How to Network at a Conference for Famous People

At Summit, an ideas conference that has drawn celebrities from Jeff Bezos to A$AP Rocky, it’s all about human connection

Illustrations: Jan Buchczik

One by one, people take the mic as they stride into the circle.

“Step into the center if you know your passion and you’re following it,” one orders.

“Step into the center if you believe in healing trauma with psychedelics,” says another.

At each command, dozens lunge forward, eager to identify with their tribe.

“Step into the circle if you’re a dog person.” That’s me. “Step into the circle if you’re an only child.” Me, again. “Step into the circle if both your parents have died.” Yup.

I don’t move. I may be an only child and a dog person whose parents have both died, but I’m not a circle person. At least, not yet.

This “just like me” icebreaker was the first bit of programming I experienced at Summit LA19, an elite three-day ideas conference sprawled over four blocks of historic theaters, hotels, galleries, and restaurants, connected by alleys and extravagantly refurbished parking lots in the Broadway theater district of downtown Los Angeles.

Summit’s mantra over the past decade. Photo: Kyle Cordova / Courtesy of Summit

During hands-on “experiences,” interviews, live performances, and art installations, rich and powerful people are coached in subtle and not so subtle ways to put away their phones and their facades and look each other in the eye — to talk, to listen, and to engage.

It’s relentlessly participatory. And totally exhausting.

“What’s going on in there?” I hear a tourist ask a guard on the street outside the Orpheum Theater. He shrugs. “Some convention for millionaires.” And he isn’t wrong. (Billionaires, too: Ted Turner, Richard Branson, Peter Thiel, and Jeff Bezos, among others, have been known to stop by.)

In 2008, Summit began as a ski trip with 19 entrepreneurs in Park City, Utah, cobbled together by a group of aspirational twentysomethings who cold-called a guest list including up-and-coming Silicon Valley royalty such as Tony Hsieh of Zappos and Blake Mycoskie of Toms Shoes.

In the 11 years since that scrappy start, Summit has grown massively in size and cachet. LA19 drew about 2,500, organizers said, and the conference has convened in Kenya and Tulum, Mexico, as well as on chartered cruise ships in the Caribbean with live performances from the Roots. Summit produced a White House discussion on economic expansion for President Barack Obama (featuring, among others, Medium’s CEO, Evan Williams). Back in 2013, ValleyWag called Summit’s $40 million purchase of a 10,000-acre ski mountain in Utah “pricks on a slope.” But in September, the Wall Street Journal lovingly described the architectural marvels that the likes of Reed Hastings of Netflix and Bryan Meehan of Blue Bottle Coffee are building on that slope, called Powder Mountain, Summit’s “intentional community” for entrepreneurs.

Many have never heard of Summit— it hasn’t mass-marketed its brand like TED, or become an identity statement like Burning Man, or garnered wall-to-wall press coverage like Davos. But Summit brings elements of all three: the intellectual heft of TED, the counterculture cred of Burning Man, and the star power of Davos. Inc. called it “the hippest business networking event on the planet.”

Still, that doesn’t fully explain the appeal of a networking event for people who absolutely don’t ever need to network. So, what is it that keeps Summit’s super-successful participants coming back?

A cure for FOMO

Summit’s invitation-only list includes “entrepreneurs, academics, athletes, artists, astronauts, authors, chefs, engineers, explorers, philanthropists, spiritual leaders, scientists, and beyond,” according to its website, but only people who fulfill two criteria will get the nod: You must be a leader in your field, and you must be “a warm, kind person.” “The type of people you would invite to your parents’ house for dinner,” explains co-founder Jeff Rosenthal, one of the five millennial entrepreneurs who started Summit back on that ski slope in Utah. You’ll also need to fork over about $4,500 for a three-day pass (or up to $15,000 for packages including glitzy accommodations).

It’s not a bad value if this is your kind of thing: At LA19, the lineup included star DJs and star youth activists, cannabis entrepreneurs, and someone called “the knife whisperer.” Hedge fund billionaire Ray Dalio and internet mystic Sadhguru were on deck.

