Creating a Conference-Meets-Summer-Camp for Adult Creatives
This past September, I sat in front of an obituary I wrote for myself after a session with a death doula. No, I didn’t know what that was either; needless to say, it was profound. I walked out a screened door to a porch where I witnessed humans playing volleyball, painting a nude figure, and tie-dying pillow cases. This oasis of sorts is Likeminds: a conference of creatives that, for a weekend, provides you with a menu of activities, workshops, and solo endeavors that you have mentally erased in order to survive the throes of your nine to five. Arriving on Friday evening and returning to reality the following Sunday afternoon, Likeminds provides its campers with a schedule of workshops, speakers, high quality homemade food, and time to spend exactly as you like.
“We call the conference Likeminds because you just meet these people on the same wavelength, you know? Rachael and I do not come from the same place or work in the same way, but we’re likeminded,” said Zach Polakoff of Rachael Yaeger, Likedminds’ two co-founders. The camp-meets-music-festival-meets-conference amasses designers, musicians, tech professionals, writers, and curious humans alike for an early fall weekend in upstate New York. I sat down with the two founders — Rachael, the luminous extravert, fluent in all things tech-speak and branding, and Zach, a music and art connoisseur with a family worthy of any magazine’s front page — to hear more about how they partnered up.
“This is the honest story. I was trolling Site Inspire,” Yaeger starts. “It’s a hub for all of the best-in-class sites in the world; and AnInterestingDay.com was on there. It’s a conference in Oslo, and it was this really tiny, well-designed, super hybrid of known and unknown people.” Originally from Upstate New York and having been in NYC for five years, Yaeger was looking for ways to go back home. So she tweeted, and Pollakoff replied. “We met up two weeks later and our worlds just totally combined with art and music — which is Zach’s world — and creative and tech — which is my world.”
So in March of 2016 over an order of dim sum, Likeminds came to be. “Rachael framed that receipt for me; I still have it on my wall,” Zach says, an unlikely memento as only one of the many particulars that set Likeminds apart.
Pollakoff, whose background in music often informs his lens, appropriately compared the crux of Likeminds to attending a music show. After 12 years in New York, he no longer goes to shows alone; perhaps he shows up solo, but he’s always going to know someone. “I think the reason the music industry is tight-knit like that is because there are events to attend. So, one way to codify the community that already exists in New York and beyond is to create an event for it, put a frame around an existing community, and give these people something to attend,” he says.
Sitting across from both Yaeger and Pollakoff, the ways in which they pass along a question and answer are consensual, mutually respectful, and edifying of the other. Stemming from the networks of both is a team of brilliant minds: coders, designers, copywriters, architects. “Rachael has always taught me to trust our designers because she curates people who are remarkably, consistently ahead of the curve,” Pollakoff smiles. This curation extends to every performer and thought leader intrinsic to the conference, he explains. “Our style is people that you don’t know or wouldn’t expect. Someone once asked us to curate their festival. What they liked about our style is that we don’t pick people that are on the circuit. I think that unique style of curation is what Likeminds is becoming known for; and the more we attend other conferences, the more it gives us confidence that what we’re doing is good.”
Curation is an underlying theme of Likeminds, and it’s embedded in the DNA of the process — from ideation to execution, staff to sponsors. “We’re not just selling out to anyone,” says Yaeger, “and that’s a lot of hard work. The second half of every meeting is always, ‘Oh, I know this brand who would be great for this year’s theme.’ We’re authentically thinking of friends of friends who would want to be involved in our audience.” When a brand comes on board, Likeminds partners with them beyond the financials. “The first thing we ask,” says Pollakoff, “is ‘What are your marketing goals in this quarter?’ And ‘How can our audience help you achieve this goal? We’ll tell you who our people are, and you tell us what your goals are, and maybe we can come up with a solution that isn’t obvious, or out of the box’. The goal should be that the brand is getting something out of it. It’s not transactional.”
For the first part of 2020, the latest iteration of Likeminds — Likeminds 5 — will take place in March 2020 in LA. From the move to the west coast, to the integration of dance, to hosting movement practitioners, the theme speaks for itself. “Having a theme that dictates the structure of the weekend is important for a lot of reasons, but the most exciting reason…is the moments that you find with strangers around the campfire, and the lake, and the dinner table. A well curated weekend provides them with an icebreaker: you can walk up to a total stranger and say what did you think of the talk? The theme?” These themes are never happenstance, but a reflection of the founders’ headspace. “When it started,” Pollakoff says, “we threw together Likeminds in three months and there was no theme, and in a way a no-theme Likeminds was the most self-defining theme for who we were as an organization.”
Beyond the physical displacement, Likeminds 5 will bring about aspects distinctly different than anything before it. “Authors. I’ve always wanted an author, and now we’re pending three of them,” Yaeger jumps in. When I ask how she feels about March’s event, Yaeger states matter-of-factly, “It will be the best one yet because, truly, every Likeminds gets better.”