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At This Business Conference, Roasted Marshmallows Replace Cell Phones


Think back to summer camp as a child – the archery, the arts and crafts, the late-night chats with your bunkmates. Now, imagine if you could go back today – and come out a better entrepreneur.

That's the thought that inspired Sonja Rasula, creator of CAMP – a four day gathering in the mountains of Big Bear, Calif., that mixes summer camp staples like scavenger hunts and s'mores with top-notch workshops and speakers.

The idea to reimagine the traditional business conference came to Rasula as she was making the conference circuit as a speaker. Rasula's speaking gigs stemmed from her involvement in the "American-made" movement, as she had started the world's largest Made in America shopping event, Unique , in 2008.

As she conference-hopped, she was struck by how all the events began to blend together. "One thing I was starting to notice was there wasn't really a business conference out there that I'd want to attend, and – honestly – one that was cool," says Rasula.

Thinking back to her days as a camper and counselor at a summer camp in the Adirondacks, Rasula combined the best aspects of her days, business conferences and creative gatherings and launched CAMP.

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Last year, CAMP held its first conference: a sold-out, 150 person gathering of individuals from across the U.S. with titles ranging from photographer, to web programmer, to fashion designer. 

CAMP's most obvious departure from the average business conference is its location and accommodations: Campers converge two hours outside of Los Angeles at a YMCA camp, where they all sleep in bunk beds.

At typical business conferences, Rasula says, the tendency is to spend the night holed up in your hotel room watching TV or catching up on work. The close quarters and beautiful, natural environment of the campgrounds force campers to form genuine relationships reminiscent of the intense friendships forged at sleepaway camps in middle school, she says.

Also key in forcing campers to remain fully present is CAMP's no cell phone policy. That's right – no tweeting about how #blessed you are to hear Coolhaus founder Natasha Case speak and no Instagramming your freshly roasted marshmallow.

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"Instantly, to not have [your phone] means you are forced to talk to people even if you aren't the most social person," says Rasula. Instead of only being half-present while simultaneously checking emails, campers are forced to connect with each other and speakers. In one workshop last summer, Rasula recalls looking around and seeing campers who had been strangers days before hugging each other and crying.

However, more than bunk beds and unplugging, CAMP adopts the summer camp ethos with its dedication to being a place where campers can learn through play. Rasula's research while creating CAMP led her to believe that allowing people to engage in everything from climbing trees to doing arts and crafts without fear of embarrassment helped them to retain information more effectively.

"It's amazing to watch [tech entrepreneurs] play with their hands. The simple act of tie dye is groundbreaking to them," says Rasula. "They're using their brains in ways they have not for years." 

CAMP encourages attendees to participate in areas outside of their comfort zones. The means, as programmers are forced to try their hands at tie dye, photographers and do-it-yourself gurus are encouraged to attend workshops that will allow them to build their businesses and flex their entrepreneurial muscles.

"We try to inspire campers to do more, live more and dream bigger," says Rasula.

This year, more campers than ever will be dreaming big at CAMP. Two hundred campers are coming from around the world, including attendees from Brazil, France, England and Canada. And Rasula has only just begun – CAMP is considering an East coast event in 2015. The biggest challenge? Finding a summer camp that the kids haven't already claimed before it gets too chilly for a night of roasting marshmallows over the fire.  

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