In Search of the Good — the Newest Cool Kids’ Conference Lives on the Streets of Detroit and Baltimore.
I entered the bathroom and the door of one of the stalls collapsed. Not just the door, the whole structure of the cube containing the toilet fell flat on the ground, causing a mini plexiglass explosion on the dusty tile. The second stall was already doorless, the toilet missing its seat, the toilet-paper-holders warped and empty. The whole concept of toilet paper seemed remote, just a distant memory from back when I lived on Earth. But this wasn’t Earth. This was Detroit.
It was almost four in the morning in a cavernous theater on the second floor of a old, empty hotel in Midtown. Back on the dance floor, ten or fifteen people convulsed wildly. It was this-must-be-a-fire-hazard dark and the music reverberated in long echoes under the fifty foot ceiling. I asked the dreadlocked, face-tattooed DJ, who was wearing glow-in-the-dark contact lenses, what he was playing.
“It’s EBM,” he had said with bored glance, like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Later, I might throw in a little Aggrotech.”
There were people dancing around me, but I hadn’t introduced myself and knew nothing about them besides that were also on Breakout and we had been in and out of meetings together all day. Our collective sweat flew off our pulsating bodies onto the black floor. In the center of our dance circle sat another sure fire hazard — a burning candelabra of ornate silver set with dripping candles. It was weird, but the weirdness was why we were here — to plumb the depths of the new Motor City, this hollowed out husk of industrial America, just now starting to get filled in with color.
Other “Breakers” (the preferred nom-de-guerre for Breakout attendees, like “Burners” for Burning Man) bounced over, joined our circle for a few pulses, then bounced away. Some of them were top tech entrepreneurs sitting on millions of dollars in seed funding. Others were social entrepreneurs running foundations for people like Deepak Chopra, with people like Michelle Obama on their contacts lists. Others were mere wantrepreneurs, paying to be here in the hopes of networking their way to success. All were young and glossy, with that stubborn sheen that comes from living day-to-day with boundless ambition. Fortunately, it was impossible to tell who was who. On Breakout, there is an unwritten rule: don’t wear your status on your sleeve.
“This is not a circle jerk,” says Breakout co-founder Michael Farber. He’s tall, charming, and brown-haired. Bright-eyed, but realistic, Farber has the charisma of a High School Class President reigned in by the sarcasm of a frat bro. He’s nerdy, but cool, and neither seems forced. To me, some Burning-Man-tech-industry-types come off like buzzword-spouting robots, devoid of any humanity. Farber is not like that. He is a human.
“This isn’t a trip where people come to immediately benefit themselves and their business,” he says. “I’ve purposefully avoided putting together just another tech meet up.”
It’s easy to explain what Breakout is not, but explaining what it is is hard. So hard that a journalist like me couldn’t sell the story, as new and unique as it is, to a single major pub.
I challenged Breaker Nathalie Molina Niño, a well-known “super connector” focused on women and minority entrepreneurs, to describe Breakout in as few words as possible.
“It’s sort of like the new version of a corporate conference,” she said. “People were bored of the old ones.”
This is a valiant attempt, but Breakout doesn’t fit easily into the conference mold, as it’s not really a networking event.
“This isn’t just about meeting for networking,” says Farber. “It’s about learning about cities, and seeing how we can take a privileged group, make it more educated and actually give forward to some of these communities.”
Breakout takes place over two days in different emerging cities. Detroit was Breakout’s third conference — the first was in Miami, the second in New Orleans. (The Fourth, Baltimore, begins October 9th). Since it’s a destination event, Breakout is sort of a “retreat,” but that doesn’t quite fit either. It has “members,” and is purpose-driven for the sake of being purpose-driven. It is something, for lack of better word, new.
“What we’re playing into is that people want to be purposeful with their lives,” says Farber. “They want to get their hands dirty, to see first hand what’s happening.”
You have probably heard this kind of language before. Indeed, other elite gatherings like Summit Series and Burning Man pay a lot of lip service to purposes like equality, social change, and ego reduction. However, these events are increasingly known to set up walls to block out the very masses that they claim to be changing the world for. “Radical inclusiveness,”a Burning Man founding principle, is rapidly becoming an oxymoronical self-parody, in the same way that corporate advertising has become strangely obsessed with calling its customers “rebels.” At first glance, Breakout’s Detroit conference runs the same risk. It is, after all, a three-day fun fest with a highly curated guest list that costs upwards of $2,000 to attend.
However, Breakout really is different. By exposing its attendees to all levels of culture in cities like Detroit, New Orleans and Baltimore, it can’t help but be different. In Detroit, around 125 Breakers from around the country galavanted through the city attending workshops, talks, art compounds and warehouse clubs. We had lunch at the Heidelberg Project, a two-square block 3D mosaic of collected open-air art. There are painted trees and square wooden clocks hanging from branches. We saw the stunning Detroit-centric socialist murals of Diego Rivera at the Detroit Institute of Arts. We went to The Social Club barbershop, where haircuts serve as a platform for discussions of social justice.
On the one-percenter side, we met with an official from Bedrock, the primary institution in Dan Gilbert’s real estate empire. The lobby of the building, one of the twenty or more Gilbert owns downtown, had a forty-story ceiling, a bamboo garden and a glass-encased elevator that rocketed us up to the penthouse. There, the executive poured over a light-up diorama of downtown, pointing out which buildings the Gilbert empire owns and which it doesn’t. It was impossible not to draw comparisons to Omni Consumer Products from RoboCop, the 1987 apocalyptic sci-fi film set in Detroit, that nobody remembers is actually a cutting piece of social satire.
