The launch of Saga Summit

Saga Summit

A lot of my blogging has been around Saga Fest, the music and arts festival that I am working on launching as a Fulbright-mtvU fellow. One of the other experiences written into my Fulbright-mtvU proposal was a Summit that brought together creative change-makers. After many months of dreaming up the experience, finding a series of mentors, cultivating partnerships, designing the curriculum and figuring out logistics, I give you: Saga Summit.

Here’s the backstory on the “why.” I also include information at the bottom of this post for individuals to apply to the experience if they’re interested. I also blogged about this on the Startup Iceland blog.

Art for art’s sake” was adopted as a slogan in the 19th century, a time when the role and definition of an “artist” were vastly different than today. As our market evolved, especially after the Industrial Revolution and introduction of the Internet, the role of the artist has changed with it.

“One of the most conspicuous things about today’s young creators is their tendency to construct a multiplicity of artistic identities,” Yale professor William Deresiewicz wrote in a thought-provoking Atlantic article titled, The Death of the Artist—and the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur. “You’re a musician and a photographer and a poet; a storyteller and a dancer and a designer—a multiplatform artist, in the term one sometimes sees.”

This is largely true: How many people can you think of in Iceland that identify as a painter/filmmaker/designer/DJ? The market has evolved into one that is threatening for the traditional artist archetype. Many artists—not just in Iceland, but also around the world—have found it necessary to gain skills typically reserved for entrepreneurs. As a result, artists focus more on breadth instead of depth, and spend more time than ever on visibility in the media and expanding their social currency. Almost every artist has a website, and many spend hours crafting emails linking to their Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaigns. The “starving artist” cliché is largely true: many artists work one or two side jobs in order to pursue their real passion in art.

The way the artist is viewed by general society has also changed with this evolution. Many artists are discouraged from the field by even the people who love and supposedly understand them the most. Many in business degrade the artist, and often see no value in them.

Though, this is opposite to how artists should be treated. Artists have boundless gifts, including the ability to create meaning and to develop a creative way to say something of substance and importance to an audience. The most provocative and successful artists are concerned with challenging the status quo, engaging in deep personal or societal reflection, and elevating consciousness. It’s not simply just about craftsmanship or technical ability. Artists are humanists.

Today’s customer base is more socially and environmentally conscious, which means entrepreneurs are put to the task of articulating an answer to the golden question: Why? What’s the purpose of the product or innovation? Often, customers want to know what the social or environmental impact of the product or innovation is as well. The reason has a lot to do with creating a product or service that not only has meaning, but also solves an actual problem that potential customers have. This is a staple component to design thinking which—built upon the backs of giants like IDEO—is leading the way to building sustainable and human-centered companies. In a 2009 TEDx talk on action, Simon wrapped this line of thinking into a model called the Golden Circle (not to be confused with this Golden Circle):

Golden Circle
(Image from

Artists also provide value to entrepreneurs because of their natural ability to connect to human emotion and create mind-blowing experiences. “It is often said today that the most-successful businesses are those that create experiences rather than products, or create experiences (environments, relationships) around their products,” Deresiewicz writes. Coupled with their commitment to purpose, artists have a skill set that could contribute to any entrepreneurs’ ability to achieve high impact and unshakable growth.

Successful artists rely on their intuition to create art and are comfortable with ambiguity. These are important characteristics that many entrepreneurs are told to embrace especially in the beginning of their journey. In the age of big data, human intuition is important to analyze trends and make quick and informed decisions. Intuition also relates to human curation, which is being adopted more heavily by large, successful and data-driven companies like Apple, which just topped the world’s record for the most successful quarter profits of any company in history. Arguably, it is this kind of human-based oversight that could have prevented PR disasters like Uber’s recent surge-pricing mishap during the Australian hostage crisis.

The list of what artists can teach entrepreneurs is a long one, and goes beyond the points I’ve listed above. In a Fortune article, Tim Leberecht argues that there are many traits that entrepreneurs who aspire to make his or her mark on the world could emulate from artists. Here are a select few:

• Artists are fantastic storytellers
• Artists have an insatiable curiosity
• Artists thrive on constraints
• Artists are contrarians

In Redesigning Leadership, author John Maeda predicts that artists will emerge as the new business leaders, citing Rhode Island School of Design alumni Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky, co-founders of Airbnb, as one such example.

Knowing the immense value of artists, one has to question why there aren’t many “artists-in-residence” at start-ups or businesses. After all, there are many businesses, institutions and even non-profits that have an “entrepreneur-in-residence” position in their organizational structure. They see the value of the entrepreneur to drive innovation and exponential growth. Why do we not afford artists the same opportunity to affect change in today’s businesses?

It’s for these reasons that we need to build a bridge between entrepreneurs and artists in Iceland. This is not only for the entrepreneur’s benefit of course, but artists can similarly learn a lot from entrepreneurs as they try to navigate through our existing economic landscape. One such example: as entrepreneurs discover the way to go from working for an employer to running their own business on a full-time basis, artists need to make that same jump to devote their full-time concentration to their art. There are many other lessons that artists can learn from entrepreneurs.

Collaborating with Startup Iceland, we are excited to start building this bridge between the art and entrepreneurial communities in Iceland. Though some artists are already connected to entrepreneurs—with some Icelanders even self-identifying as both an entrepreneur and artist—we are building an experience that intentionally and formally creates a collaborative community among artists and entrepreneurs in the country.

The experience is called Saga Summit, a 4-day social impact experience led by facilitators Cosmo Fujiyama (University of Pennsylvania, Social Impact House) and Andy Sontag (KaosPilot, CORE). The experience is deeply immersive and will take place in nature, creating an alignment with the vision of Saga Fest, a transformative music and arts festival in Iceland focused primarily on community building and sustainability.

About 15 Icelandic entrepreneurs and artists will be invited to participate (at no cost to them) in this first iteration of the Summit. This experience will focus on sustainability and community development as we intend to build a bridge between the artistic and entrepreneurial communities in Iceland even after the Summit concludes on May 3. As such, one way we are doing this is by inviting all of the participating entrepreneurs and artists to participate in both Saga Fest (May 23-24) and Startup Iceland (May 27-28) later in the month.

We are very excited to announce this collaboration, and invite all young entrepreneurs and artists to apply for this innovative experience. As we approach the dates of Saga Summit, we will be sharing aspects of the curriculum that we have been developing for the first cohort. We will also profile a selection of our mentors and participants. After the Summit, we will share reflections, learning and insight gathered from the entrepreneurs, artists and facilitators who participated in the experience.

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