Welcome to Powder Mountain a utopian club for the millennial elite
When these young entrepreneurs bought a remote ski resort in Utah, they dreamed of an exclusive, socially conscious community. Is this the future, or Mt Olympus for Generation Me?
by Paul Lewis
Jeff Rosenthal is standing near the top of his snow-covered mountain wearing a fluffy jacket, fingerless gloves and ripped jeans. “It’s surreal, man!” he says, shivering as he surveys the landscape of newly laid roads and half-built homes. “That’s Ken Howery’s house, the co-founder of PayPal. Awesome house!”
He lists the other investors who are turning this remote Utah community into a crucible of “generational ideology, innovation and entrepreneurship”. Richard Branson will have a house here, and so will the world’s most powerful marketing executive, Martin Sorrell. The Hollywood producer Stacey Sher and the actor Sophia Bush will be their neighbours, as will Miguel McKelvey, a co-founder of WeWork, and the renowned technology investor and author of The 4-Hour Work Week, Tim Ferriss.
The audacious real estate project branded Powder Mountain is becoming a mecca for altruistically minded members of the global elite. “The goal will always remain the same,” says Elliott Bisnow, Rosenthal’s business partner: “To be a beacon of inspiration and a light in the world.”
Bisnow, Rosenthal and three friends, all entrepreneurs in their 30s, dreamed up the scheme after spending years running Summit, an exclusive gathering described by insiders as a “Davos for millennials”.
Applicants to Summit are screened and interviewed to ensure they display the correct “psychographic” (or mindset) for the events. It is pitched as an entertaining ideas festival, comparable to TED and Burning Man, featuring speakers such as Quentin Tarantino, Jane Fonda, Peter Thiel and Jeff Bezos. Guests pay $3,000-$8,000 (£2,200-£5,800) for access to three-day flagship events, hosted everywhere from beaches in Tulum, Mexico, to cruise ships in the Caribbean.
Having finessed the art of persuading rich people to pay to join these getaways, the founders convinced their friends to help them buy an entire mountain in Utah, complete with 10,000 acres of some of the best ski terrain in the US.
They bristle at the idea that they’re trying to build a high-altitude utopia for plutocrats, but then casually refer to a segment of their clientele as “the billionaire set” and don’t hesitate to mention that their mountain happens to be located between towns named Eden and Paradise.
The beautiful surroundings and unique blend of people, Rosenthal believes, will create the “exponential opportunities of the future”. “I have this whole rap with Gertrude Stein, Katharine Graham, De’ Medici, Bauhaus. There’s this rich history of groups coming together, where the whole is more than the sum of the parts, right?” he says. “I think that’s what’s happening here.”
Such hype might seem detached from reality, but it is much in vogue among the technology sector’s new generation of millionaires and billionaires, who seem keen to distance themselves from the selfish excess of their predecessors from 1980s Wall Street. They show less interest in super-yachts or sports cars; instead they speak about spiritual enrichment, connections to nature and purpose. It is against this backdrop that countless Summit-like festivals, retreats and communities have emerged in and around California, promising to help wealthy clients find a better version of themselves.
Further Future, a gathering in the Nevada desert attended by the ex-Google CEO Eric Schmidt, which has been described as “Burning Man for the 1%”, promises a culture of “mindful optimism, wonder and exploration”. Scott Kriens, the chairman of the technology multinational Juniper Networks, recently opened a retreat for self-improvement and introspection in a redwood forest near Santa Cruz, California, recognising that, despite its great advances, the internet “did not help people connect to themselves”. And Esalen, an institute perched on a cliff in Big Sur that has been a magnet for a bohemian set searching for spiritual enlightenment for half a century, is now directly courting guilt-laden tech executives. “The CEOs, inside they’re hurting,” the director, Ben Tauber (a former Google product manager), recently said of his clients. “They wonder if they’re doing the right thing for humanity. These are questions we can only answer behind closed doors.”
Summit prides itself on its progressive “content”, with talks about global warming, inequality, racial divisions and the war in Syria, but there is a celebrity draw, with talks such as “Jessica Alba on defying expectations” and “Andre Agassi on scaling change”.
During the February weekend I attend (a smaller retreat on the mountain, which costs around $2,000), there are only three talks, each lasting an hour; the remaining three days are spent skiing, snowshoeing, eating and drinking, relaxing in yoga or spa sessions, or partying in crowded hot tubs.
