Chip Conley talks with the enthusiasm of a CEO at a tech launch. But this former Silicon Valley executive isn’t selling the latest technology, he’s selling embracing your age.
Conley is the founder of the Modern Elder Academy, a barefoot chic retreat in Baja, Mexico that helps Silicon Valley executives and others tackle their midlife crises. Now Conley is bringing his “midlife wisdom school” to the $8.5 million Saddleback Ranch in New Mexico with plans to launch this year.
Students pay up to $5,000 a week to stay at the retreat. Program participants have hailed from 25 countries and, besides tech workers, have included bankers, charity workers, lawyers and teachers. The mean age is 54, but, to Conley’s surprise, visitors have been as young as 30 and as old as 88. Besides the main program, the activities on offer at the Baja academy, which opened in 2018, include rock balancing, surf lessons and meditation. In New Mexico, options will include horse whispering and farming.
The school is designed to help midlifers with a strong desire for change who are going through a period of emotional turmoil. But Silicon Valley-types who fear they are being left behind by the next generation will not spend the week coding.
“They do not come here to learn how to be a software developer,” Conley said. “If they want to become a software developer, we shift their mindset so they are open to that.”
“When we are in our teen years, we are open to trying new things because we are used to the idea of it being a learning period of our life,” said Conley. “As we get older it’s almost like we think we can’t learn something new. People come out of a week here, saying ‘Wow I was open to becoming a beginner again.’”
Becoming an “elder,” and creating a community
Conley launched the Modern Elder Academy facing his own midlife struggles. He founded boutique hotel company Joie de Vivre at 26 in 1986. It became the second largest boutique hotel company, and he sold his majority stake in the company in 2010 in the midst of the Great Recession. The hotel industry disruptor was invited to mentor the founders of Airbnb in 2013, where he served as global head hospitality and strategy and then as a strategic advisor.
Conley, now 61, initially struggled with being called “the Elder” by his youthful Airbnb colleagues. But then he shifted his perspective, embraced being a “Modern Elder” and used his experience to guide others.
“As we get older it’s almost like we think we can’t learn something new," Conley said. "People come out of a week here, saying ‘Wow I was open to becoming a beginner again.’”
Danielle Cohn, a VP for a US communications company in her 40s, spent a week at the Baja retreat in January 2021. While there, she summoned up the courage to learn how to surf and wrote a song with musician Michael Franti.
“I’m a big believer that curiosity keeps you ageless,” Cohn said. “MEA is a place to learn from others around you across the decades. That diverse perspective is priceless.”
Students often tell Conley they don’t want to leave, which is why he added 24 homes to the Baja resort. The speed at which they sold encouraged him to push the boundaries at the newly named MEA Sante Fe Ranch. There, instead of adding just a handful of permanent homes, he will be launching a “regenerative community, ”with a farm at the center and a coworking space to encourage the mixing of generations.
And he’s thinking big for New Mexico; MEA has also purchased a former 1920s sanitorium Santa Fe that was listed for $7.8 million.
A booming market in Boomers
Conley isn’t the only one that sees the midlife market as an opportunity. Universities such as Stanford, Harvard, the University of Minnesota and the University of Texas, have launched year-long programs to help people take stock, find purpose and change their careers.
At Stanford, students pay $60,000 for the year-long Distinguished Careers Institute program, which focuses on the three pillars: wellness, purpose and community. Frances Edmonds, 69, is one such student. The UK-based professional speaker and business development executive admired the pivot her daughter made in leaving a job at Goldman Sachs to start an MBA in technology, and it prompted her application to the Stanford program. In Palo Alto, she started cycling to college, studied subjects as varied as Python code, psychology and cyber security, and mentored young students who wanted to learn about public speaking.
“It puts you back to when you first went to university at the age of 18,” said Edmonds, who ended up writing a book to guide others seeking change upon returning to the U.K. “You can feel the synapses fizzing, you can feel yourself being regenerated. It was a transformational experience.”
“I’m a big believer that curiosity keeps you ageless,” one MEA participant said. “MEA is a place to learn from others around you across the decades. That diverse perspective is priceless.”
These types of programs may be poised to grow in popularity, since, as noted by psychologist Dr Kristi Philips, who counsels executives in high stress careers, the pandemic has made people reconsider how they want to spend their time.
“I have had clients say they are feeling numb and want to feel a sense of passion again in life and are re-evaluating if it is possible in their current life,” Philips told us.
Midlife without borders
While Conley is currently focused on launching in the US, his MEA brand is nonetheless growing worldwide. Gabriela Domicelj, an MEA alumna, found the classes so engaging, she introduced the philosophy to her home country of Australia.
Domicelj, a former management consultant, visited the Baja retreat in 2019, while facing three major transitions in her life: she was leaving a corporate job, leaving Asia, which had been her home for 17 years, and becoming an empty nester. An MEA course called Consciously Creating the Second Part of your Adult Life spoke to her.
Upon returning to Australia, Domicelj helped launch MEAx Australia with an eight-week online version of the program. And now, Australian midlifers are also able to travel into the Blue Mountains of New South Wales to enjoy in-person workshops where they use techniques like stargazing, birdwatching and film making to contemplate the next stage of their life.
“The MEA met a need for me personally I had not realized I had,” said Domicelj. “When speaking with others in midlife, I realized the experience resonated and there seemed to be a demand for this kind of structured approach to the curation of one’s life.”