The programming included discussions of the power of human kindness in prison, the changing face of venture capital, and the future of digital nomad communities. There was ecstatic breath work and ecstatic dance, acroyoga and qigong meditation. There was a superhuman mental conditioning workshop and another called “Play on Purpose.” It was standing room only inside “Ancient Wisdom for Modern Intimacy.” And a conscious-coupling singles soiree was so popular that it had to be moved to a bigger space.

A$AP Rocky sharing a moment. Photo: Kyle Cordova / Courtesy of Summit

It all made for some hard choices: Should I listen to Uber CEO Dara Khosrowshahi talk about leadership principles or play with a pen full of puppies? The founder of Beyond Meat discussing shifts in the global view of protein or Michelin-starred chefs leading knife-skills classes?

It’s not so much fear of missing out as the certain knowledge that by making any choice, you will miss out on other possibly transcendent experiences. But forcing you to make hard decisions about what to attend and what to miss is the whole point: It “consecrates your choice,” Rosenthal explains. It shows you what you’re really interested in at that moment. It makes you listen more intently and participate more fully. (“Be present” is number five of Summit’s guiding principles.)

Through this process of self-selection, you might start seeing the same people show up at the sessions you choose. Events that resonate with you also resonate with them. These people could be your people!

That’s when real connections happen, Rosenthal argues. Deep friendships can be forged. Opportunities manifest. Deals are made.

The Human Fortune Cookie

I hadn’t jumped into that “just like me” circle. But maybe the “Human Fortune Cookie” would be my thing?

The glass box that looked like an old-fashioned phone booth was a trippy take on the Tardis time machine in Doctor Who. Lit from inside by a disco ball that bathed it in a pink and lavender hue, it drew quite a crowd.

Once I stepped inside and closed the door, a blast of air sent slips of paper swirling around me like snowflakes. One pasted itself to my palm. It said, “Find this person and grab coffee.” Beneath it was a name and phone number. (Summit principle number two: “Embrace the unexpected.”)

I immediately looked up the guy on the Summit app. He listed his occupation as “professional puppy photographer.” Good stuff!

The human fortune cookie is a convenient metaphor for the whole conference. It’s this big party where names and faces and activations and tequila fly at you from all sides. You can’t have it all. You have to choose what to grab. And the pieces you choose to get into — well, you better really get into them.

I took the plunge and texted Zach Allia, the professional puppy photographer. (Principle number four: Build friendships.) He responded to my text immediately. With exclamation points.

“The Human Fortune Cookie” booth. Photo: Kyle Cordova / Courtesy of Summit

In Orchard, one of Summit’s revamped parking lots, I found Allia wearing sunglasses and sitting on a blanket spread over the green turf, surrounded by bright-pink pathways, potted trees, and bistro tables. He was friendly, thoughtful, and just a bit hung over.

Allia’s photos of puppies, models, and also puppies with models have won him more than 500,000 followers on Instagram. Before all that, success came early: When he was a college student, he created the Facebook app Free Gifts, which got more than 1 million users overnight and set him on a path to Silicon Valley.

Allia is also a Summit superguest. Since 2009, he has been to more Summit events than he can count and invested in Summit Powder Mountain. He credits Summit with helping him navigate his turbulent twenties and beyond. He has made friends, had relationships, and started companies with people he met from the community.

“I probably would still be in Silicon Valley writing code if it weren’t for Summit,” he says. “These people are like my family.”

This year, at Summit LA19, Allia came looking for another pivot. He was feeling stuck at a health-and-wellness app gig and was trying to figure out his next move. When we spoke, he said he had already received three job offers, none of which he planned to take. But just knowing they were there was reassuring.

I asked him what’s so special about networking here. “Summit allows for discussions to happen that wouldn’t happen anywhere else,” Allia tells me. “To be able to have very successful people be that transparent and open up is definitely a unique thing. There’s no other conference I’ve been to where that happens.”