For all its intellectual bravado, a big appeal of Summit has always been recreational. Food is provided by Michelin-starred chefs, and top musicians are flown in for dance parties; the Summit crowd contains a dedicated contingent of Burning Man aficionados, known as “Burners”, who are adept at adding fuel to the festivities. (Rick Glassman, a comedian flown from LA for a 10-minute set, prompts howls of laughter when he says Summit had taught him that “everyone does mushrooms”.)
The story of how Bisnow and his friends Rosenthal, Ryan Begelman, Jeremy Schwartz and Brett Leve came to occupy their bubble on a mountaintop in Utah has become something of a legend. It began in 2008, when Bisnow, with the boundless confidence of a 23-year-old businessman, cold-called entrepreneurs he admired and invited them on an all-expenses-paid trip to Utah. Bisnow shouldered the cost of the 19-strong gathering on his credit card, then repeated the trick with another get-together in Mexico, racking up $75,000 in debt. Bisnow and the others quickly coalesced a sort of “mutual aid society” for young, well-connected businessmen, which in the early days included the co-founders of Twitter and Facebook and the real-estate heiress Ivanka Trump.
Soon, Bisnow and his friends were running dozens of closed-door events dedicated to creating “positive impact” and hosting their flagship conferences on cruise voyages that sailed from Miami to the Bahamas. Those events acquired a reputation as booze cruises for white, male tech bros, so a few years ago Summit decided it was time for a rebrand. They introduced cheaper tickets for women to improve the gender ratio, and abandoned the Caribbean for a more down-to-earth location: Los Angeles. “Not Santa Barbara. Not Beverly Hills,” Rosenthal says. “But downtown LA where you’re literally in the throes of gentrification and homelessness.”
For years the team worked remotely in Amsterdam, Tel Aviv, New York, Miami and Barcelona. They would combine work with snowboarding in Montana and surfing in Nicaragua. But by late 2011, the friends were approaching 30 and starting to travel less. They were living and working out of a mansion in Malibu and, Rosenthal recalls, hosting “amazing dinners that became pretty culturally significant in LA at that time”.
t was around this time they heard from a Utah-based venture capitalist that Powder Mountain was for sale and hatched a plan to transform their considerable social capital into real estate.
The plan was enacted months later, after a gathering they hosted in Lake Tahoe. They chartered a Boeing 737 and flew about 75 of their wealthier patrons from northern California to a tiny airport in Utah’s Ogden Valley. From there, it was just a short drive to the top of Powder Mountain. They arrived in time for sunset, lit a bonfire in the snow and laid out their vision.
Each investor who helped them buy the mountain would receive a plot of land and, assuming the plan worked, their money back at a future date. They bought the mountain for $40m in 2013, but it is only in recent months that the wooden shells of the first 26 properties have mushroomed out of the mountainside, along with roads, bridges and ski lifts.
Much to the frustration of some locals, machines have been drilling wells deep into the mountain in search of water. One day there will be 500 homes on the mountain, and a village with coffee shops, juice bars, restaurants, a sound studio and a five-star hotel.
Rosenthal takes me on a driving tour of the mountain, to explain how they plan to create a community that is different from exclusive resorts such as Aspen, Colorado. Restrictions prevent anyone from building a home larger than 4,500 sq ft, and residents must use vetted architects to ensure that their home is “subservient to the land” and in a style that has been called “heritage modernism”.
“None of the architecture should express taste or wealth,” Rosenthal says, nodding to the spot that will become a central promenade. “That is a very walkable main street we will have soft Italian kerbs.”
I steer the conversation to the subject of how utterly detached from the real world elites seem to have become. “Elitism, the way I would define it, is obtainable,” he replies. “All that stands between you and being elite is your own investment in yourself.”
I tell Rosenthal that I’ve met many people in America who work as hard as him and his friends harder, in fact but struggle to make ends meet. He acknowledges that he’s benefited from considerable advantage, but insists we now live in an era in which “the internet is the great equaliser”.
“What are you doing to create the utility for yourself? Are you introducing people so they can collaborate?” he says. Struggling Americans, he adds, might want to “host a dinner. Invite 10 strangers. See what happens.”