November 25, 2014
SAND 2014, The Nonduality Event That Bridges Science & Spirituality
SAND is such a great name for a conference and no, it doesn't hold that acronym because it's a travel conference that focuses on adventure in the sand. SAND stands for and is about all things that encompass Science and Nonduality.
The mission of SAND is to forge a new paradigm in spirituality, one that is not dictated by religious dogma, but based on timeless wisdom traditions of the world, informed by cutting-edge science, and grounded in direct experience.
I first attended the event two years ago (see my blog post from 2012), when it was held in Marin, just north of San Francisco. While they have an annual event in Europe as well, the U.S.-based event is always held in California.
This year, they headed south and set up shop for their nearly week long event at the Hayes Mansion on Edenvale Avenue in San Jose California, a resort which was once a lavish private estate.
People across continents and from all walks of life started flowing in on October 22 for this annual gem of an event. It was an entirely different vibe this year and I'm not sure if it was due to its extravagant venue choice, the fact that the quality of the content was even better or that I'm a little further along on my spiritual journey. My guess is that it's a combination of all three.
Surrounded by lush, emerald green lawns, accented with gardens of vibrant, colorful flowers and guarded by towering palm trees, the 100-year old mansion was transformed into a spiritual wonderland inside and out. Outside was an experiential oasis, which included a sound therapy tent run by Danny Goldberg (below).
Here, you could lie down and go into a deep hypnotic relaxation through a series of vibrational sounds. The sounds and vibrations of singing bowls, gongs and chimes guide us into a deep meditation, passing through our body and opening blockages while allowing our minds to quiet.
A wide range of ancient world traditions from Confucianism to the Pythagoreans’ claimed that sound could not only "tune the soul" but affect our cosmological & social worlds as well. I couldn't agree more - the experience was transformational.
Also outside was another relaxing technique in the form of a bed, a floating bed that is. The Floating Bed, a company started by John Huff, is mishmash of creativity, comfort and paradise. Says John, "not only is it great for a more relaxing and deeper sleep, but also useful for people with disabilities such as Autism, Autism Spectrum Disorder, PDD-NOS, Aspergers, Fragile X, ADD, ADHD and others.
Allowing the swinging bed to gently swing you back and forth while watching the world walk by, was a lovely way to spend a relaxing hour at the conference. I imagined where I could put such a contraption in my home and then remembered that I lived in a city. One can dream however, one can dream...
While the first time around, I tried to take in as many sessions as possible, this time I honored a more non-intentional flow. In other words, I didn't map out my agenda in advance nor did I make sure I had to attend every important talk by every renowned academic or yogi. I went with the flow and what my own bio-rhythm told me to do.
Using this approach, I met exactly who I was supposed to meet at the right time. By being as present as I could at every given moment despite the intellectual and spiritual eye and audio candy being thrown my way, the individuals I met, the experiences I had and the conversations that transpired along the way, were that much more powerful.
Being in your body as much as possible at an event like this is as important as digesting the data if not moreso, for it is through your body and spirit that you transform, not through your mind. From TransDance, yoga and meditation to art expression, RUMI poetry readings and Qigong with master Mingtong Gu, there were a number of ways you could experience mind/body immersion.
The community itself is what allows you to better process what you process during your SAND experience. Most of the people who attend could also be speakers, which is how profoundly interesting the attendees happen to be, alongside warm, authentic and soulful.
This is a community that spans religions or simply has none, however their core is central to the nonduality vision, which is to embrace a new integrative paradigm in which science and spirituality reenter into meaningful dialogue.
The idea is to authentically bridge an empirically responsible and non-dogmatic spirituality with a humanistic science willing to consider questions of context, perception, meaning and purpose. AND, that is precisely what happens at SAND....the melding of ideas across cultures and disciplines is discussed in hallways, in the bar, the experiential rooms, at the sessions, and over dinner.
In between the formal and structured content is quite frankly, is where the real magic happens at SAND. Below, co-founder Maurizio Benazzo talks about his own insights and inspiration for starting the event.
Imagine a conversation on healing the schism between science and spirituality while forging a new understanding of what it means to be human, with a professor of science, an emergency room doctor, a holistic healer, a film producer, a musician, a martial artist and a technology entrepreneur all within an hour.
Mind boggling is an understatement and within that boggling comes a little bit of chaos and confusion, all of which is designed to open you up to new possibilities and definitions of humanity as we currently understand it.
The result is a profound mashing of ideas through both heart and mind, allowing you to leave not just refreshed and re-centered but able to tackle the world around you in a much more compassionate way while leaving ego behind at the door.
The more you tap into the world of consciousness and interconnectedness, the more you are able to celebrate the mystery of life and the love that emanates from it, a far cry from seeing the world and the players on its stage as cynical, which is easy to do given how unconnected people around us seem to be on a daily basis.
Those who are some of the best in the world in helping you tap into your highest levels of consciousness showed up at SAND for the week, including the likes of Rupert Spira who led some of the morning meditation sessions -- I loved his calmness and powerful presence.
Other session leaders, speakers and topics included Yasmin Bar-Dor on finding harmony in this moment, John Hagelin on entanglement, space-time wormholes and the brain, David Barash on biology and self as functions, Meriel Gold on the ground of being, John Prendergast on secrets of the heart, Richard Lang on seeing who you really are, Sally Kempton on Shakti and self awareness, Ellen Emmet on the awakening body and Gabor Mate on mind/body unity and the stress/disease connection -- this was a powerful talk btw.
There was also Adam Hall on the polarity paradox, Stanly Klein on quantum mechanics and the entanglement of life (this went deep, so artists and right brain thinkers beware), Scott Kiloby on addiction, Paul Smit on enlightenment for lazy people, Edward Frenkel on mathematics as hidden reality, Swami Beyondananda on inter-spiritual nature and conscious agents, Donald Hoffman on entangling conscious agents, Nick Day on how movies and storytelling can connect us across time and space and Lothar Schafer on quantum reality and the spiritual mind.
And this my friends, is nowhere near an exhaustive list of the talent and pure energy I discovered at SAND this year.
Some of my Top Highlights:
- Judith Orloff who suggested that vulnerability is our deepest strength. She says, "being in fear makes you present." Check out radicalchoices.org.
- Coleman Barks and his beautiful RUMI poetry readings (below and my slightly cut off video of him speaking here).
Attendees who asked and challenged questions like:
- When you're practicing the passion of your life, you're not seeking, you're cultivating.
- What if we were free enough to be whatever we happen to be at any moment?
- What's key is being intimately honest and present with where you're and being okay with all of it regardless of what is going on.
Susanne Marie who suggests that Embodiment is never ending. (in the peach sweater below) She says, "the wholeness realizes there's a process going on. Know that nothing can be lost in that process. Step back from the experience and realize you are the space that everything is arising from.
The space itself is the whole and within that wholeness, that's all there is." On fear, she says, "one of the ways to deal with fear is to break it down into sensation.
Everything you're feeling is part of your own wisdom -- your own wisdom, which is the purest kind. If we can get close to that fear, we'll suddenly notice an awareness of a piece of it that we define as fear and something else that we inherently already know.
That knowiness of what is allows us to step back from the fear while at the same time walking towards it. Once you walk towards it and rest with it, there's a reflective piece of it all that you just know. All experience is good. One piece of what I'm feeling is not any worse than another because it's all part of a greater force at work.
Fear is all of these aspects of emotion and none of it is separate from God. When you are truly there with that, fear is just a sensation, nothing more....and then you'll find that the fear dissipates." I loved her energy!!
Gary Weber, who talked about the necessity to upgrade our mental operating system. He says, "if we can change our thinking just how we did from flat earth to round earth, we stand a chance."
He described the challenges with our current problematic operating system and how to decrease your self-referential internal narrative, fears, and desires and function more clearly and effectively, operating in "now, now, now" from a place of peace, presence and stillness.
See his video on this topic, which has much of the same content as his SAND presentation. I love his style and his ability to nail the most fundamental obstacles that get in our way through humor and direct candor. More info at www.happiness-beyond-thought.com.
The Importance of Breath. So often, we are running around and don't think about how we're breathing, how shallow it is and how often we actually hold our breath without even realizing it. I discovered SPIRE, which is currently in beta. Below, founder Neema Moraveji gives me a demo.
Spire monitors and analyzes your breathing patterns in real time to show when you are focused, tense, or frazzled. Stress triggers the brain's 'fight or flight' response, causing elevated heart rate, muscle tension, and shallow breathing. Your breath connects to your brain through the longest cranial nerve, the vagus, to influence your body, brain, and state of mind.
