"The top conferences and communities out there have essentially become 'Coachella for professionals,'" Joshua Jordison explains. "Here's what I mean by that: People don't really go to Coachella to listen to music anymore. They 'do it for the 'gram;' they go so they can be seen by others." Though Jordison is diplomatic and doesn't "name names," it's hard not to look at something like Davos without seeing his point (especially when you're just as likely to read headlines about "Record private jet flights into Davos as leaders arrive for climate talk," as much as any news about important discussions or policies coming out of the conclave).
Along with speaker and author Wes Chapman, Jordison is the co-founder of The Human Gathering, an ultra-discrete members-only private community that gathers some of the most successful, influential people in the world to tackle global systemic challenges ranging from human trafficking and homelessness to institutional racism, the global food crisis and more.
In its first iteration, THG would host biannual weekend gatherings for members at private properties in idyllic settings like Malibu where attendees could participate in discussions about global issues, connect with like-minded peers and take time and space to unplug, reflect and recharge in nature. More recently, Jordison and Chapman have acquired a private ranch in Idaho so as to have a permanent clubhouse of sorts for members to enjoy on their own, as well as convene at for gatherings.
For members who attend these events — much like the community itself — the weekend isn't distinct because of its swankiness (although with a private ranch, a chef and other amenities, the experience is certainly upmarket). Nor is it special because of the caliber of who you'll meet (though the group includes CEOs and leaders of major Fortune 500 companies, as well as fireside chats with people like the former president of the Oprah Winfrey Network Sheri Salata, X-Prize founder Peter Diamandis and Obama's former Deputy Press Secretary Bill Burton).
What sets it apart from anything else attendees are likely to experience in their day-to-day life, let alone at these other name-brand conferences, is the fact that thanks to careful planning and thoughtful, intentional execution, Jordison and Chapman have created an environment where members must set aside any type-A tendencies, go with the flow and put their trust in the founders' hands.
No one is given an itinerary in advance and everyone is expected to relate to other members as equals — something only enhanced by the fact that the Human Gathering's relative secrecy has prevented it from becoming a social calendar status symbol. "We don't kowtow to our members," Jordison says. "I don't care how seemingly powerful or impressive a person is. Inside of our community, everyone is equal. There is no social hierarchy between our members, perceived or otherwise." They also don't publicize the names of their members (and, as of 2019, have stopped taking photos at gatherings).
While these large-scale gatherings remain on hold due to the pandemic, and Jordison and Chapman are re-envisioning how these retreats could both become more intimate and more frequent going forward, the community itself is continuing to thrive as members sustain their connections and relationships year-round, rather than over the course of a single weekend.
PAPER spoke to Jordison about the enigmatic and unconventional community he started, and about how our surreal times have brought members closer together than ever.
In your own words, how would you describe The Human Gathering?
We are a private community that brings together some of the most incredible executives, founders and amazing people in the world. We value [a member] being a genuinely good, decent person above all else. Regardless of how prominent a prospective member may be, if they aren't a genuinely good, decent person who can be trusted, they cannot be a part of our community. We are the only community in the world, with members of our caliber, that curates for this. Our focus is authentic human connection, building real relationships and combining forces to make the world better in tangible, measurable ways. We provide an environment of trust, in which our members can connect.
Initially, The Human Gathering was just a conference but now it's a year-round membership community. How did that pivot come about?
When we first started The Human Gathering, it was an annual, exclusive conference. That grew into a biannual, exclusive conference. Over time, people kept telling us they wanted to stay connected year-round. It became obvious that the relationships formed at our conferences were like seeds that wanted to grow into trees. There was a special magic to the way people interacted in the environment we created. And so we decided to scale that environment, evolving into a private community that operates year round. When we did that, things really took off.
Why would someone want to become a member?
There are three main benefits to being a member of The Human Gathering:
1. The Network: Through our network of members, any person and resource can be accessed. And it simply does not matter how lofty or arduous our members' goals and dreams are: Being a part of The Human Gathering makes it far easier for our members to achieve whatever it is they want to achieve and in less time than they otherwise would be able to. It changes their professional lives, forever.
