An aversion to the conspicuous consumption favored by their baby boomer parents may make it hard to pick Manhattan’s mega-achieving millennials out of the crowd on any given night at The Standard, but make no mistake about it: They are redefining what it means to be young, rich, and successful in the city.
“Freedom and independence are the new status symbols,” says Jon Steinberg, former president and COO of Buzzfeed and an advisor at Lerer Ventures, an influential venture capital fund that invests in Internet start-ups. “The goal is to build your own thing, do what you want to do, and create economic situations where you can do that.”
Steinberg knows what he’s talking about. In May, after four years at the helm of the social news and entertainment site (which gets 150 million monthly unique visitors), he stepped down to start his next big venture. “Having built this place with Jonah [Peretti, Buzzfeed’s founder and CEO] and the rest of the team, I want to go through that rush again, and there is a certain amount of freedom that I want,” he says.
This insanely ambitious group of overachievers has eschewed the old guard’s power-lunch circuit uptown, opting instead to hunker down in their offices in Lower Manhattan’s Silicon Alley or Tribeca, where they are rewriting the rules of the game with seemingly out-of-nowhere business models. “The old guard has achieved enormous measures of success,” says Steinberg, 37, a native New Yorker. “But they recognize we’re the ones in the areas where the next successes will come from.”
Most everything we traditionally associate with the city’s cultural elite doesn’t apply to these millennial mavericks. They’re not interested in acquiring the old guard’s summer homes in the Hamptons, BMWs, and bespoke suits, because they believe showing off—unless it’s on social media—is passé. But their highly personal proclivities, from where they live to how they work, are causing seismic cultural and geographic shifts in the city.
“It’s not the old mentality: make it, spend it, show it,” says Robert Dankner, president of Prime Manhattan Residential, a firm that represents many millennial entrepreneurs, who despite their aversion to high-profile consumption are willing to shell out for primary residences. “These people are really smart about their money. Downtown is hot because there are a lot of nonhomogeneous spaces they’re buying that are unique or can be built to be unique. The common denominator in this group is their nonconformity.”
So who are the names to watch among the growing ranks of the Next Establishment and how are they shaping the future of Manhattan? They may not be those you hear about every day—but you soon will. Unlike the flashier young masters of the universe before them, this idiosyncratic group of influencers is comprised largely of entrepreneurs who are making their fortunes in technology, e-commerce, and fashion with the help of an impressive roster of angel investors.
“Wall Street money was much more visible,” says Alexandra Lebenthal, president of Lebenthal & Company and often dubbed the “Queen of Wall Street.” “If you’re an investment banker, you’ve got to focus on the market, your competitors, and you’ve got to be out there socially. Maybe it’s how this generation grew up or because their businesses are so [centered] on technology, but millennials are much lower profile.”
Except when it comes to social media, which along with a cultural shift from uptown to downtown and Brooklyn has played a “major role” in shaping their lives, says Rachelle Hruska, cofounder of Guest of a Guest, a digital media company that covers the city’s social scene and offers a curated calendar of events targeting young professionals. “It used to be Bill Cunningham and Patrick McMullan taking your picture uptown, but the hottest event last week was in Red Hook thrown by Dustin Yellin and the Fat Radish chefs. Everyone in my office was fighting to go.” Hruska feels there are so many different ways to proclaim your worth or status now. “It’s not so much who your family is and where you come from, but more about how many followers you have on Instagram. There is currency in being known.”
That is certainly the case for Hruska, 31, who sites digital guru Lockhart Steele as her mentor and hung out with David Karp in the early days of Silicon Alley. (“I’m so grateful to have had a seat at the table.”) Hruska cofounded her company with Cameron Winklevoss in 2008 (she’s now sole owner, having bought out his stake in 2012) and has emerged as one of the most influential chroniclers of the city’s changing social scene due in large part to her innate understanding of the lives of the 1 million unique visitors who flock to her city-centric site each month (her full-time staff of 10 also covers Los Angeles, Washington, DC, Miami, San Francisco, and the Hamptons in season) to pore over shots of themselves or their virtual friends.
Hruska, who is married to hot hotelier Sean MacPherson and lives in the West Village, three blocks from her office, explains the allure. “The reality is that many social connections are now happening online and over mobile phones—for better or worse,” she explains. “Millennials spend far greater amounts of time on their mobile devices, sharing their accomplishments. If I don’t have any real connection to this ball or that gala, I don’t need to be there. I can watch it from home. I don’t have the desire to be social in that way. If I go out to an event, I’m going to want to Instagram from it because I want to get credit for being there. I want the world to know I made it.”
The one tangible measure of success for millennial entrepreneurs is to have a hot enough business to attract venture capital funding. Starting an e-commerce business—and staking your claim downtown—has never had such social cachet and leverage.