“Shared dynamic experiences”

Apparently, Harrison Ford had just left the Marketplace, Summit’s elegant 1,000-seat pop-up restaurant fashioned from a parking lot, when I arrived for lunch. Featuring celebrity guest chefs, including Nancy Silverton, the restaurant served meals family style to randomly seated groups of diners.

But as I carried my plant-based meal to a long, empty farm table, I was honestly relieved to have a moment of quiet. I sat down and closed my eyes.

“Hey!” someone shouted. I looked up to see six enthusiastic diners eyeing me from a few tables away. They waved their arms like a road crew inviting me to take a detour. “C’mon over. We have room.” (Summit principle number one: Be your most hospitable self.)

Harrison Ford led a session on indigenous rights and conservation. Photo: Kyle Cordova / Courtesy of Summit

I didn’t have a choice. It was like being at the world’s friendliest bed and breakfast. I picked up my plate and joined them.

Food is important at Summit. So is drink. Three square meals, a robust cocktail hour, and a constant flow of snacks fuel attendees throughout the day. Açai bowls and matcha lattes in the morning were followed by probiotic smoothies and cold brew and lavender ice cream affogatos in the afternoon.

“Shared dynamic experiences” was one of many Summit phrases I heard often from the team. The point is to join with others to do something new, have an adventure, break bread together. This could mean anything from enjoying a kamayan-style Filipino feast with your hands to being suspended in the air and “flown” by a partner during an acroyoga class. It’s all part of what Rosenthal calls the “social sculpture” of the event: “The narrative of the experience, the order of the things that you do while you’re there, the sounds, the smells, the tastes, the content, the music — all these rich components add to the overall experience.”

On the first night, over a Shabbat-style dinner featuring lemon and olive chicken, roasted fall vegetables and Kraut “gnar gnar” (Cleveland’s answer to kimchi), I met a founder who works with diamonds, space mining, and neurotechnology. Another CEO confided over Silverton’s pan-roasted salmon that at a previous Summit, she found herself sobbing in a sweat lodge next to Toms founder Blake Mycoskie. “He was actually very nice,” she noted. “But that’s not how I imagined meeting him.”

And while digging into braised barbacoa lamb shoulder on another night, Geoff Davis, CEO and managing partner at Cicero Impact Capitol, told me that he keeps a running list on his phone of apps, books, movies, products, and ideas he learns about at Summit. This year’s items numbered 27 by the end of the weekend and included the following notes: Enneagram tests, Michael Pollan’s book How to Change Your Mind, bio dentists, and hyperbaric chambers.

Davis is another Summit superfan. He has attended multiple Summit events and now approaches each with a three-pronged intention: to make a friend, help someone, and connect with a potential business partner.

Food was everywhere. Photo: Kyle Cordova / Courtesy of Summit

That’s in keeping with the whole conference’s vibe. Despite being “the hippest business networking event on the planet,” Summit isn’t a networking event, not really. Networking is all about exponential growth of your contact list, building your brand, and putting yourself on lots of people’s radar.

Summit is about deep connections, not wide connections. Whatever you’re doing, whatever conversation you’re having, you have to commit — to the exclusion of everything else. It’s not networking as speed dating. It’s networking as a long-term commitment.

“Show love” is actually the Summit principle relating to this kind of networking: “Don’t snub the startups, and don’t fanboy the big-timers,” rule number five explains. And it seems to work: Business does happen at Summit, even without a business card in sight.

“There’s been billions of dollars in for-profit and nonprofit initiatives that have come directly out of the Summit community, in every imaginable industry and discipline,” Rosenthal tells me. “Every year, it goes down that way.”

The hope, says Alex Zhang, Summit’s creative director, is that by creating dramatic, thought-provoking, or even surreal experiences, participants will bypass the standard small talk and get to the good stuff faster. It’s a fast track to real connection, he says: “When you have an experience that sparks a first touch point that is genuine and authentic, the human connection will be 10 times more real than if you just met standing in line at a conference getting coffee.”