Improving the way you breathe eases pressure on the heart and cultivates a 'rest and digest' response in the brain. Spire helps monitor this and gives you feedback in real time and over time so you can improve your breathing and therefore, your overall quality of your health and your life. Below is an interview I did with Neema. Have a listen.
Film - All About Nothing from directors Paul Smit and Robert van der Broek. I had an opportunity to speak to Robert briefly afterwards who came over from Holland for the event - I loved his energy, so be sure to watch out for the film in the U.S. More info on Robert's site at www.allesoverniets.nl.
Qigong with Master Mingtong Gu: in this very educational and yet completely in your body session, Mingtong Gu took us through the various meridian points of our bodies and as we went there, we focused, chanted and released, relaxing into our breath and into the presence moment.
Wisdom healing Qigong was credited as the most effective method of Qigong healing by the Chinese government in 1997. Its success lies in these six treasures, or golden keys as it is commonly referred to: Haola ("I AM"), Inner Smile ("I am LOVE"), Service ("I am Connected"), Trust ("I am Enough"), Chi Field ("I am a co-creator") and Practice ("I am NOW").
His teachings involve showing people how to get energy to flow more freely through movement, sound and mind visualization and meditation.
I also discovered another product, which isn't quite there yet for consumers given its $13K upward price tag, however could be a godsend for health practitioners and holistic healers. The brain child of Harry Massey and Peter Fraser, miHealth is a practical system for detecting the body's fields and correcting areas in the most need.
I tried this nifty device on site and sat with Todd Zimmerman from NES Health (the parent company) who walked me through the process, how it works and where it can be beneficial in both clinical and non-clinical worlds.
After placing my right hand on their non-invasive, clinically researched, handheld device, the miHealth system did the rest.
The combination of the connected device and powerful software produced a print-out of areas where I had blockages. This biofeedback allows practitioners to locate, unblock and release energy blockage in areas of the body. The idea is to see beyond symptoms and provide a more effective and targeted way to rejuvenate the body's energy by releasing energy blockages throughout.
From scientists, philosphers, physicists, spiritual healers, sufi and zen teachers, yogis, and anthropologists, to musicians, artists, film producers, academics and psychotherapists, the nondual conversation is a rich and rewarding one, for through all of it, there's a desire for oneness, something that if we were all to allow ourselves to go there, would be the most peaceful serene sensation we've ever known.
Through that level of personal transformation, we can transform people around us, including the planet. And, while on this path to a so called golden age for humanity, you'll found beauty, purpose and deeper understanding in the simplest of things.
Truly, the....simplest of things, the opposite of complexity, which is what we're getting hit with on a daily basis, one of the most dangerous ones being, digital information overload.
November 25, 2014 in America The Free, Conference Highlights, Events, Magic Sauce Media, On People & Life, On Science, On Spirituality, On Technology, San Francisco, TravelingGeeks, Videos | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
November 24, 2014
On Japanese Quirks: Getting Over the Tokyo "Thing"
I spent a few weeks in Tokyo, the well recognized global city most frequent travelers have been to more than once. For this well-traveled chica, it was my first trip, largely since I had been told for years how hard it is to get around as well as how expensive it is to get around.
People also talked about the language barrier and truth be told, none of these stereotypes should scare a long time traveler and for some reason, between the stories and the radiation in the north, I put Japan on hold for awhile.
In just a few days, after nearly losing my cool getting lost five times in Shibuya's massive maze of a station, I fell in love with this renowned global Asian city.
First of all, a few surprises for the record. Formal But Genuine Friendliness: I was astonished how friendly people were despite the language barrier. Regardless of whether I was pointing to my map trying to get directions from a subway station to a restaurant or shop, or simply saying hello, I was greeted by a warm smile and a concerted effort to help even if they didn't speak any English at all.
One day as I flew forward in an effort to catch a fabulous shot in the north of Tokyo, I ended up face first on the ground, my camera lens thankfully was still in tact when I finally looked up. What wasn't in tact was my knee, which had lost a chunk of skin and was bleeding profusely. I tried to ignore this little incident because there were far too many photos to take and food to try, however a few women nearby came to my aid by pulling out band aids and antiseptic from their purses and offering them to me.
They wouldn't leave me alone until they were sure that my wound was covered and I was happily on my way. A similar thing happened in the airport on the way to Tokyo.
A Japanese woman sitting near me before we were due to board, noticed that I was shivering from JFK's overly active air conditioning system. She grabbed her shawl and wrapped it around my shoulders, which not only took me by surprise, but for a moment, I thought I was in a small village and not an international city airport.
The act brightened up my day and frankly, my long flight ahead. It's All In the Order & The Details: Japanese people really care about the details. From great design to clean lines, I found things in order nearly everywhere I went, from prestine hotel rooms to efficient sushi bars.
The shops were also well organized and I always felt like I was being "treated" after leaving a shop where I had purchased something, a bit like upscale shops in Paris make you feel after you've parted with your money. They also know how to present themselves....well.
Whether it's women and girls in beautifully presented komonos or men in white business shirts who still looked good while they were drinking in a bar hours after they left work, it was a joy to see given how sadly accustomed I've gotten to the logoed t-shirts and jeans look in Silicon Valley.
Hair Cuts & Styles: Clean cut, design and sharp angles are the order of the day. I found this to be true in both women and men. They're also not afraid of going wild with color, which I love!
Hair salons were literally everywhere and reasonably priced compared to American standards. I had the feeling that you'd get higher quality stylists for about 30% less than New York or San Francisco for average ones.
Heated Toilet Seats: I'd be remiss if I didn't give Japan's toilet seats its own category. Heated and overly technical toilet seats were literally everywhere. I found them in restaurants, hotel rooms, and even shops. It's not just that they're heated, but there are several modes you can choose from for a variety of things, including the power level of your flush. You can do a soft flush or a more powerful flush depending on what is needed. It's certainly efficient although I have to admit, I was confused on more than one occasion and just wished it could read my mind and take care of the flush for me.
Great Restaurant Ambiance Inside & Out: I loved the restaurant scene. Aside from the sushi bars which you could find throughout the city, there were other more classic places where you could combine a cooked meal experience with music. Take Kuriya Restaurant in Tokyo for example, which also offers jazz on selected evenings.
Not far from the Omote-Sando area (a ten minute walk away), I discovered this cute little Japanese restaurant with the following entrance. You feel more like you're going to enter a garden than a restaurant and the inside was equally as charming, with plants scattered throughout.
Remember that its a global city so despite the fact that there are boat loads of traditional Japanese restaurants, sushi and noodle bars, you can find many ethnic restaurants, more popular in some neighborhoods more than others.
Not far from the Yushimi subway stop in the north of Tokyo, I discovered Dela, a quaint little French restaurant that served up crock pots of cheese and onion soup and had a fairly extensive list of French wines, including a Bordeaux I was happy to sip slowly throughout the night.
Japanese but modern is Uotaru Restaurant on Kasuga Street in northern Tokyo.
Fun Side Streets & Alleyways: The world is but a maze in Tokyo where you can literally find an interesting side street or alleyway off a larger street in nearly every neighborhood. The following side street is near Asakusa - note the chaos, but also the culture and the color.
Below is taken near Shinjuku.
Quirky Bright Objects: Because of their love of all things electronics and entertainment, it shouldn't be a surprise to find nearly life size brightly colored statues and objects throughout the city. Of course, they're not everywhere, but in more populated areas, you'll spot things like this. This was taken near Cat Street, a widely known shopping street where hipsters hang out.
The bright and the loud extends beyond objects onto city walls. The below shot was taken in another popular shopping area - Takeshita Street.
Martial Arts & Theater: It goes without saying of course, but Tokyo has its fair share of martial arts and decadent costuming. Theatre is also celebrated and there are options throughout the city where you can see classic performances.
Color: I've mentioned color quite a few times, but it shows up in places you'd least expect it such as the choice of paint for a building that would have remained gray in another city. Because the Japanese love gardens, there always appears to be flowering plants peaking around every building.
The Tokyo Tower Et Hem The Japanese Eiffel Tower: The Tokyo Tower was obviously inspired by the Eiffel Tower. Despite being taller than the Eiffel Tower, Tokyo Tower only weighs about 4,000 tons, 3,300 tons less than the Eiffel Tower.
The below shot was taken while I was whizzing by in a car, so it doesn't look as grandiose as it looks in real time.
