Minority Report is a guest column by Sarah Kunst, who does business development and product at fashion app Kaleidoscope. She’s a black, non-engineer female in tech, but plans to IPO anyway.
Fortune magazine’s annual Brainstorm Tech summit is the Lincoln of conferences (the motor company is also a sponsor so kudos to them for nailing their demographic). Not the too-rich-for-its-own-good Bentley like Davos or the flashy Porsche that is TED. Rather, Brainstorm Tech brought together a lot of guys from Ivy League schools who work for companies with giant market caps and little buzz. They’re there to listen, network, and cut deals in one of the many hospitality tents at the Aspen Institute.
The listening part was easy as the speakers were relevant and quippy. Peter Thiel and Eric Schmidt went all Hunger Games for the crowd, trading blows on stage during dinner in what felt more like a sporting match than a debate about the future of technology. (You’ll have to excuse me if you already heard about their exploits, it takes a girl awhile to adjust back down to sea level.)
Back on stage, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson offered Marissa Mayer’s some advice on her new role at Yahoo? “Stay awhile.” And Zocdoc founder Cyrus Massoumi fan boy’d the use of two-way video screens to keep in touch with remote offices. The PYTs of tech were on hand as well, with the likes of Ben Lerer of Thrillist, Brit Morin, the Bay Area’s own crafty Martha Stewart, and Twitter darling Aaron Levine of Box, hosting parties and panels.
The real networking happens after hours, of course. That’s when dance-offs are held and “Here let’s open this bottle of wine from my vineyard” drinks are shared, transforming panelists turn into drinking buddies, friends, and business partners all before last call. It’s a pretty standard use of the wee hours, but in Aspen late nights can take a turn for the vertical.
For the second year, a couple guys spearheaded a tradition best approached with the same mentality as child birth: Do it once, swear never again, forget about the pain, repeat. They were climbing a mountain and I accepted an invitation to join them. Bottles of wine and a lone celebratory cigarette were procured at twice the going rate from some locals and we were off. A motley crew of two CMOs, a CEO and one girl who’s memorized the lyrics to “Anything You Can Do I Can Do Better” makes for a lot of big talk…and little to no hiking experience.
The hours that followed were grueling. Our mountaineering skills hadn’t included checking to see if there was moonlight to climb by, so the two hour ascent up loose dirt and rocky switchbacks was done in pitch black. We fell into a rhythm, our hyperactive leader running point while those with normal thyroid functions moved at a pace more befitting the dawning realization that this was not a walk in Central Park. At one point, I turned to make sure a fellow hiker had survived a fall and immediately joined him, hanging by my topknot and another hiker’s fast reflexes. We were both quickly righted, passed the bottle around for a fortifying nip and in unison, began to climb again. Somehow, drunk at 4am, with zero visibility and in near silence, we had formed a team.
Reaching the summit was a bit of a trick. We found that instead of the snow capped, barren summit of the ski peak variety we were basically just looking for a rock. A really big rock surrounded by other rocks on the side of a sheer drop to certain death, roped off by a neon string that would have a hard time breaking the fall of an ant. But we were at the top of the climb, together. Backs were slapped, pictures taken and as the first rays of dawn appeared in the sky we began to make our way back down. Appropriately for a band of start-upers, the phrase used most on the descent was “How did we do that? If I had known it was that hard I wouldn’t have made it!” Drunk on optimism and wine, we had tackled a trail dubbed “aerobic and difficult,” by people who are most certainly doing it in the daylight . . . and hiking gear.
The cheesy startup parallels are many: It’s all about the people, not knowing how hard it is can be an asset, switchbacks are the new pivots, don’t fall off a mountain. (The last one’s relevant no matter what profession you’re in). However, the real takeaway is that people building the future are people who do awesome, kind of crazy stuff on and off the clock. If you’re not surrounded by them, close your laptop and go look for them IRL. No livestream or Twitter feed puts you in meatspace proximity to the smartest, bravest people in tech. Conferences are often called out as a waste of time, but finding likeminded cohorts at 6am on a mountain top–metaphorical or otherwise–is worth a flight to Aspen or $10 New York Tech Meetup ticket. Sharing experiences trumps sharing hashtags. #climbamountain.