Hot on the Trail of Hip

Davos' decidedly uncool crowd tuned in eagerly to hear the likes of Google's Sergey Brin lecture on the nebulous qualities of hipness

How to be hip? That's the question many attendees at the World Economic Forum annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland, were asking. Dozens of them -- the vast majority middle-aged men who looked decidedly uncool -- crowded into a discussion on Jan. 22 to learn the secrets of hipness from young, cult-status entrepreneurs such as Google co-founder Sergey Brin and Wenceslao Cesares, chairman of Lemon Bank, Brazil's most fashionable financial institution.

"If you're hip or know what being hip involves, you can tap into the huge youth market," said Yossi Vardi, a founding investor of ICQ, the highly successful Internet instant-messaging system. "ICQ has got more than 150 million customers worldwide by being hip."


  Fair enough. But hipness is hard enough to define, let alone learn. "If you have to think about being hip, you're never going to be hip," Brin warned. Added Vardi: "I tried to crack the code for hipness, but I realized after three years you can't reduce it to an algorithm." And you can't manufacture it. Britney Spears may be successful, but she isn't really hip because she isn't natural -- she's a product.

"Michael Jackson was hip when he was doing all that space walking," said one British venture capitalist who didn't want to be identified lest her children accuse her of being an old fogey. "But he isn't now -- he has gone all manufactured." Not to mention his legal woes. That aside, the venture capitalist knows of what she speaks. A good five years have passed since being a VC was hip.

So what is hip? It's more than trendy, which is little more than ephemeral, short-term fashion. Hipness has more substance. It occurs when an individual is in touch with the fundamental cultural forces that are changing society. And although the world is globalizing, hipness is often a local phenomenon.


  Every year music TV channel MTV does a "sources of coolness" study to make sure it's on the same wavelength as its audience. "And that always shows that what's cool in Barcelona can be very different from what's cool in São Paulo," noted Cesares. Fortunately, hipness isn't confined to the young. Former South African President Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, the retired Archbishop of Capetown, are two examples of timeless hip, it was pointed out at the seminar.

And while the 61-year-old Vardi wisely pointed out that you can't learn to be hip, you can learn about hipness and make good use of that knowledge. To that end, Vardi is inviting a group of 150 people to a boot camp in northern Israel this summer to find out what makes them tick. He thinks that afterward, people can use the info to tailor their products appropriately or invest money in the ideas of hip people.

Linda Rottenberg, co-founder and CEO of Endeavor Global, a U.S. nonprofit organization that fosters entrepreneurship in developing countries, said she's constantly on the lookout for people with "that special something." Said Rottenberg: "When you find them, it's obvious."

Brin joked that once he's finished with Google, he would like to develop a scanner to be used at airports to prevent unhip people from boarding airplanes. He likes his fellow passengers to be cool, he said. A daunting prospect, indeed. But those of us who aren't cool -- and who probably never will -- be shouldn't worry too much about it. "Just be yourself," advised Eva Biaudet, the hippest member of the Finnish Parliament. "And you can still be a star."

By David Fairlamb in Davos, Switzerland

Edited by Patricia O’Connell

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