Size Matters: While you might think that London's Picadilly Circus or New York's Times Square are massive and confusing, they are country sisters compared to Tokyo's Shinjuku and Shibuya's districts.
Overwhelming at first, you'll soon find yourself like a kid in a candy store, intrigued by the size and choice of colors throughout the city. Below is taken in the Shinjuku area.
Here is a video I shot walking through Shinjuku late at night.
Diversity in a Homogeneous Kind of Way: While on the surface, it appears that everyone looks like they're from Japan and its population even in Tokyo, is not as mixed as you'd expect, people are very individualized, expressing themselves in creative ways that make them stand out from the crowd, rather than blending into it.
I wondered if part of this wasn't because of the former generation's more traditional expectations and that the subsequent generations are wanting to set an example. There are several books out about this including The Lost Generation.
It's Not As Traditional As You Think: While there are plenty of traditional restaurants, cafes, bars and shops, in the hipper neighborhoods like Omote-Sando and Shibuya where hipsters crawl the streets till the wee hours of the morning, I discovered many more cosmopolitan cafes where you could as easily be in New York.
Funky Fashion: I LOVED the fashion in Tokyo even though a lot of it isn't necessarily a fit for my own personal style. Color exudes....everywhere. From shoes to komonos to more modern shirts and dresses.
White Gloves, Hats & Umbrellas Everywhere: Women take their skin seriously throughout Japan, not just Tokyo. Wherever you go, you'll find them wearing long white gloves to protect their arms from the sun.
Every woman seems to wear a hat, which means that the hat stores in this country are incredible. I bought three hats in Japan and didn't intend to buy any - love love love them.
The best hat store was one I discovered on the main drag at the Asakusa Market and yes, I did leave with one from his shop. Umbrellas are also incredibly popular and you'll find women carrying them everywhere for protection from the glaring sun.
Bikes Everywhere & None of Them are Locked: I kept expecting someone to show up from around the corner of a shop, someone who was dedicated to watching all of the unlocked bikes in the street that is. Everywhere I went, regardless of neighborhood, I found unlocked bikes everywhere. Apparently bicycle theft isn't a problem - how unusual for a global city but also refreshing. It reminded me of Stockholm, Oslo and Copenhagen.
Safety and...Unattended Children: Unlocked bikes throughout the city brings me to safety. The other shocking thing was how many children I kept running into who were unattended.
Even in boisterous places like Omote-Sando, I saw small kids in their school uniforms, walking alone. They'd have their cell phones with them, backpacks on their backs and confident in their stature as if they knew exactly where they were going and hadn't a care in the world.
Shibuya Madness: Shibuya is as mad as everyone says it is. Regardless of whether you're there by day or night, it's a massive maze that can be confusing even for those without the language barrier. That said, it's a fascinating place to get lost and there are some fascinating shops and restaurants in the streets surrounding the main square.
Even if you hate crowds, you must go there for the experience regardless. Despite how many cities I've been to around the world, this one had me in awe again and again, each and every time I went there, which was a few times before my cruise and a few times after I returned to Tokyo.
Prestine Gardens: Does every Japanese citizen grow up caring about gardens? It appears so since I found plants outside of nearly every apartment or home regardless of neighborhood and they were all manicured.
The below prestigious and well kept gardens at the 5 star Otani Hotel is another example of where it extends to public places as well, which are not public or private parks. I stayed at the Otani and absolutely loved it.
Incredible Service: Prestine gardens and great cafe for nature (and things) extends to the service the Japanese provide. While the 5 star Otani Hotel in Tokyo may have been over the top in graciousness and service, the Keio Plaza Hotel, where I stayed for the last couple of nights, is a four star hotel that makes American four stars look like two stars.
Below two employees help me with my luggage, grabbing it the moment I walked through the door. Later, BOTH of them escorted me up with my luggage, asking me if there's anything else they could help me with again...and again.
Below, like everywhere I went, I was greeted with the warmest of smiles at breakfast one morning.
Speaking of Breakfast: Breakfast buffets in Japanese hotels are incredible. I could never understand why Americans would opt for the hotel restaurant that had American and western choices, when you could get the display of delicious Japanese options that are on offer. Have a look.
Bottled Drinks and Cigarettes EVERYWHERE: At first, I found myself hoarding bottled water every time I left one destination for another, because of how hot it was in Tokyo over the summer.
I later learned that this was a useless exercise since there are bottled drink machines literally on every corner. The great thing about them is that they're inexpensive as well. For around $1 or $1.20 a pop, you can get bottled water, iced teas, juices and sodas in a nano-second every time you're thirsty. It was one of my favorite things about the city.
The Electronics Thang: I'd be missing an important part of Tokyo culture if I didn't mention the electronics insanity of Tokyo.
There are a few neighborhoods that are worth exploring for electronics and one of them is in and around Shinjuku, which by the way, is a stone's throw from the Keio Plaza Hotel.
The other one is the notable Akihabara Electronic City, which is home to the world's largest electronics and electronics consumer goods in the world. Offerings range from appliances to computers and everything in between.
City Boat Rides from North to South: Not everyone I spoke to knew about this which I found surprising, but you can catch boats and cruisers from north to south and south to north, which is a great way to see parts of Tokyo not easily accessible by train or foot.
Some of the views from my boat ride, which only lasts around 20-30 minutes each way.
Hipster Shopping & Movies in Roppongi: I discovered this neighborhood and shopping area by accident despite the fact that its a very well known urban hang out in the city, by both locals and tourists. Roppongi has a massive shopping center that is open late - below is the view of the ceiling and surrounding area as you come down the escalator.
Sense of Honor: Honor is a big part of Japanese culture, which is in Tokyo as well. People respect elders and there is a gentleness and polite formality to nearly every exchange you have. I even noticed it with taxi drivers, which I found astounding.
The service felt more like I'd find from a limo driver than a standard taxi driver. Americans and the rest of the world could learn a thing or two from Japan's generosity and hospitality.
Random Festivals Without Warning: I love this about Tokyo and Japan in general. You'll find random festivals and parades when you least expect it. Below is the Shinjuku Eisa Festival, celebrated in part by a parade with dancers and drummers. It was incredible. I wrote a separate write up on the festival, so be sure to read it which includes a video of what I saw.
Did I leave anything out? What are some of the quirky and fun cultural things you experienced in Tokyo? Share below.
July 13, 2014
Meet the 2014 Travel & Leisure Smitty Award Winners
This year's Travel + Leisure Smitty Awards recently announced their winners for 2014, an Awards Program which recognizes the companies in the travel and tourism industry showcasing the best and most innovative uses of social media.
I am proud to announce that I was a judge this year, together with Skift's Jason Clampet, Twitter's Mike De Jesus, Gogobot's Travis Katz, BuzzFeed's Ashley Perez, travel photographer Cole Rise, NBC Today Show's Al Roker, Google's Rob Torres and travel social media strategist Ann Tran. We reviewed hundreds of submissions and named winners and runners-up in 30 categories.
Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts took home the most awards with four wins and Virgin Atlantic and The Hertz Corporation received two wins in two categories each. The winners and their campaigns can be seen on travelandleisure.com/smittys, with additional information available by searching #TLSMITTY on social media. The SMITTY Awards is also featured in the Travel + Leisure July 2014 issue which went on stands in mid-June. To celebrate the SMITTY Awards, Travel + Leisure hosted an event on July 9, 2014 at the Refinery Hotel rooftop in Manhattan. Below are a handful of fun shots I took at the event.
Travel + Leisure's Editor-in-Chief, Nancy Novogrod, Renee Blodgett, and Rich Beattie, Travel + Leisure's Executive Digital Editor
Above, Four Seasons' Laura Fairweather
Above, Tadashi Matsushita from ANA (All Nippon Airways), Renee Blodgett and Athanasios "Tommy" Sikolas of ANA (All Nippon Airways)
Above, Rich Beattie
Above and below, kudos to the Hyatt team & a few others :-)
Above, Travel + Leisure reps from social media, digital and design!
