Tony Hsieh’s Legacy Reminds Us All of the Importance of Community

“When any Burner’s light goes out, it just feels very profound. It’s the loss of that spark, that energy that will be missed.”
—Tiya Coleman, Burning Man Las Vegas Regional Contact

Tony Hsieh first visited Black Rock City back in 2011. According to those who were close to him, his experience there “ignited a light in him and altered the course of his life.” A mere month after returning from the dust, young business visionary Hsieh was eager to bring some of the leaders of the Burning Man organization out to Las Vegas, Nevada where he was prototyping an urban renewal idea called the Downtown Project. Tony wanted to pick the brains of the founders as to how they steered the unique culture in the desert. Harley K. Dubois, Marian Goodell, Crimson Rose and Larry Harvey were all struck by Hsieh’s vision. It wasn’t just a tour of Zappos with their progressive business culture that intrigued Burning Man’s leadership, but the germinating ideas around moving the headquarters out of suburban Henderson, Nevada, into the old City Hall in the less desirable part of Las Vegas, and then creating a stimulating environment on the surrounding streets and neighborhoods that captured the imagination of the Burning Man leadership.

Tony Hsieh out on the playa with fellow Burners in 2011. (Photo courtesy of Mimi Pham)

During their time together, Hsieh, who recently passed away at the age of just 46, shared the impact the 10 Principles of Burning Man left on him during his brief time in Black Rock City. He also shared his ultimate desire to incorporate those very principles into local communities within Las Vegas. This dialogue would inevitably become the impetus for a unique relationship between Burning Man and the city of Las Vegas, facilitated largely by Hsieh’s passion and vision.

“Tony wanted to have a direct effect on the community itself. His interest, over time, grew more and more away from business & finance and toward enriching people’s lives,” says Dubois. “He reached far and wide to find the right mix of businesses, people, and personalities to create a really enlivened, thriving metropolis in the downtown of what was, otherwise, just casinos and concrete.”

Post-it note planning, Tony’s way (Photo courtesy of Downtown Project)

“If Tony hadn’t come to town, I don’t think it (Vegas) would be where it is right now,” says Coleman.

Over the years, Hsieh’s support was critical for the building and continuation of community programs and economic development in Las Vegas, including First Fridays (monthly art walks), Downtown Project, a Halloween parade and celebration, and the local Regional Burning Man event, Lucky Lady. (To date, Downtown Project — which was founded on the three Cs: collisions, co-learning, and connectedness — has resulted in 165 new businesses and more than 1,500 new jobs for the local community.)

Container Park at dusk (Photo courtesy of Downtown Project)

Hsieh helped facilitate the purchase and installation of a number of iconic Burning Man art pieces like Big Rig Jig by Mike Ross and the giant flamingo Phoenicopterus Rex by Josh Zubkoff. Other pieces such as Tahoe Mack’s The Monumental Mammoth were on display during the Life is Beautiful Festival, which Tony helped catapult into a thriving, annual three-day urban event with Burning Man art and moments of serendipity and music.

Phoenicopterus Rex by Josh Zubkoff on playa in 2017 (Photo by Dan Adams)
Phoenicopterus Rex by Josh Zubkoff, brought from the playa and placed in downtown Vegas (Photo courtesy of Marian Goodell)

“The blighted areas of Vegas into which Tony brought Burning Man art helped create connectivity. He made us very proud of urban renewal and urban design as it applies to Burning Man,” says Burning Man co-founder and Burning Man Project CEO Marian Goodell. Tony also created Delivering Happiness, providing educational online programs, some of which a handful of Burning Man Project staff members have since completed. 

“For many, Burning Man manifests within their imagination what the world could be like,” Goodell continues. “I truly believe that experiencing the connectivity of environment, art and culture during his week out on the playa inspired Tony as to what was possible for a creative connected community in Vegas and for Downtown Project. In return, Tony also inspired us. He was one of the first businessmen who showed progress in taking the 10 Principles (such as Civic Participation and Immediacy) and scaling them out into an urban environment.” Coleman echoes this sentiment by adding, “That core Burner ethos was something I continuously witnessed Tony using.”

Tony Hsieh was a business pioneer who truly cared about people and about making people happy. “He was the quiet guy who would cook everyone breakfast,” according to Coleman. Hsieh loved to create engaging environments in which people could connect, helping humanity appreciate one another through art, serendipity and culture events. Helping others continue this beautiful legacy remains an ongoing goal of Burning Man Project. 

“I was really looking forward to having Tony join us for our Kindling in-person event that had been planned for Reno in May 2020,” Goodell says. 

“He had, when we sat around a fire in October of 2019, originally offered to bring three conversations to the gathering. One about decentralized leadership and holacracy, one about art and civic engagement, and the last about toilets. He said he’d been thinking a lot about the toilets at the Life is Beautiful Festival and wondered how toilets could be more artful and enjoyable at festivals. He wanted to put the idea out there at a Burning Man in-person conference, knowing that if there was anywhere people would get excited about making toilets artful and fun, it would be with a bunch of Burners. When I took it back to our content team they were thrilled. Tony’s ideas were never dry. They were fun, forward thinking, and motivated towards people. I’m going to miss this man, this iconoclast, this thinker. He gave a lot of people a lot to be thankful for.”

Burning Man is proud to honor the legacy of a truly generous human being. Tony looked for the best in people, what the potential was they could bring to the table, where he could help bring a good community idea to the surface, how a community could be connective and financially successful, and enjoyed creating places for people to be themselves and find others.

Burning Man lost our founder Larry Harvey in April of 2018 quite suddenly. It took time to think through the loss, but we never doubted we would continue the work of bringing Burning Man culture to the annual Black Rock City gathering, and also out into the world as is our nonprofit mission.

We all have the opportunity to take the lessons that Tony Hsieh brought to business, urban renewal, civic arts, culture, and entrepreneurism to the world in ways that amplify human potential. As we come out from the other side of this pandemic, the principles of community and connection are what will be needed to bridge the distances that have been forced upon us. The opportunity to keep doing the great work Tony was so committed to is right in front of us all. Let’s bridge the gap and keep the communities alive with connection, creativity, and love.

Our arts program at Burning Man Project and in Black Rock City feeds art out into the world, and our civic engagement efforts support and advise community events many of them urban in hundreds of locations around the planet. This network of creatives is growing on six continents. 

Thank you Tony, we’re going to continue helping carry the torch. We will miss you!

Cover photo courtesy of Mimi Pham
Headshot photo courtesy of DeliveringHappiness.com

About the author: Burning Man Project

Burning Man Project

The official voice of the Burning Man organization, managed by Burning Man Project's Communications Team.

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