Written by Jessi Hempel, Featured in Wired, Illustration by Laurent Hrybyk
The lobby of One World Observatory, the visiting center for the newly built Freedom Tower, has some of the tightest security in New York. Visitors need admission tickets to pass through metal detectors. There are often police dogs, and random searches. But on an overcast Friday last April, it was a frenetic, discombobulated mess as adolescents trading business cards crowded into long lines to get their credentials for the Kairos Society Global Summit.
No one seemed to know who exactly was in charge. I pushed through the crowd to the press table, where a harried volunteer scrolled through an iPad list. Unable to find my name, she handed me a generic badge that permitted me to slip ID-less through security, past the bedrock of the original twin towers, and into an elevator that catapulted me up into the sky.
Sixty seconds later, the doors opened into a room of familiar faces. There was a partner from Greylock, and another from True Ventures. The head of the Lowe’s Innovation Labs was over by the window, as was the guy who works with developers for Amazon’s Alexa. All around, a swell of young people spilled off the elevators. A guy bumped up against me, squinted his eyes at the tag around my neck (which offered no name or affiliation), and shuffled off.
The Kairos Society is best understood as an award-bestowing enthusiasm machine designed to help young entrepreneurs start and build companies. One part festival, one part conference, five parts spectacle, its summit had begun the night before with a private dinner at the Rockefeller Estate attended by both Russell Simmons and Dr. Oz. It would extend through the next day, when one startup would receive a $100,000 “Kairos 50” prize, funded by an outside venture firm. Friday’s program would host a “reverse shark tank” in which people like former Mexican President Vicente Fox would get three minutes on stage to make their best case for what problems these genius youngsters should apply themselves to. Somewhat convinced I’d stumbled onto a taping for the next season of HBO’s Silicon Valley, I asked a West Coast VC why he’d come. “It’s a good chance to rub up against really smart young people, and maybe something will come of it someday,” he said, and then added: “Besides, Ankur invited me.”
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