Above, Ruth Moran (left) from Tourism Ireland even made a showing :-)
Below are the Winners:
Best Use of Twitter: Virgin Atlantic; Runner-Up: The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company Best Use of Pinterest: VisitBritain; Runner-Up: Explore Georgia Best Use of Instagram: Tahiti Tourisme North America Best Use of Facebook: Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts Best Use of Tumblr: VisitSweden; Runner-Up: Sofitel Luxury Hotels Best Chat/Hangout: Residence Inn by Marriott Best Long-Form Video: Virgin American; WestJet (tie) Best Use of Foursquare or Other Location-Based Services: Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts; Hilton Hotels & Resorts; The Hertz Corporation (tie) Best App or Technology: Roaming Hunger; Runner-Up: Oberoi, Mumbai Best Blog: Butterfield & Robinson; GrandLife Hotels (tie) Best Use of Social Media for Public Service: Montage Hotels & Resorts; Runner-Up: Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Best Contest/Giveaway: The Beaches of Fort Myers & Sanibel; Runner-Up: South African Tourism Best Use of and Emerging Platform: Iceland Travel; Shangri-La Hotels and Resorts (tie) Best Customer Service: Hyatt Hotels & Resorts; Runner-Up: Austin Convention & Visitors Bureau Best Use of Social Media: Independent Travel Journalist/Blogger: Amateur Traveler Best Use of Social Media: Independent Travel Photo Journalist/Videographer: Bohemian Trails; Runner-Up: Let's Get Lost
Best Overall Use of Social Media:
Airline: Virgin Atlantic; Runner-Up: All Nippon Airways Airport: Singapore Changi Airport; Runner-Up: San Francisco International Airport Attraction: Vail Resorts; Runner-Up: Rocky Mountaineer Car Rental Agency: The Hertz Corporation Cruise Line: Princess Cruises; Runner-Up: MSC Cruises USA Tourism Board/DMO/Marketing Association: Pure Michigan; Runner-Up: Los Angeles Tourism & Convention Board Global Hotel or Resort Chain: Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts; Runner-Up: Fairmont Hotels & Resorts Individual Hotel or Resort, U.S.: Beverly Wilshire, a Four Seasons Hotel Individual Hotel or Resort, Global: The Westin Bund Center, Shanghai; Runner-Up: Ushuaïa Ibiza Beach Hotel Outfitter: Big 5 Tours & Expeditions; Runner-Up: G Adventures Travel Agency/OTA: Expedia Travel Resource: Fathom; Peek (tie) Restaurant/Food Truck/Market: Sam’s Chowder House Non-Travel-Industry Company: Cubavera/Perry Ellis
The Travel + Leisure SMITTY Awards 2014 Jury
- Renee Blodgett, Founder and Editor, We Blog the World; CEO, Magic Sauce Media
- Jason Clampet, Co-Founder and Head of Content, Skift
- Mike De Jesus, Head of Travel and Tourism, Twitter
- Travis Katz, Co-Founder and CEO, Gogobot
- Ashley Perez, Senior Editor, BuzzFeed
- Cole Rise, Travel Photographer
- Al Roker, Co-Host and Weatherman, NBC’s TODAY Show
- Rob Torres, Managing Director of Travel, Google
- Ann Tran, Travel Social-Marketing Strategist
Below is a very short video snippet shot at the event of Rich Beattie congratulating winners and giving kudos to his team. They did an incredible job pulling together yet another year's Awards event. Kudos to Rich and his team!
December 06, 2013
Reflecting On Nelson Mandela's Life, His Impact On South Africa & The World
I write today with great sadness after learning about the passing of Nelson Mandela this week. You see, I have a long history with South Africa and every time she graced me with another memory, I was forever changed. Her imprint wasn't the kind of imprint other country destinations leave; it was if South Africa's spirit spoke to me each and every time, as if she had to teach me something larger than myself...a bit like Mandela did over the course of his lifetime...
As I reflect on Mandela's impact and his important life work, I began thinking of all the talks I have heard him give including a dramatic one in person in the 1990s, and zeroed in my own South African story, one which he influenced by his actions, his courage, his resilience and his solitude. He changed how I absorbed not just culture, politics and history, but how I viewed humanity and the world.
My story goes deep. Endure me on an important life journey for a moment, starting in a pre-Mandela world.
Apartheid was still very much in place when I lived in South Africa as a foreign exchange student in 1984, two years before the country's declared State-of-Emergency.
Being white, I was placed with a well-off English speaking white family in a ritzy Johannesburg suburb and sent to a prestigious white school. In this bubbled existence, I was meant to be protected from the waging cultural war that was brewing under the surface. We wore uniforms and lived colonial lives, with two tea breaks a day at school, private tennis lessons and trips to the stables for horseback riding. And, it was oh so very proper. Girls hung out with girls, and boys hung out with boys even at co-ed schools.
I also studied at a white Afrikaans school just outside Johannesburg. Boys played sports and marched -- remember that military service was mandatory for South Africans - my boyfriend at the time served in Namibia for two years.
Below one of my teachers from Hyde Park High School instructs a black gardener who serviced the grounds during a 'tea' break.
Meanwhile, another world existed outside Johannesburg's wealthy white suburbs. While we played crochet, ate strawberries and cream, and sipped champagne by the pool, black South Africans lived in their own neighborhoods, a far cry from the world I had begun to know. Imagine a world where life existed for your entire family in one room with nothing but a tin roof or a leaky plastic covering to protect you from the rain.
Violence was rampant and deaths occured daily in townships between black communities (many westerners don't realize that fighting happened not just between whites and blacks at the time but between local tribes who disagreed). Important movies like Cry Freedom & A Dry White Season made the world aware of the social injustice, all driven from the top.
Unfathomable stories came into the international spotlight, unveiling atrocious crimes of white police beating and killing black prisoners, many of whom didn't deserve to be arrested in the first place. Buried in a corrupt system under the guise of Apartheid, some whites turned a blind eye, while others lived in their own colonial bubble, oblivious of what was happening behind the scenes. Then, there were a few brave white souls who risked their lives to bring these heart wrenching stories to the western media and fought hard and long for equality and a united country, not one divided by color.
Outside the cities, black South Africans lived in straw huts in the rural countryside. The below shots were taken in the northern Transvaal and Swaziland in 1984.
My naivity at the time still dumbfounds me. While I may have been a smarter than average teenager, the siloed education I received in small town America limited my awareness of global politics and injustice. While it's not rocket science to understand the concept of a segregated country by color (crikey, we had our own until the 1960s), but since I had never 'lived it,' I wasn't prepared for what I witnessed. This lack of preparedness and awareness resulted in me living in a world blinded by sugar-coated glasses for the first few months. During that time, I avoided probing too deep when answers to my questions remained unanswered or even worse, were undigestable.
I used to ask questions that perhaps a ten year old might ask, such as "why does our maid live in a shack behind our house? Why can't "they" sit with us at the same table? Why can't they go into the restaurant with us? The answers of course never made any sense, nor did the sneers I received from my boss at a Sandton restaurant where I was hostess.
I'd talk to the "black" boys who cleared away the dishes and the dishwasher crew and whenever I did, I was told not to and in hindsight, they too seemed confused by communication. There were so many times I was told "not to" during my first year in South Africa, that it started to numb my understanding of what was at play on a large and deeply turbulent scale. "Not to engage with, not to play with, not to dance with, not to talk to, not to buy things for, not to give a hug to..." The list went on. And yet, my true understanding of what was happening in the early months of living there was closer to a young child's understanding, not a mature one.
I experienced different behavior when I lived with a white family on a rural farm in the Northern Transvaal, not far from the Zimbabwean border. Below, I am cooking on the grill with the oldest brother of my host family, who was one of the best hunters I had ever encountered - I once saw him kill a snake which came flying out of a tree into our window early in the morning in a nano-second. He seemed to have a unique relationship with their servants in a way I had not yet witnessed in the country's urban areas, something I would later learn would add to the puzzle of why South Africa's black and white history is so much more complex than meets the eye. No history book or novel can prepare you for the intricacies of its long and painful racial struggle.
He used to woo me with his knowledge of Zulu, Xhosa and something they referred to as Fanagalo, a pidgin (simplified language) based primarily on Zulu, with English and a little Afrikaans thrown in. It was often spoken in northern South Africa and in more rural areas, between white farmers and their black servants and staff.
In those days, people still referred to Zimbabwe as Rhodesia and many had getaways up there, so much so that we used to head over the border to waterski on Lake Kyle on weekends. (you know you're not in Kansas anymore when they tell you about the risks of crocodiles, so be sure never to fall). In Zim or Rhodie depending on who you talked to, the relationship between blacks and whites seemed milder, less hostile, less fragile and less haunting. There are a host of reasons for this but it wasn't until I crossed that border several times with my ex-husband in the 1990s did I feel the intensity of the tension the moment we were back on South African soil.
While South African tourists may most remember sipping wine on some of Stellenbosch's best vineyards or their visit to Kruger National Park, there's a whole other side to South Africa, a world where white and black South Africans worked together, tended the land, hunted and killed to eat.
