At three rooftop locations on an unseasonably warm day in New York City in April this year, more than 200 besuited young wannabe moguls mingled with Hollywood stars and business leaders under the whirl of nearby helicopters. All of them were about to be flown off for a series of formal dinners and not-so-formal parties at the Rockefeller family’s “playhouse,” a 3,500-acre estate scattered with exquisite statues, swimming pools and tennis courts.
The grand event was the first day of the Kairos Society’s Global Summit, attended by some of world’s richest, most powerful and most famous people in the hope, the club's leadership says, of changing the world for the better.
As the succession of helicopters touched down and began welcoming aboard passengers, the society’s founder and chairman, Ankur Jain, posed for last-minute pictures with some of the day's notable attendees. In one, he's seen with actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt and the former CIA director Michael Hayden and his wife Jeanine Hayden.
A strange meeting of people from very different sectors it may seem, but this is what the Kairos Society does all the time: bring together elites from every field and introduce them to promising young entrepreneurs in the hope of tackling the world’s most pressing issues.
So, What Is the Kairos Society?
Founded in 2008 by Wharton undergrad Ankur Jain, the elite club has managed to keep a surprisingly low profile despite courting the likes of former president Bill Clinton and Microsoft's Bill Gates as mentors.
“It started off fairly simply: my friends and I were looking for other people like us who wanted to go start companies,” Ankur Jain, the 27-year-old chairman and founder, tells Mashable. “We saw, and we still believe, that these big problems, these social issues, it’s not just a social problem, it really is a market opportunity.”
Since then, it has expanded to 55 countries, with the specific aim of finding the best and brightest students (the society calls them fellows) with a knack for starting innovative businesses, before putting them in touch with the global powerful elite.
The model is simple, but getting in the club isn't. All prospective members must be under the age of 26 and first be recommended by someone the society already knows. If you manage to skip those hurdles, there's then a series of interviews and a rigorous application process.
“It’s a highly selective program, really just identifying the best of the best from around the world,” says Jain, who's also the Vice President of Product at Tinder. “These entrepreneurs that we bring together are amongst the 50,000 or so people in our generation who are going to shape the world as we know it.”
Once you're in, though, you're given pretty much all the help and advice you could possibly need to build your own empire. The most important aspects are the advisors and mentors, but each fellow also gets an extended network of similarly minded (and aged) friends in the same position.
“The network is a big thing. Kairos pretty much knows every big CEO, either directly or indirectly, in the world,” says Olivia Higgs, a Kairos fellow based in the U.K.
In essence, it’s a real-life network of powerful people helping other could-be powerful people. Much of this is done behind the scenes or at a smaller, more local level, but the society does occasionally call on its members to attend big events — like on that dramatic day last month with a convoy of choppers flying over Pocantino Hills.
After meetings and dinners at the Rockefeller estate's playhouse, day two of the summit led the society back to NYC to take over the top of One World Trade Center for a brainstorming session. There, world leaders pitched the fellows with pressing global issues on which they should focus their attention. Speakers included former Mexican president Vicente Fox, who spoke on a panel with former CIA director Michael Hayden, and former Greek prime minister George Papandreau, who spoke with Fannie Mae CEO Timothy Mayopoulos.
After that, on day three, the top 50 Kairos fellow companies presented before peers and investors from all over the world on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. Several of which were ultimately presented checks for $50,000 or $100,000 from venture capitalists — not a bad little weekend for the lucky fellows.
The sweeping effects all of this has can't be underestimated. The last batch of Kairos companies to come through the society (you graduate from "fellow" to "alumni" after you turn 26) raised over $600 million in funding and now have a total valuation of $2.5 billion, according to Business Insider.
That batch includes startups seeking to solve problems in anything from the U.S.'s 401k savings system, to a Colombian company called Mi Aguila tackling the transportation network for the Colombian workers. Other big ones include Water Walla, a company tackling clean water shortages, Periscope (yes, that Periscope), and Clear Motion, a Boston-based company finding a smoother solution to bumpy car rides. The latter is now valued at $1 billion.
All of this is perhaps unsurprising. This is exactly what you would expect to happen when billionaire influencers and decision-makers get together to make things happen. What is a little surprising, however, is just how this exclusive club, practically the Berghain of the business world, has managed to fly under the radar for so long.
On a purely instinctive level — which, let's face it, is how the internet works most of the time — it feels like a pretty shady organization. It's name is mysterious and ambiguous, roughly translating to "moment of opportunity" in Greek. It keeps its presence low-profile and it's members high-profile. We, the public, have no idea what they're discussing or what they're scheming.
If we're being honest, it conjures up comparisons to other, more well-known societies like the freemasons or the illuminati. The latter of those, though now defunct (sorry tin foil hats), also began with similarly lofty aspirations. The Bavarian Illuminati, the OG Enlightenment-era secret society founded on 1 May 1776, opposed obscurantism, abuses of state power, religious influence over public life and abuses of state power.
But, back to Kairos, that's all we have: a feeling. If you throw aside its sickly elitist values and the fact that the top 50 Kairos fellow-lead startups was almost entirely male (the organization is about 40 percent women, according to founder Jain), you're left with little else to criticize. It's relatively young and we still don't know much about it, but it seems to be doing more good for the world than it is bad.
Before the Kairos Global Summit was drawn to a close, the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange was turned into a a makeshift nightclub. It probably looked a little different to the clubs the likes of you and I frequent, but it is perhaps proof that you can't work all the time — even when you're trying to change the world.
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