How SUSI MAI is bringing the thrills to the tech industrySusi Mai likes to throw Silicon Valley CEOs into the deep end. How she’s turned kiteboarding into a business-networking master class.
Bill Tai, venture capitalist and co-founder of the MaiTai Global networking summits, calls his partner, world-class kiteboarder Susi Mai, the “user interface” to his “microchip.” He brings the techies; she brings the thrills.
Over the past decade, MaiTai weekends—part TED conference, part vacation, part cult—have become the ultimate pilgrimage for tech CEOs and CEO wannabes. But fun and games are just the beginning: On some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, Mai shows Silicon Valley heavyweights like Elon Musk a thing or two about what it’s like to fall down.
THE RED BULLETIN: From professional kiteboarder to tech cruise director. Not really a career path you can plan for, is it?
SUSI MAI: I never thought I was going to be running a tech conference. I didn’t even have a flip phone when I met these guys. They had iPhones and Blackberries. Bill ended up getting me an iPhone. He was like, “If you’re going to be working with these people, you need to know what they’re talking about!”
Relating to these guys is about more than an iPhone, though. Didn’t you feel like a fish out of water?
At the beginning, I thought they were a bunch of dorks. I was 18 at the time, definitely like, “Whoa, what is going on with these people?” But what we quickly figured out was that the people that start a company and the people that get attracted to kiteboarding are essentially the same type.
When you’re starting a company, you have to be able to face challenges, overcome your fear. You have to be all in. You have to commit. There’s a lot of that stuff in kiteboarding: When you learn to kite you have to really want to learn to kite.
It’s a tough sport to pick up?
The first three days are actually pretty horrible. There’s always failure when you’re learning to kite. You’re failing all over until it finally all comes together, and then you take off and you fly. It’s the same with a company.
These guys, their lifestyles are pretty crazy. When they go kiting, they can turn off their brains completely because it is such a multitasking and demanding sport. You leave your work stuff and your stress load on the beach, and you get to go out and just escape. I hear it all the time: If these guys can’t kite once a week, they’re so wound up they can’t focus on their work. Seems like they’re learning a kind of jock meditation.
Seems like they’re learning a kind of jock meditation.
Maybe they do learn lessons, even just relaxation and getting that reward of kiting. It’s just awesome for them to have that outlet.
MaiTai has become a networking mecca. Why do you think that is?
People who are starting companies really need help because they don’t know everything. When you’re sitting on the beach with some dude that founded Expedia, you can really milk that guy for a lot of good intel.
They don’t mind being milked?
At the end of the day, whether it’s a big-dude CEO or a guy who’s never started a company, they can always talk about kiteboarding and be on the same level. Whether it’s kiteboarding, where you crash and you have to relaunch your kite, or whether it’s your company having a struggle, people are able to relate.
What makes those bonds tight?
When you’re kiteboarding, you have to have friends on the beach. You have to rely on people to launch and land your kite. You can’t just be a loner because you always need people. One day you’re going to need someone on the beach to get you out of a situation where you’re overpowered by [wind or waves]. People have to look after each other and be social. I think that’s one of the things in tech that’s the same. It’s a crazy world out there.