Below, I am with one of my host families in the northern Transvaal after a day out in the bush, which almost always meant in those days, bringing an impala or kudo home for dinner.
I eventually learned who Mandela was, but it was only after I ventured beyond my rich white suburbs and started conversations with people who I sensed felt uncomfortable with my questions, as if I were a private investigator probing rather than an everyday civilian having a healthy dialogue. It was at this time I met some white radicals (or at least that's what some people called them) at the Wits University campus, one of South Africa's most famous universities. It was then that I discovered how deep race issues were and how close to a very dangerous edge the country was living. Little did I know how much violence was brewing and how close we were to a transformation that would not just change South Africa forever, but the world.
What would be deemed as a curious and socially active student in a free democratic country was classified as radical and dangerous in a 1970s and 1980s South Africa world. That year, I fell in love with musician Johnny Clegg and even had an opportunity to meet him and shoot one of their concerts from the edge of their stage. His music more than moved me, it transformed me from an innocent and ignorant bystander of life to a curious and caring one. If I wanted a life full of purpose and passion, I knew my life could never be one where I'd stand on the sidelines observing life, but one which involved diving with both feet even if it was sure to be a painful dive.
Above, Johnny Clegg in rare form, his passionate music echoing into a winter night on the grounds of Wits University. While he wasn't the only musician to write about this volatile time, he was a revolutionary at heart who led the way on his home soil. Steven Van Zandt's "Sun City," a song that protested the South African policy of apartheid was also instrumental as was the follow on support by such musical greats as Bruce Springsteen, Run DMC, Bonnie Raitt, Miles Davis, George Clinton, Jackson Browne and dozens more. Let's also not forget Paul Simon's "Graceland," which came out in 1986 and featured Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Their music brought South Africa's pain into our hearts and understanding in the west even if we could never begin to understand day-to-day life for people living under an Apartheid regime.
Below, locals just outside the Transkei are about to load a pick up truck with chickens, okra, tomatos and bananas.
Below, children sing at an all black school in a rural area.
To say that my experience living in the 1980s and 1990s in South Africa was diverse is an understatement. From rural farms to living with Afrikaans families in cities and towns, and then wealthy English families in Johannesburg, Durban and Cape Town, to breathing in the land and its wildlife on various national parks and nature reserves, I felt the pulse of a country in pain.
While today Soweto is freely traveled to and even houses a Holiday Inn, back then, it was off limits to whites and considered incredibly dangerous. That didn't stop me however and I can recall the experience as if it were yesterday. People ask me all the time: weren't you afraid?
The truth is, no I wasn't afraid. The truth is...I was greeted with warmth and generosity despite the fact that there was mass hatred of whites and an extreme number of violent incidents at the time. I realize that things could have gone south and a different set of encounters could have resulted in my not being alive to tell the story today. The same could be said for venturing into certain parts of Harlem and Detroit during their most volatile times. And yet, back then, talking to locals felt urgent somehow, even though I didn't have a clue what to do with their stories.
A few years later when I was studying and living in London, a mere stone's throw from Trafalgar Square, the home of daily South Africa protests, it felt like the most natural thing in the world to join the crowd. Times were complicated and the circles I traveled in were diverse.
Below, I was out on a bush walk with an American missionary who was stationed in southern Africa for many years. Everyone and their brother seemed to be involved in stirring up a pot, whether it was religious, political or social.
In 1990, I returned to South Africa to live, this time with my South African ex-husband. Not much had visibly changed in every day life, except there was a shift in sentiment and more importantly, laws. It was the year the then President Frederik Willem de Klerk began negotiations to end Apartheid and the official abolishing of Apartheid occurred with repeal of the last of the remaining Apartheid laws.
The result would be the country's first multi-racial democratic elections in 1994, which as we all know, was won by the African National Congress under Nelson Mandela. To this day, the vestiges of Apartheid still shape South African politics and society.
That year, we drove up and down the country a few times, and eventually made our way north to Malawi in an old fashioned boxed van manufacturered sometime a few decades earlier. Economically, nothing had yet changed for black South Africans but Mandela had become a household name.
When we weren't working in Johannesburg in the hospitality industry, we were on the road and that meant living in our van or pitching a tent when the mosquitos weren't rampant. We picked up hitchhikers along the way and made friends from around the world over the course of nearly two years.
Life couldn't be more free; no one told us who we could talk to and who we couldn't, or where we had to be or when. Below, we stopped the van along side a cliff somewhere on the Cape's Garden Route and here, we made dinner, opened a bottle of South Africa Shiraz and toasted to a new world.
If we wanted to go into a rural area or township and have a conversation, we could and we did. To say this was widely accepted just because the Apartheid veil had been legally lifted is far from a reality.
Considered as dangerous as it was in the 1970s? Absolutely. If you recall, violence soared before it leveled off and there was a tremendous amount of mistrust and cultural 'sorting' in Mandela's early days. Also remember that there were a lot of disgruntled white South Africans (in and out of the National Party -- which later became known as the New National Party) by De Klerk's radical political move.
It was a different vibe in rural areas however, particularly the bush. Life was much more simple and chatting about life around the fire at night was easy. Here, I sensed less anger and their personalities were more fluid. It doesn't mean that white hatred didn't exist but the energy was more relaxed and trusting. Below, we drink coffee late at night listening to hyaenas in the distance, an experience which always felt spiritual to me.
Below, a shot of a family we picked up in our van in 1990, who wasn't sure (at first) whether to trust us or not. Behind them, you can see our mosquito net which we slept under every night.
Below, drummers go wild in Hillbrow just outside Johannesburg's center.
In the early nineties, life was still very much segregated in the cities and the towns.
Young white South Africans (as my ex-husband, his brother and wife and our friends were) shifted their attitudes and wanted to make amends somehow. It wasn't uncommon to hear things like "we have a black friend now," or "we just did X with Z," as if to make a point that they were progressive in their thinking and not white South African racists. It wasn't their fault; after all, the country had conditioned them from childhood, a white racist government who created white racist schools and taught History the colonial way, which was from a very different textbook than the one I used when I taught in a Kenyan school a few years later.
Most of their attempts at doing the right thing, at least in our circles, came from a pure place. Those with candy colored glasses who were so brainwashed under the old regime would either take decades of reconditioning to truly understand the atrocities of the Apartheid system or never change their mind.
Yet, during that time, things were vibrant, wild and new. It was a time when the unexpected happened and the country had a chance to start over.
Around that time, I was asked to do publicity for a black musician and his white wife who needed help opening a white & black nightclub in Johannesburg, a groundbreaking and bold move for the time. They weren't interested in traditional communications and media strategies, nor exposure from CNN. For them, it was all about grassroots efforts, from educating locals to alleviating safety concerns across three generations of whites whose lives were about to change in ways they never imagined.
Meanwhile, Mandela's respect was growing with diverse supporters and new voices (both black and white) were amplifying.
There were times we'd be at a braai (equivalent of a western barbecue except they'd often grill game) in someone's backyard, see smoke bombs going off in Soweto a mile or so down the road and suddenly be brought back to reality. Sirens would follow and we knew a death had happened or two...and yet we were untouched behind our walled gardens in some white suburb with guards by the fence.
Life could also be melancholy and surreal at times. People were struggling with all the changes, many in disbelief, even those who felt it was positive for the country and had fought for decades to see an integrated South Africa.
Other times, the intensity of it all was too much. Everyone spoke of politics and violence all the time and it became all consuming. Female friends in their early twenties were carrying hand guns in their purses to be ready for attacks, whether it was walking into a fast food joint to order a burger or get petrol in their car.
While we never carried a gun, we took the rotor out of our van every time we parked it since so many vehicles were being stolen, sometimes at gun point. We often didn't stop at red lights because that's where so many hold-ups happened and white South Africans were losing not just their cars, but often their lives. Break-ins became more commonplace and would sometimes result in a death not just a theft. It became a way of life and people assimilated into a new but more violent South Africa.
We eventually left the city and headed south to Cape Town where things were less unpredictable. The reason for this lies in the fact that Cape Town had always been more integrated than the north and as a result, the environment was milder. We stopped at red lights again and started to breathe a calmer air. We also brought sandwiches and wine out to the ocean's edge and sat on the rocks at sunset, talking about politics, democracy and war, both of us so aware how different the dialogue would be had we been back in the states sharing food with friends on the Boston coast instead.
