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Summit at Sea 2011 – The new trend in business is impact

This post has been a long time coming. My experience on the Summit boat blew my mind to the extent that I needed a few weeks back in Sydney to fully comprehend this game changing event.

For those of you who haven’t heard of the Summit Series, allow me to bring you up to speed…

What started as a ski trip for nineteen silicon valley entrepreneurs has grown in the past four years to a white house recognized power-conference. Described by some as the Davos for gen Y, this year’s summit brought one thousand of the world’s best and brightest together for three days on a chartered cruise in the Caribbean.

The themes of the event include innovation and altruism – with a healthy dose of revelry for all involved. By day, entrepreneurs networked like crazy, pausing for talks from the likes of Richard Branson, Peter Thiel and Gary Vaynerchuk. By night, the dance floor came alive with the help of The Roots, world class DJs and unlimited booze.

I arrived at the boat with little idea of what to expect. My brain was first melted, in awe of entrepreneurial awesomeness, when I struck up conversation with the guy in front of me, Xavier Helgesen… just as we were lining up to get ON the boat.

Xavier Helgesen is a founder of Better World Books. He and two friends were inspired to do something with all the books left behind at college to collect dust or books tossed by libraries. In other words, books bound for landfills. Better World Books was founded in 2002 to address this problem by reselling these otherwise forgotten books online – an incredibly successful business was born.

If that wasn’t enough, Xavier then explained that a major portion of the companies revenue goes towards supporting their five major literacy partners: Books for Africa, Room to Read, Worldfund, the National Center for Family Literacy and Invisible Children.

Better World Books collects used books and textbooks through a network of over 1,800 college campuses and partnerships with over 2,000 libraries. The company has converted more than 53 million books into over $8.6 million in funding for literacy and education. In the process, they diverted more than 26,000 tons of books from landfills.

Meeting Xavier was just a taste of what was to come. Over the course of three days, I didn’t have a conversation with a single person who wasn’t rocking a remarkable business, making an extraordinary impact in the world… or both.

Individuals who had mastered both success, phenomenal lifestyle design AND social impact were left right and center. Blake Mycoskie, interviewed by summit founder Elliott Bisnow (this short video of Elliott’s is totally worth checking out) in the ship’s auditorium, was the quintessential example of this mega-trifecta of success.

Blake, a 33 year old who lives on a sailboat, is the founder and Chief Shoe Giver of TOMS Shoes. During a trip to Argentina, Blake witnessed extreme poverty and health conditions. Seeing children walk miles barefoot, often to receive essential education or healthcare services, was the inspiration that started TOMS and it’s remarkable one-for-one promise.

Blake launched a company selling a reinvented Argentine “alpargata” shoe, for the U.S. market. The pitch was simple: To match every pair of TOMS shoes purchased with a pair of new shoes to a child in need. One for One.

During his first year in business TOMS sold 10,000 pairs of shoes. As of April 2010 TOMS has given over 1,000,000 pairs of new shoes to children in need. One-for-one is making an impact in over 20 countries around the world. TOMS will be launching their second “one-for-one” product (a big mystery) on June 7th.

After spending three days in the company of people like Blake, if I had to distill my learning experience into one useful tip it would be this:

The movement of social entrepreneurialism, making an impact through business or just caring… is just getting started.

This is the big trend that today’s entrepreneurs are going to see grow. Spending time with a thousand people who totally *get* this made me realize that we’re not far from a future where corporate impact is mandatory. We’re not far from a future where people aren’t just buying shoes that make a difference – they’re horrified to hear of any company that DOESN’T.

In terms of your success, this is a win-win-win wave that you can choose to get on or not.

Like all trends, the early adopters win.

Wish you had started a blog in 2001? A search engine in the 90s?

In as little as ten years, people will feel the same way about “making a difference”. The corporate megalithic brands of today will be crumbling. The entrepreneurs who saw the “impact movement” coming will be laughing all the way to the bank. The best part? The world will be better off because of it.

As the boat docked in Miami, I departed immediately to a resort to recover. Even though I had been on a tropical island the day before, I needed a break. Laying out in the sun, I realized I’ve been ranting about the importance of social impact on this blog for a long time. However, my only rationale for doing so has been for “personal fulfillment” and “helping people”.

Personal fulfillment and helping people is good and all, but as I flew from Miami back to Sydney, the other shoe dropped.

Entrepreneurs are facing a future where if they don’t find a way to make an impact, their competitors will. Not making an impact may, one day soon, not be good enough.

The Summit at Sea exposed me to an abundance of entrepreneurs committed to solving global challenges. Doing so, it confirmed my faith in humanity. A future where entrepreneurs must make an impact, just to stay in business, is a bright future indeed.


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  1. Hi Peter,

    I love “must make” an impact. I agree that the days of just making money are coming to a close. Humanity will not survive if we continue going down that road. Now that we’ve made a mess, it’s time to clean it up and our souls along with the process. Living an empty life doesn’t cut it.

    When I see so many folks out of work, it makes no sense given all the world problems in need of solving. First thing we need to do is stop stomping out imagination (in the schools, my theme for the year!).

    The world stays in recession because imagination has been delegated to the back-burner in favor of useless testing.

    It’s starting to break out of its shackles.


  2. “Like all trends, the early adopters win.”

    2cents: Perhaps, the ‘early adopters’ we see #winning today were ignoring yesterday’s trends? 🙂 Thank you, good article.

  3. This is awesome to hear about Pete, so thanks for sharing so we can live vicariously through you. I’m a big fan of Better World Books, and the concept of “social business,” as Muhammad Yunus calls it, is tremendously exciting. I’m glad to see I’m not the only one who thinks this is an idea whose time is come.

    I’d love to help people incubate and develop these kinds of businesses. I think that re-writing the traditional self-interested profit-seeking mandates of traditional business is going to be difficult. How can we help that process along?

  4. Wow Peter, what an amazing experience.

    I’ve been involved with a growing company trying to merge business with purpose. It’s proved a constant challenge and I have so much respect for those entrepreneurs who’ve both conceived an implemented businesses that move the world forward so much.

    It has also been a very humbling experience at times! That said for all the tough decisions, we’ve got some great projects underway and I’ve learned pretty much every day. Good to hear your report from the cruise liner and see the debate about social purpose moving forward.

    Looking forward to making the cruise myself in a couple of years.

    1. Hey Josh! Awesome to hear this is where your head is at.

      Humbling? Hell yeah!… but in the best way possible. I was in awe of most of the people I was meeting and certainly feel like I’m only just getting started on *my* contribution. Super inspiring though.

      See you at sea 🙂

  5. A great article Peter.

    I am an academic-meets-applied-and-corporate-anthropologist so, as you can imagine, I am all for bringing more social purpose into business and the world in general.

    I class myself as a cultural entrepreneur and I think my own challenges illustrate something quite important – that there needs to be more collaboration between corporate brains and socio-cultural experts to bring real and true social purpose to business. I’m sure I would be a super-winner if I could just make one me who specialises in business while another me does the anthropology! : )

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