LOS ANGELES, United States — “We don’t call it a conference,” says Roman Tsunder, the entrepreneur behind Worldz. “It’s a year-round community.”
Whatever you call it, a cadre of Millennials along with a sprinkling of Gen Xers convened on the grounds of the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles on August 2 and 3 for its inaugural event, chockfull of workshops, social gatherings and keynote addresses that drew dozens of executives from companies like Calvin Klein, LVMH, Coca Cola, L’Oreal and Tumblr.
One of the things that distinguishes Worldz from other such gatherings is the theatrics behind the presentation. The over 500 attendees, or “WorldzTravelers,” walked through an entrance way draped in swaths of purple and yellow silk new-age music worthy of “Doctor Who” floating in from the periphery. The subtitle of the conference was “Chapter One: The Maiden Voyage,” which felt like it could be the name of an L. Ron Hubbard science-fiction novel. (And the sci-fi imagery and graphic treatments that were used in the marketing materials could certainly work as a book jacket.)
After crossing a slightly shaky — if extremely short and low-to-the ground — footbridge that led to campus, dubbed "WorldzAcademy", guests were handed a card that read, “What’s your word?” with a link to “Myintent.org” printed at the bottom. Turns out that MyIntent is a company that sells jewellery hand-engraved in Los Angeles with motivational sayings. (“We are not a jewellery company — we are an intentions project,” says its website.) On the flip side, one card said, “If money was not an issue, how would you spend your time?”
For many attending Worldz, money may not be an issue, at least for their employers. The two-day summit, for which attendees had to apply, cost $1,650 per person for those hailing from consumer-facing brands, and $2,650 for service providers, which include media and tech companies like Vice and Facebook. But part of the appeal of Worldz was certainly its speaker lineup, which included professional skateboarder Tony Hawk, former American football player and CBS studio analyst Tony Gonzalez, Complex chief brand officer Marc Ecko and Foursquare founder Dennis Crowley as well a significant number of executives from the fashion and retail industries, including Lululemon chief executive Laurent Potdevin, Gap consumer engagement lead Tricia Nichols and LVMH chief digital officer Ian Rogers.
Deny what consumers want at your own peril.
The speakers — or WorldzTitans and WorldzMasters as they’re called by the organisation — were culled from the PTTOW! community, a 250-cap network of C-suite executives, launched in 2009 by Tsunder, that includes Macy’s Terry Lundgren, Nasty Gal’s Sophia Amoruso and Levi’s James Curleigh. (PTTOW! stands for “Plan to Take On the World.”) In his previous life, Tsunder was a founder of Access 360 Media, a company that ran digital display ads in shopping malls and sports venues, and is also a co-founder of Movements.org, a company that helps dissidents in closed societies.
While both PTTOW! and Worldz address “youth media and culture across every major industry category,” Worldz targets director-level executives rising up the ranks. Another thing that may distinguish the PTTOW! and Worldz communities from other groups is that they are urged to collaborate and take action on projects. “We look more like an Allen & Co,” Tsunder told BoF, referring to the famous conference that happens every July in Sun Valley Idaho, attracting 300 of the world’s most important business people and thinkers, from Warren Buffett to LeBron James. (It was at the investment firm’s 2014 conference that the $4.4 billion deal for Verizon to buy AOL was conceived.)
Tsunder said that, thus far, 85 projects have sprung from PTTOW! The goal of Worldz is to let those who are implementing the projects at the senior vice president, vice president and director level come together. “It’s like a Harvard for culture,” he said.
To be sure, the over 40 “Master” courses — classroom-like sessions with industry leaders, many of which quickly reached capacity — were deemed valuable by attendees, thanks to the one-on-one rapport the speakers were able to build in such small groups. In one room, Kevin Bailey, president of VF Corp’s action sports group and Vans, talked experiential marketing, while just a few doors down, Tender Greens chief executive Erik Oberholtzer outlined the mechanics of scaling hyper-local produce.
One of the most well-attended sessions was given by LVMH’s Ian Rogers, the former Apple Music radio executive whose move to the French luxury goods conglomerate in 2015 was widely covered. Rogers didn’t spend much time talking LVMH — he said he didn’t want to discuss what the company had planned — but he did offer insight into what he sees as parallels between the fashion industry now and the music industry at the advent of MP3s. “I watched the music business go from denial to growth,” he said. “Deny what consumers want at your own peril.”
We have the most successful real-world case studies, versus just listening to some consultants.
Laurent Potdevin, who spoke on the main stage, offered an anecdote about floating the product team — which recently expressed frustration around the current visual merchandising and store design in Lululemon stores — $50,000 to renovate a Lululemon store in order to better reflect the company’s elevated product design. “In four months, a group of five people totally changed the environment,” he said. “It’s about putting them in the position where they own the solution. When they own the solution, there are incredible results.”
Tsunder said that the fashion industry was well-represented both on the speaker side and attendee side because of the breaking point Rogers referred to. “A lot of fashion and retail businesses are in a downward decline,” he said. “We have the most successful real-world case studies, versus just listening to some consultants.”
In between the big takeaways, though, were plenty of extracurricular activities to help break the ice, from a graffiti artist offering tagging lessons to a snake charmer that let you hold her boa constrictor.
While these hokier elements seemed less popular, the core content resonated. And given the appetite for conferences — which can generate millions of dollars in revenue with the right mix of attendees and sponsors — it’s almost a given that this will indeed be the first chapter in the Worldz saga.
“Our job is to take you on an emotional journey,” Tsunder said, not backing down on the saccharine. “It’s about radical inclusion, and meeting people you can co-create with and be inspired by.”
Editor's Note: A previous version of this article referred to the Worldz summit as "WorldzAcademy." WorldzAcademy is the name the organisers used to refer to the campus on which the event took place.