2. Authentic Relationships: We do not allow members to join our community unless they are a genuinely good, decent person who can be trusted. Because of this, all of our members are like-minded. They choose to live their lives in a specific kind of way. Because they all believe they should treat others well, our members form real, authentic relationships. Members find new best friends in our community. And for many of them, it has been years since that has happened. It impacts their personal lives, forever.
3. Change The World: As a community, we believe in the principle of combined leverage for good. All of our members care about leaving their mark on the world, by helping others. Our members all feel incredibly fortunate to lead the lives they lead. And so, we like to tackle large, systemic problems. Whether it's human trafficking, civil rights or homelessness, our members combine their powers to make insane things happen.
Where did the idea for The Human Gathering first come from?
The Human Gathering was born out of frustration. Possibly more now than ever before, human beings are starving for authentic human connection. The trouble is that authentic human connection is insanely difficult to find. This is especially the case for successful founders, executives and otherwise well-connected individuals. For both my co-founder and myself, referring to one another as "successful" or "well connected" still feels bizarre. We both came-up from the bottom and worked hard to get to where we are today. No matter what station I reach in life, I will always feel like that kid whose parents couldn't afford to buy milk. Still, we saw clearly that our needs and the needs of our peers were not being met. And so we decided to create something new.
There is no shortage of conferences and networking communities that cater to successful founders, executives etc. Over the past decade, both my co-founder Wes and myself joined dozens of these "elite" communities and conferences. Over time, we noticed that all of them shared the same two problems. First, people tend to join these types of elite communities because they serve as status symbols. This creates a culture of pretentiousness, in which members are constantly trying to impress each other. I find this to be particularly annoying. I'm not a pretentious person. I'd much rather go for a hike in my 3-year-old Nikes than strut around in a new, shiny pair of Balenciaga sneakers.
Second, none of the conferences or communities we were a part of did anything to vet their members for things like integrity, character or trustworthiness. In the past few years it has become glaringly clear that there is absolutely no connection between how successful a person is and whether or not they are a good, trustworthy person. And I only need to say one person's name to illustrate this point: Harvey Weinstein. I spent over a decade working in the music industry and met a lot of Harvey Weinstein-esque individuals. Unfortunately, I met many of these people through the most prestigious conferences and communities out there. It became clear that no one was even acknowledging, let alone trying to address this problem.
From a practical standpoint, how did you go about creating The Human Gathering and finding members?
The first thing we did was lock ourselves in a cabin for two days, in Lake Arrowhead, California. We white-boarded the entire vision for The Human Gathering, forgetting to eat or sleep for much of the time. At its inception, it honestly looked like we had a very slim chance of pulling it off. No one had ever created anything like it before. We had to figure out how to solve several seemingly unsolvable problems. And the first one of those was how to find potential members for the community. We knew we would never be able to advertise, as doing so would cast too wide of a net. To this day, we have never spent a dime on advertising. This community has grown entirely through word-of-mouth and organic outreach. In the beginning, what we did was call some of our friends at various companies like Nike, Omnicom, CAA, the Recording Academy and others. About 15 people formed a committee. And through that committee, we started gathering names of individuals and companies that could be a good fit for our community. If we think someone may be a good fit for The Human Gathering, we simply reach out. Anyone can apply to be a part of The Human Gathering. Many of our members find us through word-of-mouth. Each prospective member goes through an application and vetting process. We take it very seriously.
What is the membership application process like?
We have several layers to our application process. In some cases, our research into an applicant begins before they even apply. After a potential member begins their online application our community manager spends hours researching every applicant. We do extensive online research, far beyond what a prospective member writes in their application. That information is then compiled and passed onto our host committee. If our host committee approves an application, it goes directly to myself and my co-founder. We make the final decision, without any exceptions. The entire process takes weeks from start to finish.
Once someone is a member, what can they expect?
Our membership is designed to help our members authentically connect with each other. We have figured out how to engineer serendipity, to the extent one can do that. Serendipity can never be fully engineered, because then it wouldn't be serendipity. However, it is possible to create an environment where the maximum number of serendipitous collisions take place. We do exactly that.
Members get access to our private online portal that can't be Googled. This password protected portal allows members to message each other, email each other directly and interact in other ways. We also provide members with curated introductions to each other, multiple times throughout their membership. A big part of our team's job is to get to know members and introduce them to each other, based on what they want for their lives and care about.
