all photos: Jose Lopez
By Caitlin Kelly
It’s a crazy idea — lure 450 people of all ages and backgrounds to a summer camp in the woods four hours north of Toronto. Invitation only.
Have them share unheated wooden cabins (40s at night!) with a bunch of snoring strangers.
Dining hall food, eight or 12 to a table, doors opened only when they say so, served family style.
And, oh yeah, no wifi.
No badges or lanyards.
None of the usual preening and posturing.
We lecture and listen to one another in hiking boots and un-brushed hair, seated on wooden benches below towering white birch trees or staring at a glass-calm lake.
That’s me in the gray sweater, trying not to be nervous!
You actually have to talk to people, no matter who they are or who you think they might be. The young woman sitting opposite me, who looked no older than maybe 15, playing ferocious Bananagrams? Oh, she runs a start-up with 10 employees, and she’s 30.
The quiet older woman in a cotton hat and pink jacket? Ivy educated physician. The 36-year-old African American with two young kids at home — headed to law school after a younger rough brush with the law.
The man beside me at registration with a thick Spanish accent — an entrepreneur who’d left his partner and two young children at home in Berlin and had just moved to Toronto to try his luck there.
Fireside, held at a summer camp, the creation of two young Canadians, Daniel Levine and Steve Pulver, is a three-day, full-on adventure in disconnecting from social media to do something now quite radical — talking face-to-face with hundreds of strangers, being truly, deeply, madly social.
Jose and I presented together for the first time on storytelling techniques, our goal to help the many entrepreneurs, founders and start-ups better understand what story really means. We were honored and thrilled to have about 100 people listening. I was nervous, even though I’ve done a lot of public speaking, but it went well.
Opening night…who are all these people?
I also presented alone to explain how a pitched idea moves through the media machinery to publication or broadcast — or fails to, and why. Typical of Fireside, a few people sat with me afterward for another hour or so, peppering me with questions.
Given my lonely and isolated work-life at home, competing in a chaotic industry, it was a real treat to be a valued expert. Someone even wanted a selfie with me!
It was great to see friends from last year — since about 25 percent return annually — and to meet so many new ones, from Ilana, a female toy designer, to Brandon, who runs two co-working spaces in rural Ontario to Jonathan, from Toronto, who manages cool events.
This year’s conference was super-diverse, which was fantastic, with an age range of 20s to 80s, and racially mixed as well. The two organizers somehow sort through the thousands of applicants to choose an eclectic mix of people who are accomplished and smart but also fun, social and ready to mix it up with a bunch of strangers.
Daniel Levine (left) and Steven Pulver, founders of Fireside, in the dining hall of Camp Walden, near Bancroft, Ontario.
It’s not for everyone, obviously, and apparently one speaker left as soon as they arrived, once they saw how rustic it is. Hey, there’s hot showers! That’s enough for me.
I was dubious at my first Fireside, unsure what lay ahead. This year felt like coming home.