Davis’s full schedule included a few more intimate gatherings, including meeting with Nobel Peace prize nominee Chief Raoni Metuktire of the Kayapó tribe, an environmental activist in Brazil, to talk about protecting nature and the rights of indigenous people in the Amazon. (Principle number six: “Go on a learning safari.”)

“Something about the culture makes everyone approachable and wanting to be approached,” Davis told me.

How Summit breaks you

In a session called “Death and Transformation,” I experienced my deepest connection of the entire weekend. Lying under a blanket, I accepted the hand of a stranger sitting next to me.

He was tall, handsome, and Australian. The facilitators asked us to envision that we were holding the hand of a loved one as we lay dying.

I imagined that the hand I was holding was my husband (short, adorable, and Greek American) and thought about what I would want him to know during my final moments, my last breaths.

Of course I would tell him I love him, but I also began to imagine telling him a joke. As I thought about the joy of making my husband laugh, I found myself gripping the Aussie’s hand tighter. Is this really what I would choose to say on my deathbed? Maybe. When the exercise was over, I was surprised to find that I didn’t want to let go.

A breath work session led by Lisa deNavraez. Photo: Kyle Cordova / Courtesy of Summit

Throughout the weekend, I found myself frequently revisiting Haven, Summit’s open-air wellness studio, just to recharge. The large white tents tethered to high-end green turf had a soothing effect. Plants and plush pillows abounded. Yerba maté flowed. There was BlissPoint BreathWork and a workshop called “Men Inside Out: How Leading With Vulnerability Works.” One of the biggest crowd-pleasing sessions, offered multiple times throughout the weekend, was simply called “The Magic of Human Connection.” The description read, “Extraordinary levels of love, joy, bliss, and connection are available to us all the time.”

I wasn’t surprised to hear from Summit program director Cari Levison that this area of Summit has seen the greatest spike in interest over the past few years. “It’s shocking how popular it is,” she says. “Five years ago, I don’t think this kind of programming would have landed the way it does now.”

But now it’s big business. The global wellness economy has grown to become a more than $4 trillion market, and Summit’s increased offerings that cater to mind, body, and spirit are out to rival the likes of Esalen’s retreat at Big Sur and Gwyneth’s Goop Summit.

Summit’s “hugs not handshakes” philosophy was out in full force, and more than a few affirmations were shared. Putting it to words makes it sound corny, but the more I did and the more I shared, the more comfortable I became.

Just a few years ago, it would be hard to imagine the titans of business and tech doing acroyoga tandem Thai massage. (Summit principle number three: Don’t take yourself too seriously.) But masters of the universe have needs too.

Behind the scenes with Rosalind Brewer, COO of Starbucks. Photo: Kyle Cordova / Courtesy of Summit

At Summit, the secret sauce is human connection, Levison says: “I think this is what’s missing in this particular group of peoples’ lives. People go to conferences all year round, and what they’re craving is not necessarily another talk. I think maybe the world has changed since 2016 and the last election. People feel more isolated and separated, and they’re yearning for community and connection.”

It’s not as easy as it sounds, points out Houston Kraft, a professional speaker who leads trainings to create more compassionate cultures in schools and communities, attending Summit for the first time. He notes that these skills being honed in Haven don’t always come naturally for everyone.

Take the exercise where two people whisper words of encouragement into the ears of a third person in the center, for example. What words do you use?

For some people, I think you quickly have to encounter that your vocabulary of kindness is perhaps smaller than your vocabulary for business or networking,” Kraft says. “All of a sudden, you have a minute and a half to say nice things, and you’re like, what do I talk about?”

Perhaps what keeps super-successful people coming back to Summit isn’t so complicated after all. It’s about something small — intimacy, human connection — not something big. It’s about finding the kind word to whisper in someone’s ear, not the next killer app or moonshot.

There’s really no environment in which people don’t want to connect, says Summit facilitator Jenny Sauer-Klein. “The question is: Can you create a safe environment where they have permission to do it? We’re all willing to move toward connection—if given the right circumstances.”

Diana is a freelance journalist who’s been published by USA Today, New York Times News Service, Prevention, Parents and more. Visit dianacharkalis.com for more.

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