Through all of this, I wrote. For so many reading this, it's hard to imagine a time before computers, but then, I didn't have one, nor did anyone I know. It was a world without cell phones, iPads, iPods and laptops. Texting was inconceivable and if you wanted to leave a message for a colleague you were planning to meet in Tanzania in two week's time, you'd send him a note through a PO Box or leave a handwritten message on an old fashioned pin-up board in a known hotel travelers knew about.
And so, with so much uncertainty and violence in the air, I wrote. And, I wrote. And, I wrote. I filled a suitcase with notebooks.
I wrote everywhere and anywhere I could and didn't need a power chord or an Internet connection to do so.
My brother-in-law at the time loaned me a typewriter so I could process my thoughts faster since there were times my head was spinning out of control. Late at night, my mind whirled and swirled trying to make sense of the growing violence and political changes. History was in motion as Mandela was about to take the reigns.
My favorite place to write was under the stars by moonlight. There's nothing like an African sky....it made me feel closer to the earth than anywhere else I had ever spent time or lived. When you consider that southern Africa is where man began, it makes sense. I was lost in time on more than one occasion under an African sky, an experience that is now but a mere memory, but one I'd gladly relive.
After we left South Africa and returned to live in Boston, the country was never far from our reach. While we didn't have Facebook, we had friend's letters, phone calls, access to the BBC and Johannesburg newspapers that my then mother-in-law used to send us. We continued to listen to South African music, drank rooiboss tea, received packages of biltong and attended South African get togethers in New York and Boston every year. We couldn't let "her" go. She had grabbed ahold of us and made us forever hers.
We watched Mandela's progress from afar, listened to his speeches and routed him on. It wasn't until 18 years later in 2008 that I returned. A trip that was slated for three weeks turned into several months, which included an extensive drive up and down the country and along the mystical and magical Garden Route in the south.
Returning to Soweto was nothing short of surreal for me. Blacks and whites shopped in the same mall and sipped coffee at the same cafe. Below is a shot I took while relaxing against a rock on a sunny afternoon.
Prophet gave us a historical account of activities; the stories felt so far removed from the South Africa I had experienced so many moons ago...pre-Mandela.
Two brothers play together in a nearby park, both of them with smiles on their faces.
In the south, in a small village on the coast called Arniston-by-the-Sea, more seemingly happy children found me and my camera and couldn't wait to pose.
I was blown away by the positive attitude of the children, all of whom are removed by a generation from the inequality their parents and grandparents faced. They gave me a sense of hope and joy, so much so that I created a photo book on this hope. Have a look at the most precious images of what hope looks like in my book I call Post Apartheid Kids.
All this we have Nelson Mandela to thank. As CNN so eloquently put it, "word of Nelson Mandela's death spread quickly across the United States, bringing with it a mix of reverence and grief for a man who was born in South Africa but in the end belonged to the world."
His activism is a pure example of how to make a horrible wrong right. The South Africa I experienced in the 1980s and 1990s, while is full of beautiful memories and encounters with people who did make a positive difference, is an uglier South Africa than the one Mandela created over the course of his presidency.
While for many Europeans and Americans, the death of Mandela may feel akin to losing one of their own, it goes much deeper for me. Having gone to high school in South Africa, having been exposed to the rawest form of racism I had yet to experience in South Africa, having married a South African and having been transformed by its activists, its musicians, its professors, its authors and my friends, all led to a deep connection to the country, as if the country had become my own.
South Africa is imprinted not just in my memory but she is in my blood. Mandela is part of that imprint. Mandela made more than an impact on South Africa - his resilience and spirit has taught us all around the world what it means to be human and what it takes to step up to the plate and embrace humanity. I bow down and honor his life and am grateful for how he has touched me and the world at large.
May God grant you the peace and serenity you so deserve Nelson Mandela. As Obama so beautifully said in his speech, "He no longer belongs to us. He belongs to the ages."
For a beautifully reflective and heartwarming end to this tribute, listen to this heartfelt song by Johnny Clegg performed in 1999 with Nelson Mandela on stage:
Note: For those who are interested in a deeper dive into South African history, culture and tribal influences across centuries, please read one of my favorite authors Andre Brink, who I still dream of meeting over a glass of Shiraz one day. He has written countless novels and memoires, all of which I have read, however my favorites include Looking On Darkness, The Other Side of Silence, Rumors of Rain, An Intant in the Wind and A Chain of Voices. Let's just say I have read this list of novels more than once.
Photo credits: Top image of Mandela from UK Telegraph. All other images Renee Blodgett.
June 13, 2013
Start-Up Iceland Event Draws Iceland's President & Attracts American Thought Leaders
Hackathons are fairly common in Silicon Valley and while they're starting to pop up in pockets around the world, Iceland may not be a place that immediately comes to mind when you think of start-up geek fests.
Reykavik, Iceland's largest city and home to two thirds of its 320,000 people, recently held a Hackathon in conjunction with Start-Up Iceland, an event committed to helping local entrepreneurs build a thriving start-up ecosystem in the country.
Started by serial entrepreneur, angel investor and Greenqloud CEO Bala Kamallakharan in 2012, Start-Up Iceland has not only grown in size in just one year, but attracted top notch angel investors from the states, as well as European and American entrepreneurs and thought leaders.
TechCrunch's John Biggs presented, as did American venture capitalists Brad Burnham from Union Square Ventures and Foundry Group's Ryan McTyre and Jason Mendelson. To top that list, Iceland’s US Ambassador Luis E. Arreaga and the country's President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson thought the event was important enough to show up to address the more than 300 attendees at the beautifully designed conference center HARPA in the city center.
In true start-up conference style, the event kicked off with an UnConference led by Joshua Kaufmann and a Hackathon, held at the University of Reykjavik, where geeks gathered together to cook up some innovative ideas.
The Hackathon was free and open to students, hobbyists, professionals and frankly anyone who likes to hack on cool code and be creative.
Startup Iceland Hackathon participants were asked to create and present hacks around the central idea that the world is undergoing drastic cultural, climate and economic shifts that impact global business.
As the founding organizers mission suggests: "Strengths lie not within avoiding catastrophe but in planning and mitigating problems before they arise. We can accomplish this by understanding the needs of the business community, anticipating the hurdles and creating proactive solutions." Well said.
Above, locals present their ideas to attendees and a panel of judges and below, Seattle Angel Conference's John Sechrest moderated a session.
Below the Hackathon finalists pose with American thought leaders and entrepreneurs.
Winners and finalists receive acknowledgement on stage.
The winner of the Hackathon was GreenQloud Automated Server Balancer, which is a collection of scripts that manage and change attributes to a GreenQloud hosted server depending on the load.
Simply put, when a user's server is idle, only one system is running. Once the load gets to a specific point, a new system is activated, which allows for consistant performance across the board without wasting so much power. Lower Power usage, lower wasted dosh.
While green energy may be enviromentally friendly, it's not unlimited, so their notion is that you should only use what you need. With their approach, you can efficiently waste the least amount of power with enough performance to do what you need.The team was awarded $1,000.
Below, Bala does a fireside chat style interview with Ryan and Jason from Foundry Group.
The UnConference presented a host of great ideas, which were far more varied than what you'd find in technology hubs in the United States, largely because many of the needs and problems that locals need to solve on a Nordic Island are unique.
Some of the ideas included angel investing in Icelandic start-ups, the role of big companies in the start-up ecosystem, women's role as investors, entrepreneurs and consumers, cultural barriers between those who have money and those who don't, the value of mentoring, bootstrapping, what can be gained from a Pan-Nordic collaboration, growing Icelandic tourism through better customer service, attracting talent to Iceland and the importance of having a start-up friendly government policy.
Kudos to the Start-Up Iceland team and everyone behind the scenes who made everything happen, from the Hackathon and UnConference, to the more formal Start-Up Event at HARPA, which included a VIP dinner and the President's speech.
I first heard Iceland's President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson speak at PopTech, an annual event in Maine I've had the pleasure of attending and being involved in over the years. His presentation style is very warm and inviting and once again, he brought that quality to the stage. Below he gives a touching and inspiring talk to attendees.
The video of his talk below.
My takeaway went beyond the fact that Iceland now has a thriving and growing start-up community as demonstrated by Start-Up Iceland and the level of support for the event. Icelanders have resilience and dedication to making things work regardless of what is thrown their way.
Consider what the country went through in 2008 during their financial crisis and how as a nation, they came out the other side as committed and united, able to move forward with a team and “can-do” attitude, something every startup needs to not just survive but thrive.
