re right there, back in society.”
I get the sense that Bisnow doesn’t quite understand my point. But he insists he knows where I’m coming from.
“It’s not good when the world forms bubbles and loses connections. But I feel like that’s unfortunately been a big part of the history of the world. As you become more successful, you get your house and your gate, and you move into your bubble and your friends, and you just totally lose connection. And I think that’s clearly what we’re seeing in front of us.”
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