There was a palpable buzz as the group listened to the Bedrock executive and peppered him with eager questions. Anyone in the business of tech, or the business of anything, would be excited for an meeting in the upper echelons of Gilbert’s world. He is as much as anybody the model twenty-first century tycoon. He made his fortune with a more-efficient Internet version of an old service (home loans) and is using it to re-invent a stylish, post-industrial urban area coveted by bros and hipsters alike. And it’s not just any stylish, post-industrial urban area…it’s Detroit.
However, while the Breakers were excited, they didn’t let the executive off easily. Amongst questions about strategy and scale were more than a few fastballs. If Gilbert is intent taking over the city, how does he plan to keep Detroit cool and desirable? How is he going to avoid turning it into the stroller-filled suburb places like Brooklyn and San Francisco have become? How can he maintain its distinctly non-elitist, blue-collar, common man vibe?
“We don’t want to be an exclusive club,” says Farber. “We want to be young, excited and participatory. Yes, there is a lot of social capital that comes from being on Breakout, but that’s only one side of it. You need that side to get the sponsors, in order to attract the people that have the resources to make change.”
That is not to say that contacts weren’t made and deals weren’t struck. They were. The attendees were diverse and had a lot to offer each other. There were your app founders and series A funders, but there was also a Jordanian venture capitalist, and a black female communications guru from Philadelphia. There was the female proprietor of a huge scale, labor-conscious clothing manufacturer and an 18 year old with 2 million in seed funding. There were black social entrepreneurs and Latina feminist activists. There were San Francisco seed funders and New York restaurant owners. It was a crowd of creative business leaders, immersive theatre directors, family office investors, healthcare founders, and even a few lawyers. Young people with very big dreams, in various stages of giving them a real shot. A good word for them is not “breakers,” but “believers.”
One local entrepreneur convinced a Breaker to get her socially conscious graffiti jewelry in front of Michelle Obama. Another attendee connected with a leading official in the Detroit Public School System and has since moved to Detroit to build music programming in under-performing schools. The group produced free strategy and real funding for a Detroit Shakespeare production, a local Mo-town music teacher, a program focused on educating Detroit youth on the environment, a growing Barbershop concept, and a micro-granting organization called Detroit Soup.
Before starting Breakout, Farber spent a few years as Senior Vice-President at Bisnow, the real-estate content generator and events company. He discovered that building CEO retreats for the richest of the rich was not the kind of connection he was hoping for.
“You don’t always have a great conversation when it’s all guys in the two comma club in the same room,” says Farber.
He teamed up with Graham Cohen, a former colleague, to create Breakout. Like Farber, Cohen is also a tall brunette, but he is more stolid. He radiates a calm confidence, the quieter-one, the left-brained guy. Farber is more like the face.
At their second conference in New Orleans, Farber and Cohen realized how much their attendees craved more social engagement. That was when they became something more than your run-of-the-mill, closed-off gathering of elites.
“It was in New Orleans that we were really smacked in the face with the inequality and the larger societal issues we could be tackling,” says Cohen. “People liked the event, but there was something more that they were looking for. The feedback was that they wanted to be more involved in learning from the community and interacting with it.”
Whether Detroit actually needs our help or not is unknown, but it certainly looks like it does. The exploded bathroom was a microcosm for the city as a whole. It is a mass spread of highways and empty pockets of street and park where neighborhoods used to be. One night the whole mass of us, over one hundred mostly white, well-dressed successfuls cycled through a bad area. There appeared to be 75–80% vacancy, dark windows and boarded up doorways much more often than not. A lone black Suburban with twenty inch chromes sat parked in the concentric middle of what looked like a nuked public park. Was it a park? A vacant lot? A parking lot in the making? What was going on in that Suburban?
We rolled past a bumping party in a boarded up warehouse. There was a crowd of smiling black people outside.
“We love you!” yelled one party-goer to the passing leviathan, shaking his fist in the air. “We love you all!”
After that, we stopped at the Red Bull House of Art. It was a concrete bunker in a brick building about a mile from the warehouse party, on what seemed like the edge of the hipster Eastern Market neighborhood. In the basement was a ring of pop art pieces by various artists. One painting depicted a set of culturally critical temporary tattoos. One of them read “White Savior Industrial Complex.” Another piece featured a white man in a suit wearing a mask of the face of Martin Luther King.
These symbols weren’t lost on the group. We might very well be that suited man, hiding behind a mask of social justice. We might be “white saviors,” here only to get drunk while satisfying our latent messiah complexes. And worst of all, we might not even realize it.
More than anything, however, I found that the consciousness of this potential, that so many of these Burning Man/Summit-type events might be no more than masked excuses for elitist debauchery, is the point of Breakout. That acknowledgment is what sets Breakout apart. Breakout is fun, but it also forces attendees to look the socialist murals right in the face. It forces us to answer for that perspective. What was great about the Breakers I met is that they don’t just want to feel like they’re doing good, they’re dedicated to figuring out what “good” is. They want to make sure they are doing the right thing, to the point of being paranoid about it. Breakout doesn’t allow its members to do good as much as it allows them to search for what good is.
“It’s a lot about correcting that way of thinking, that we’re going to save these people. That’s not why we’re here,” says Farber. “But the reason why elitism is so annoying is because they get everything. They have all the access. They have all the press. We’re trying to spread that access to local communities. And this is how we can play our part.”