The fact that Iceland is a small country can be used to their advantage. Icelanders help each other out, share and cross pollinate ideas and don't give up easily. Smaller communities in the U.S., such as Boulder and Portland also implement more of a sharing and caring mentality, something Silicon Valley could use a bit more of. As Foundry Group’s Jason Mendelson commented on a panel, “in Silicon Valley, it’s more like every man out for himself.”
We have a lot to learn from Icelanders and I felt fortunate to meet some of the early entrepreneurs who are helping to make Iceland grow and thrive as a global player in the entrepreneurial world.
May 02, 2013
Lithuanian Start-Up Demos Cool GooGPS Travel App on Tablet PC
I discovered (and used) an interesting new GPS app from a Lithuanian company when I was in Vilnius Lithuania recently.
They call it GooGPS, and the model is data for travel and tourism for visitors. Imagine a Samsung like tablet PC that is loaded with all the best of a city - main attractions, festivals, events, museums, churches, restaurants and hotels, that is light enough to hang around your neck while you meander through a new city.
Then, imagine along side of that data, you have access to all your social apps like Foursquare, Twitter and Instagram, a video camera for easy capturing and a browser to check email....all on a device that is connected 24/7 and limited for E10 a day.
UAB is a global pioneer that is successfully developing a new business model – rent of tablet PCs for travelers. These guys have created a set of programs called “interactive travel guide” that works with a modified Android operational system.
In the system which is within a portable 7-inch tablet, you have 3D navigational maps, connected to their controlled interactive guide with places of interest, routes and audio content.
It is currently available for visitors to Lithuania and Latvia with plans to expand to other regions in the future.
I tested it out for the day, which included site seeing in Vilnius, the main city and the outskirts. The only glitch I had was limited battery life, so the tablet died half way through my day but when it was up and running, it worked like a charm and was fun to use. Below is a video of me chatting to the product manager.
March 03, 2013
The Connected Things Discussion at London's WebSummit
Techcrunch's Mike Butcher interviews Alex Hawkinson of Smart Things and Fabrice Boutain of HAPILABS in an interactive chat on the Web Summit stage in London last week.
Below is a video of their conversation, which includes demos.
December 14, 2012
LeWeb's The Internet of Things: From Lightbulbs & Robots to Augmented Reality Apps & Air Quality
From a couple of hundred attendees in the first year, they had 5,000 attendees this past year alone for both their London and Paris events, London being a test, something that they plan to continue doing in the years ahead.
They attract big players like Orange, Microsoft and others and mid-tier players known in Europe and beyond, like Parrot, as well as tons of start-ups eager secure funding and entrepreneurs looking for the next big thing. It's also an incredible place to "schmooze" on the floor at the event itself as well as the umpteen after parties and events they hold in the evenings throughout the center of Paris.
I returned to San Francisco from an exhausting trip of meetings and pow-wows to hear that LeWeb was acquired by Reed MIDEM, one of the leading events organizers in the world. How that changes the format of LeWeb moving forward is yet to be seen, but more budget and marketing should 'in theory' lead to more "high-touch" events, better food and higher profile speakers. That said, it could also drive ticket prices up.
Acquisition aside, Loic and Geraldine LeMeur managed to pull off yet another fabulous event, from A-list speakers to entertainment and networking.
So, who showed up there and unveiled their latest?
Parrot's CEO Henri Seydoux, who I had an opportunity to meet several years ago when they hosted the TravelingGeeks trip I organized to Paris, was as charming as ever on the LeWeb stage in an interview with Loic LeMeur.
Within LeWeb's theme of the "Internet of Things," he made what could have been a 'faux pas' by saying that you can't reference women as things or you'll be in trouble for a long time. It didn't turn into a faux pas though at least from what I could tell, since everyone laughed -- including women. I happen to like their products and team. As an aside, rumor has it that his actress daughter played a role in the latest James Bond film. Ahh yes, the things you learn at LeWeb.
Chris Shipley ran the start-up event; the finalists were: Be-Bound, Qunb and Recommend.
Be-Bound gives you access to the Internet without wifi, aka stay connected to the web without the Web.
A stat for the taking: 3G/WIFI = 14% and 2G = 86%. These guys use the SMS layer. Their business model is using prepaid credits called B-Miles. For example, 3 Euros = 35 Be-Miles, 10E = 200 Be-Miles and so on. They'll also use advertising and couponing to drive revenue.
Their objective is to reach 3.2% of this business over the next 3 years. They said on stage, “our business is cash generating. We hope to achieve cash-even in three years.”
Qunb's platform is all about quantitative data. The idea is you can now visualize and broadcast your own data! How it works: their platform understands your data semantically so your data becomes compatible with other data so they can make sense of each other. They’re going after large corporations who are willing to understand their data and compare it so it makes sense in a meaningful way. Currently, their product is featured on the SAP marketplace.
The last finalist was Recommend, which is a platform that gives you recommendations from people you trust. There seems to be a lot of 'recommendation engines' out there, so I thought this one had the least potential from running a sustainable business in the long run vis a vis the others.
Their pitch is quality not quantity: recommendations from friends only in your network. (friends + friends of friends). They say they will succeed because it’s viral and sticky, sticky because it’s recommendations for every day things and apparently there's also notifications for extra 'value.'
Then, Team Blacksheep gave a demo - well sort of. A flying plane was let loose in the LeWeb audience. The TBS DISCOVERY frame is an upgrade for all Flamewheel F450 frames, using F450 arms and a custom TBS top and bottom plate including power distribution board. It's cool to watch and for geeks who are interested in this, apparently easy to build.
I thought that Netatmo's concept was interesting - they're offering a personal weather station for the iPod and iPad, where you can monitor weather and air quality. Says the team, "we spend 80 percent inside - our lifestyle is indoor and we have to think about indoor air quality as well as outdoor air quality." They have created a weather station to monitor inside and outdoor environments and then they send this data to the cloud.
The team showed real time data across a map of Paris where we could see weather patterns across different sections of the city. They take measurements of environment and are using crowdsourcing to bring this data to people in a way that is usable and "useful."
They think that real estate prices will rely on data like this and can impact prices and other things. The more co2 you have, the more dense your space is, which decreases the quality of your air.
Then, MG Siegler interviewed Instagram's Kevin Systrom, who's always at his polished best. I saw him a few months back in a similar "question exchange" with Sarah Lacy at one of her PandoDaily events in San Francisco.
Polished aside and interesting app or not, I still just can't get over or accept that their app could have been worth $730 million when the Facebook acquisition 'completed' back in September or ever could be. And, I'm a serious photography geek and still don't 'get it.'
Stephanie Hospital and team at Orange hosted a power girls networking bash one afternoon, which I ironically went to with Yossi Vardi, most definitely not a woman.
While it was indeed mostly women, a few male stragglers were there including French photographer Olivier Ezratty who is working on a photo exhibition of powerful women in the digital age. I'll share the latest as his work progresses. He also does a wonderful round-up of LeWeb every year, so check out his coverage here.
Speaking of Yossi, he gave a talk on things start-ups need to think about and tips of the trade. He says, "Pivoting is important because of the feedback you receive along the way, however doing more than 2 pivots is bad."
Additionally, he encouraged young entrepreneurs to network more often, always look for ways to provide value, and to try to find a funder from a mutual contact (someone you trust and someone the funder is likely to trust). He says of investors, "they need assurances and recommendations from people they trust." His main source of deal flow is through friends with credibility.
On exits, he says there's a big debate in Israel at the moment about whether early exits are good. Pros and cons, he notes. Having an early exit leaves a lot of value on the table but if you want a bigger exit, later...you obviously increase the risk because it will take more time.
I also ran into Stephanie Czerny who is one force behind the DLD Conference, held every year in Munich Germany. If you haven't been, you MUST - I keep meaning to return it was so good, if only January didn't present so many deadlines. I love these guys! Not only is the content and networking top notch, but their hearts are in the right place -- they're doing great things for the industry and world.
In the main room, we then moved into physical objects, you know, real tangible products you can feel. The team from Sphero gave a demo on stage of their robotic ball, which has mechanics and two way wireless communication.
They're using 6 axis IMu (essentially a navigation system) so they know where Sphero is going. Think of it as a robotics gaming system.
They said on stage, "We think there's a continuum where games live inside augmented reality and we're trying to mash and bridge the virtual and the real." He adds, "a system of this nature requires strong computational power and you have to build interfaces in virtual and physical world."Ubooly also wants to bridge this world, but for kids aged 4-9. CEO Carly Gloge was on the LeWeb stage showing a stuffed animal that comes to life when an iPhone is stuck inside it using voice recognition.
