01 Sep 2016

In My Humble Opinion: The Business of Burning Man

Jennifer Raiser (MBA 1990) on the art of the now
by Julia Hanna


Jennifer Raiser (MBA 1990)
(photo by Sidney Erthal)

Jennifer Raiser (MBA 1990)
(photo by Sidney Erthal)

A self-described “experiment in community and art,” Burning Man takes place each year in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert during the week leading up to Labor Day. Launched on San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986—where a few dozen people watched an 8-foot high wooden man burn—Burning Man, now a nonprofit with a $36 million budget (and over 400 pieces of large-scale art to boot), saw some 70,000 Burners come together this year, united by principles including radical inclusion and immediacy. Jennifer Raiser (MBA 1990), known on the “playa” as CocoCabana, serves as treasurer of the organization, in addition to working at her family’s real estate business. “It feels like being the grown-up at a kid’s party,” says Raiser, who just published a new edition of Burning Man: Art on Fire.

Most valuable BM takeaway: “The principle of gifting, which is the premise that if you look at the world from a position of abundance, there’s more than enough for everyone.” (Selling and bartering are verboten at Burning Man. Everyone brings enough food and water to survive, plus some to share.)

Two exceptions to the rule: Ice and coffee. “Because the world is better with coffee.”

Photos from the 2016 Burning Man event


Best gift ever received: A ticket to Burning Man 2006 (Raiser’s first) and a 1967 Airstream trailer, courtesy of her brother and her best friend. “Every year I’ve gifted someone a ticket to carry that forward.”

Burning Man: Art on Fire (photo by Scott London)

Location, location, location: “The fact that Burning Man takes place in the desert is part of the challenge and the fun. It’s dusty and bone-dry, which gives a very primal feel. There are no trash cans, electricity, or running water.”

Character study: “I have two costumes for each day stored in Ziploc bags. One year I dressed as Marie Antoinette in mourning, in head-to-toe 18th-century French rococo black silk and foot-high hair. I stood in front of a wooden version of the Eiffel Tower and handed out paper cups of champagne.”

Up in smoke: “There’s a temple dedicated to loss—of loved ones, ideas, pets, hopes, dreams. All week long, people bring tributes to this beautiful wooden building and write messages on it with Sharpies. On the last night, it’s burned to the ground. After the celebration and playfulness that’s taken place, you end by acknowledging what it is to be human and to let things go.”

Participants take a spin on Michael Christian’s Eidolon Panspermia Ostentatia Duodenum (ePOD) at Burning Man 2014. (photo by Sidney Erthal)

Why burn? “It’s mind-blowing that someone would take six months and thousands of dollars to build an exquisite, 80-foot-high piece of art and then burn it to the ground. But the burning is a component of the art. Enjoy it; appreciate it. We’re never going to be this person, in this place, with these people, ever again.”

Multiplier effect: “Burning Man has become a social movement. There are 60 events annually in 29 countries around the world.”

Best green-lighted expense: The purchase of a 3,800-acre parcel of ranchland and hot springs near the annual site (held on leased federal land) that will make it possible to share the Burning Man experience year-round.

Secret weapon: A Hello Kitty calculator. “People used to freak out about it at HBS, which is what I loved. I still have it and still use it because it runs on solar power.”

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Raiser offers an insider’s look at Burning Man on the new podcast Skydeck

Featured Alumni

Featured Alumni

Class of MBA 1990, Section I
follow @JenniferRaiser

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