‘Pirate Ship’ of social change makes landfall in Tel Aviv

"The amount of people per capita that have that entrepreneurial drive is higher here than anywhere else"

Tishby 311 (photo credit: Summit Series)
Tishby 311
(photo credit: Summit Series)
When seven nice Jewish boys from America are traveling around the world trying to connect hip, young entrepreneurs, it’s inevitable that they’ll come to Israel sooner or later.
The seven leaders of Summit Series, creators of a series of conferences where they throw staid, buttoned-up networking out the window and get CEOs to do yoga together, arrived in Israel in July.
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Los Angeles-based Israeli actress Noa Tishby escorted them to meetings with opposition leader Tzipi Livni, Shai Agassi of Better Place, and other leaders in Israel’s booming start-up world.
The Summit Series organizers were blown away by Israel’s creative entrepreneurship culture.
“The amount of people per capita that have that entrepreneurial drive is higher here than anywhere else,” Summit Series co-founder Brett Leve told The Jerusalem Post last week.
They called Tel Aviv “the Miami of the Middle East,” and said it was on their short list of places that they loved to visit.
Less than a month later, when the electricity went out for the umpteenth time in their rental apartment in Madrid and nothing seemed to be working out, the guys looked at one another and said, “We have to get out of here. Where should we go next?” They hopped on the next plane back to Israel.
“There’s such a sense of welcoming and community here,” Thayer Walker, the group’s “grandfather” at 31, said last week. “It’s really nice to be back. We spent three weeks here, met a ton of people, and didn’t expect to come back when we did.”
Summit Series has been creating waves in the international business community with its unorthodox approach to connecting young leaders. The company was founded by Elliot Bisnow, 24, who dropped out of the University of Wisconsin after two years and ended up selling advertising at his father’s small e-newsletter company, Bisnow Media.
Within a year, Bisnow was chief operating officer and the company was turning a profit of $2 million per year.
Curious about how other young CEOs were running their businesses, Bisnow cold-called some young CEOs and invited them on an all-expenses paid ski trip to Utah, which he charged to credit cards, hoping for the best.
A born schmoozer, he realized the power of getting like-minded, powerful young people together for extreme sports or other bonding experiences.
From that first ski trip, the idea for Summit Series was born. Two years ago, he hired his childhood friends from the Washington, DC, suburbs, left his parents’ house, and set off on a whirlwind adventure to pursue Summit Series full-time.
Bisnow, Leve, Jeff Rosenthal, Jeremy Schwartz, Justin Cohen, Thayer Walker and Josh Zabar call themselves “The Pirate Ship,” since they are nomads, spending about a month in rented apartments in each country they visit. No one has a permanent address.
“I prefer [to be called] the ‘peace keeping envoy,’” Leve said.
The New York Times calls them a cross between the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and MTV’s reality show The Real World.
Here in Israel, they’ve gained another name: The Noa Tishby Seven.
“The summit boys are young and enthusiastic, they have big dreams, and they’re also making a real difference in the world,” Tishby said last week. She was a lead actress in the Ramat Aviv Gimmel series, based on the American 90210, and co-producer of In Treatment, the US version of the Israeli series B’Tipul.
She first attended a Summit Series event for female entrepreneurs almost two years ago, and has been involved with the organization ever since.
“It didn’t make sense to me that they didn’t have a context to have a conversation about Israel. They didn’t have a current context of what Israel is, and to me Israel is a country with the biggest gap between perception and reality.”
Tishby said that when she first heard about the group, she couldn’t really figure out what it was about – except that the organizers were super-enthusiastic, forceful and confident that they were going to change the world.
That pluck and drive has stayed with the group, who by sheer force of confidence in their vision have the ear of world and business leaders.
At the organization’s signature event, the Summit Series conference in Washington in May, speakers included former US president Bill Clinton, media mogul Ted Turner, a yoga instructor who specialized in “lucid dreaming,” hip-hop tycoon Russell Simmons and NASA astronauts. Among the hundreds of attendees were the CEOs of Twitter, Guitar Hero, Facebook and Craigslist. The average age was 29. Attendees paid roughly $3,500 for the four-day event.
Leve said they decide whom to invite based on a series of simple questions: “Are you moving the needle in your field? Would we care for you as a friend? Are you a good person?” “We talk about big ideas and foster innovation across industry segments,” Leve says.
And thanks to the Internet, Summit Series can function from pretty much any location in the world, including a Tel Aviv apartment one block from the beach and an ocean-front house in Nicaragua at a surfing hot spot.
They claim that by creating a fun, relaxed environment where the planet’s smartest innovators can mingle or go skydiving together doesn’t just make business connections.
“People make lifelong friends,” Leve said. “At a networking event, it’s ‘Hey, what do you do?... This makes you classify people as specific subject experts.”
Rather than pigeonholing people into specific roles, Summit Series take a less conventional approach: “Forget about what you do and develop a friendship, then you can call on people because they’re friends. You gain access to more connections and it’s a better way to base your relationships.”
The group is trying to facilitate young, rich CEOs’ move “beyond the Ferraris,” Leve said, to philanthropy and permanent social change.
“It’s not enough just to be competitive these days. You need to look at all your activities and make them a net positive,” he said.
At charity events, they have raised $200,000 in a night for the United Nations Foundation and personally delivered 1,000 water purification units in Haiti.
Their personal initiative and self-confidence not only gets them the attention of leaders, it gets them pretty much wherever they want to go. Including Gaza.
“It was wild, it was quite an experience,” said Walker, who used his connections as a journalist to enter Gaza and meet with Hamas “Foreign Minister” Mahmoud Zahar.
“Zahar is one of the most significant figures in this conflict, so I wanted to hear what he had to say.
“We also met with a lot of young people in Gaza. The sentiment I heard was really disenchanted with Hamas and Fatah. Young people I met were apolitically pissed off. They were mad at everyone, and didn’t necessarily ascribe to any ideology one way or another, except for the ideology of peace and the pursuit of a better life, which is sort of impossible there now.”
Walker said one of the more poignant and meaningful moments of his time in Israel was when he met with Noam Schalit, the father of kidnapped solider Gilad Schalit, in the protest tent outside the Prime Minister’s Residence.
“I was talking with Zahar about Gilad, and then I’m sitting there telling Noam about my conversation with Zahar,” he said. “It was really surreal, being an intermediary of some sort, totally unexpectedly.”
The Summit Series organizers are confident that as part of changing the world, their model of connecting leaders can solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“I’d love to see business and entrepreneurship used as a device for regional peace; that would be incredible,” Walker said. “Hopefully we can help stimulate that.”
“If Summit Series decide they want to take this on, maybe they can,” Tishby said. “As a cynical Israeli, I would say this isn’t going to happen... but anybody that has any way of making this happen is welcome.”
Solving the conflict aside, the connections the group made with young Israelis will continue to flourish, Walker said. They expect to have a strong contingent of Israelis at future conferences, and are excited to have gotten to know a country they consider “a second home.”
Tishby said one or two members of the group are talking about permanently settling in Israel. They’ve also hired an Israeli to be their in-country contact and continue to build relationships with local social entrepreneurs.
Perhaps even more important, they’ll be able to talk about their experiences with their multitude of contacts.
“I know who they hang out with, I know their rolodexes,” Tishby said. “And something’s going to come up about Israel and they’re not going to be quiet.”