Members also have access to the private ranch, throughout the year and at curated ranch gatherings. These intimate experiences provide an incredible way for our members to connect, in one of the most beautiful, serene places in the world.
Why do you intentionally want to keep membership numbers low?
When a community gets too big, authentic human connection breaks down. I've watched it happen over and over again. Many communities before us have made the mistake of growing too big, too fast. It always drives out the members who were there from the beginning. We want to stay relatively small and exclusive forever, because that will allow our members to form deep, long term relationships with each other. By sticking to our vision, we are providing an environment for our members to truly connect. And nothing is more important than that. We will always be the smallest, most exclusive community of our kind.
Since The Human Gathering has been intentionally discrete, how do you combat skeptics who may think the whole premise is "fake" or "elitist" or "cult-y"?
First, I don't think it's our job to convince everyone. Apart from doing interviews like this one from time to time, we don't really worry about it that much. Instead, we focus on the people who just get it. We aren't trying to grow our community too quickly, so there's no reason to try and convince everyone that we are what we say we are. Word of mouth has been spreading for years and that makes a big difference.
In addition to that, time is always on our side. It is one of our biggest assets. We have been patient in growing our community, focusing on quality over quantity. We knew it would take time to build this community the way we were doing it. We have now been building this community for 6 years. Each passing year we have to worry less and less about skeptics. We knowingly went into this with the understanding that we were doing this the "hard way," but we knew it was the only way to build what was missing in the world.
While the country still navigates the pandemic, what kinds of changes have you been making and what will in-person events look like going forward?
Like every business in the world, COVID-19 has impacted us. What we have chosen to do with this impact is innovate. When we secured the ranch, long before COVID-19 came on the scene, we had a 3-5 year plan to move away from the biannual gatherings and move to more curated and smaller gatherings multiple times per year.
COVID-19 showed us that we did not need to wait years to do this. We took the plan we had and the obstacles that COVID-19 presented and we innovated. We added a full-time Community Manager to our staff, whose solo occupation is to connect members inside our community. We doubled down on preparing the ranch to safely host our members. We added more virtual options inside our community and we empowered our members to help each other through this unprecedented time.
What kind of impact has COVID had on members and the work they're doing together?
Our community has come together more via COVID-19 than we could have ever imagined. We have continued our work in the areas of civil rights and human trafficking. Members have supported each other on every level. While what happened to George Floyd has certainly renewed global interest related to civil rights, we have already been deeply engaged in it for years. We've gotten to know the families of Nelson Mandela, Frederick Douglass, Rosa Parks, Harriett Tubman and many others over the past several years. It has definitely been interesting to watch how engagement has changed. Many of the people (non-members) we reached out to who were "too busy" a year ago are now clamoring to come onboard our initiatives. I anticipate this increased level of engagement from the general public tapering off, as it always does in these kinds of situations. This is one of the reasons our community exists: to sustain that level of engagement, always.
What is the most rewarding part, for you, about The Human Gathering?
Without question, it is being able to connect some of the most influential people in the world and then step back to watch the magic that comes from that. In my early twenties, I realized that I had a gift for connecting interesting, powerful people. I just started doing it. And because I didn't come from a particularly influential family, it was one of the ways I lifted my family out of poverty. The Human Gathering allows me to make high level connections at scale. I get to watch the ripples of impact from those connections, for years to come.
Those connections are truly powerful. Seeing what can come from truly like-minded, diverse and good people is astounding. From the philanthropic works, to the partnerships our members develop; watching our members shape the world is truly remarkable.
What do you hope will be the legacy of each Human Gathering?
While our mission statement — "We are a private community of connected leaders with one mission to impact the globe unheralded leaving a mark for generations to come" — is truly our cornerstone approach, we also live by the statement, "Making the impossible possible."
As a community, we love to tackle large, systemic problems. Due to the caliber of our members, we have the ability to solve problems that few others can solve. All of our members care deeply about leaving their mark on the world — a positive mark. Walt Disney once said, "It's kind of fun to do the impossible." That quote really resonates with our team and all of our members. Alone, there's no doubt that each and every one of our members are extraordinary individuals. But together, we have the power to change the world for the better and leave behind a legacy that is carved into the history of humanity, forever.
Photos courtesy of The Human Gathering