The "toy" suggests games to the kids in real time and gives feedback on their participation based on the phone’s accelerometer. Price point is cheap and perhaps one of the reasons, it seemed to receive positive feedback. Current going price is around $29.95.
Lockitron also got quite a bit of buzz at the event and apparently others think its cool too - they've already placed some $2.2 million in pre-orders for the device.
The device is a smartphone=controlled keyless door lock. You can reserve one with a shipping date of late May 2013 for $179.
I hung out with the HAPILABS guys who were showing off their HAPIfork, which will be unveiled at CES next month. The HAPIfork is an electronic fork that monitors your eating habits, giving you precise information about your eating schedule and alerting you with the help of indicator lights and a gentle vibration when you are eating too fast.
Below is CEO Fabrice Boutain showing off their first prototype.
The other cool thing I saw was Australian-based LIFX, a revolutionary new lightbulb that takes something that we all use in our homes, and makes it smarter and more efficient. It was launched on Kickstarter, where they raised over $1.3 million.
The LIFX lightbulb is a WiFi enabled, multi-color, energy efficient LED light bulb that you control with your iPhone or Android. How cool is that? See the below video to learn more.
I had an opportunity to meet and chat with the founder of San Francisco-based ReAllocate, who is not about launching a new social media apps or anything that will connect things to the Internet or the Internet to things.
ReAllocate is a global network of engineers, designers and entrepreneurs empowering under served communities through technology and innovation to improve quality of life. I love what they're doing!
They call themselves "ReAllocators" and they engage in digital storytelling to inspire participation, promote collaboration, and raise awareness about humanitarian causes. I hope to visit them state-side.
They supports three program areas that intertwine to create an infrastructure that supports sustainable development through education, ecosystems, equality, and economics. Learn a little bit more about what they're doing in Alaska and in Japan.
I also had fun hanging out with the UK Trade & Investment folks as well. Did I mention all the after events? It's no wonder everyone who ventures to Paris every December for LeWeb is so happily wiped out at the end of it - fois gras, French bordeaux, dark chocolate, crepes, fabulous coffee and more.
In traditional Loic and Geraldine style, they managed to nail a top notch act for the speaker dinner. Four girls in an act called ESCALA wowed the crowd with their violins and energy. See my write-up on them in We Blog the World's Music Section.
The Dublin guys also did a meet-up at a place called Delaville Cafe on Boulevard de Bonne Nouvelle. It's a place my Paris buds didn't know about, but the ambiance was great, especially for group gatherings. They too do great things for the industry between their Founders event, Dublin Web Summit and other initiatives. And, I have to admit, like the French, I have a soft spot for the Irish and I love Dublin.
Yet another successful LeWeb, an event I look forward to every December. Loic and Geraldine know how to curate an incredibly bright group of people who are working on things that will help shape technology as we know it and as a result, life as we know it.
I love the initiatives coming out of Europe and LeWeb is the best place in Europe for that global conversation that bridges what's happening on the continent and the rest of the world!!
For hoots, check out my review on UBER's launch at LeWeb (aka in Paris) last year, my LeWeb round-up from 2010, as well as a fun post from 2006 praising the food, suggesting that American conference organizers could learn a lot from their French counterparts.
December 14, 2012 in Conference Highlights, Europe, Events, On France, On Innovation, On Mobile & Wireless, On Robotics, On Technology, Social Media, Videos, WBTW, Web 2.0 | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack
November 04, 2012
Steven Pinker Speaks on Violence in San Francisco
His topic amongst a large group of singularians, scientists, authors, thinkers, students and technologists? Violence.
He took is on a journey of the decline of violence over time as a persistent development, showing methods that showed prehistoric violence versus the modern violence of today aka life before states and life after states.
It's obvious that literacy matters for a decrease in violence since it brings reason into the conversation ruling out and winning over superstition, which is still alive in a lot of more primitive cultures today.
See my latest write-up on singularity and the future of technology based on my most recent experience at the Singularity Summit. Below is a short video excerpt from his talk.
Video and photo credit: Renee Blodgett.
November 02, 2012
Crowdfunding: A Conflict for VCs or a Path to Economic Recovery?
I attended an event on crowdfunding recently. Entrepreneurs are dabbling in anything and everything "crowd" lately - from attracting vendor and engineering talent to volunteers and now, funding. I've had friends test out Kickstarter which is an interesting model if you don't need a lot of cash to jumpstart your project.
It's easier to get low-level investors on board since the commitment on the part of the 'investor' is minimal (mostly zero) and there's a reward kick back. I've contributed as little as $5-50 to a Kickstarter project and did it because it was a cool idea and just wanted to help. You'd need a helluva lot of "me's" to make it worthwhile at that level but there are others who will invest $100, $1K or $10K into the pool depending in their interest and wallet size.
Other reward based crowdfunding platforms include IndieGoGo and RocketHub, all of which are operating in the new paradigm without a lot of rules and regulations, aka pre the implementation of the 506c Act.
In a conversation on crowdfunding and alternative funding for start-ups, below are two videos (Part I and Part II) that discuss the pros and cons. Note that it IS a VERY Silicon Valley viewpoint and I haven't met a whole lotta venture capitalists from major firms who want to deal with the aftermath of early investors no longer being one or two angels but being 25 random no-names instead. There are complications AND implications.
On the panel included Gerd Goete, Siemens Venture Capital, Partner, Don Ross, HealthTech Capital, Managing Director and Founder, Sand Hill Angels, Board Director and Life Science Angels, Member Carol Sands, The Angels' Forum, Managing Member, Graham Burnette, SBV Capital Partners and Red Planet Capital, General Partner and Royse Law's Roger Royse.
I didn't get the sense that VCs (or at least traditional VCs) would be in full support of coming in after crowdfunders, largely because of what's involved: complicated, too many heads at the table, dillution and more. Silicon Valley focused, their mantra was more around the traditional tools that make a startup successful in the long term: domain expertise, access to the right people, advice and coaching and the amount of due diligence that goes into a deal.
There's no question that access to the right people and being 'aligned' with the right people accelerate deal flow and increase the likelihood of a successful exit. If you're Kleiner backed, your chances of success go up regardless of what kind of "useless" app you have.
There are the notorious three risks, which include:
1. Technology Risk - do you have a kick-ass technology? (my words, not theirs?). Can it do what it says it will do? Will it live up to the promise?
2. Market Risk - is there a big enough market for your products?
3. Expansion Risk - this comes into play as you start to scale. Can you make a big enough return that is attractive for YOU and for them? (aka, your investors)
Their argument was that dozens or possibly hundreds of 'crowdsourced' investors can't help with 1, 2 or 3. That said, my argument would be that there are a ton of businesses who don't need to go through the traditional Silicon Valley funding route and while crowdfunding may not give them millions, they still may be able to find advisors for a point or two who can leapfrog them into the right 'tribe' so they can be successful without giving away the store to a traditional VC firm.
It is indeed an alternative and some business models and businesses will work and some won't.
Points for considration include: public solicitations and use of social media, advertising terms of offer being restricted to the fact that the issuer can only direct investors to a broker/funding portal, the additional costs invovled with disclosure and reporting, use of an intermediary, risk of fraud (goes up as this model expands), and the point that the VCs and angels on the panel referenced again and again: the high number of unsophisticated investors (which leads to fiduciary duties to all investors and as our Silicon Valley finance pals pointed out, all of "it" a concern for VCs for future fundraising rounds).
We learned a bit more about new guidelines under the proposed 506 regulations.
For example, it would allow for public advertising and general solicitation in Rule 506 offerings, provided that the issuer takes reasonable steps to verify that potential investors are accredited, and all investors are accredited (or the issuer reasonably believes they are) at the time of the sale of securities.
This results in all sorts of issues we haven't faced before under traditional models, including the nature and terms of the offering which are unique. Is it a low verus high investment? What are the terms? Who has a voice and doesn't? And of course bearing in mind that there will be more steps needed to verify 'accredited' status.
Proposed crowdfunding regulations are slated to be released in January 2013. Videos below in Part I and 2 of the panel (roughly 20 minutes for each video - feel free to view the whole thing or catch snippets in stages to get an overview).
The event was part of iHollywood Forum, and their new brand Angel Launch, which produces dinners, venture forums, and seminars for entertainment, Web, Internet, mobile and tech ventures and startups.
Also refer to a Forbes article on crowdfunding where they also talk about the above legislation and a bill that had full bipartisan support this year called JOBS (Jumpstart Our Business Startups) Act, which is a series of 6 bills tied together designed to make it easier for startups to gain access to capital.
Photo credit: Forbes.