On paper, the Dalai Lama, pro skateboarder Tony Hawk and Coca-Cola appear to have little in common.

What these seemingly unlikely allies share, however, is a vested interest in today’s confident and connected youth culture. The Millennial generation of tech-savvy teens and twenty-somethings is keeping marketers on their toes by wielding the collective power to make or break brands, businesses and movements in a heartbeat.

Spotting an untapped opportunity, Roman Tsunder, an investment banker-turned-media entrepreneur, and Terry Hardy, CEO of Sonar Entertainment, had the idea back in 2009 to convene iconic personalities and companies to explore what makes the trillion-dollar consumer demographic tick.

“It was crazy to us that 60 percent of the world was under the age of 30, and that young adults represented the largest economic group in the U.S., yet there was no place for the people and industry leaders shaping our culture to get together and talk about how to connect with this audience,” Tsunder said in a recent interview.

PTTOW! co-founder Roman Tsunder (right) with Quiksilver founder Bob McKnight

Later that year, they hosted the first-ever PTTOW! (pronounced like it’s spelled) summit, an invite-only, TED-like gathering focused on the Millennial consumer. The inaugural event in Orange County, Calif., which Tsunder describes as “25 of us in a single room, gathered around a projector,” attracted key players from a range of youth-focused markets – from fashion, to gaming, to social good. A counter-terrorism specialist from the U.S. Secretary of State’s office rubbed elbows with the head of Ford Models and C-level leaders from Quiksilver, HP and Activision.

“Instead of seeing these as vertical industries, we wanted to think about it very horizontally,” Tsunder explained.

The PTTOW! network has since morphed into a unique, who’s-who mix of a few hundred executives, entrepreneurs, athletes and artists. “At the first event, we only had one company from each industry,” Tsunder added. “But as we’ve grown, we’ve expanded to include multiple companies in some industries… including competitors… because no one has a monopoly on young people.”

We spoke to Tsunder about PTTOW! and its vision to deconstruct the Millennial mindset:

Why are businesses and brands suddenly taking Millennials so seriously?

Adults can learn more from young people than vice versa. We were all young once. But as we get older, we forget what we were when we were 18. Young people are rebels with a cause these days. When you talk about ultimate creativity, it comes from young people because they’re not encumbered by the things that have molded adults throughout their lives. From an emotional standpoint, the best part of who we are is being young. And recapturing that is really a gift.

From a pure business standpoint, young people represent economic power and cultural influence. Business leaders are taking young people seriously because they’re reading about peers who are a few decades younger but have achieved extraordinary, lightning-in-a-bottle success. Many have become billionaires in only a few years. They’re sitting across from these young entrepreneurs at the negotiating table. And they’re not wearing suits, by the way.

What sets Millennial consumers apart from other generations of young people?

Young people have always been a tremendous force, but today they have a much louder voice because of all of the available channels. If you look at every passion category – music, gaming, live events, sports, fashion – all have social components that didn’t exist just a few years ago. Status and “celebritization” are more important to young people today, thanks to social media. The more Facebook friends or followers on Twitter or Instagram you have, the better.

Anyone can be a pseudo-celebrity, and that needs to be channeled. It’s reality… you can’t judge or change it. What you need to do is find a Jedi mind trick to use it as a hook to empower them to do a lot of other things. Young entrepreneurs are now modern-day celebrities. Young people today want to be like David Karp (Tumblr founder and CEO) and Mark Zuckerburg, which is a great thing.

What are the greatest challenges Millennials present to marketers and brands?

The greatest challenge – and opportunity – is to find a way to listen to them and understand how they’re living their lives and the issues they’re dealing with. And once you listen, then you have to understand how to connect with them in their own voice. Because if any of us are arrogant enough to think we know what young people want, that’s when we lose right away.

Which brands are doing a good job of building emotional connections with their core consumers?

Many endemic, born-on-the-streets lifestyle brands are, yes. RVCA streetwear and a lot of the surf brands that started locally are great examples. Their audiences identify who they are through these brands. "Roxy girls or Volcom guys," for example. As brands get bigger, it becomes more difficult to stay grassroots. Also, the brands doing the best these days are creating products with a mission and a purpose – such as Warby Parker eyewear and TOMS shoes – and then building a movement around them.

What do Millennials expect from their favorite brands?

Neil Blumenthal from Warby Parker said it best. He said brands must be unexpected – which is something Coke does really well. Millennials want to be surprised. Brands must surprise and delight by having a positive impact, by being humble and respectful, and by speaking truthfully. Also, young people love storytelling… so tell us a story.

Given these heightened expectations, are young adults more or less brand loyal than prior generations?

Definitely more loyal. There’s so much media noise out there because so many brands are getting it wrong. If you’re able to pierce through with authenticity, then young people will embrace your brand. But building up that loyalty is difficult. Look at GoPro, a lightning-in-a-bottle brand in the camera market, which is loaded with incumbents. They’ve plugged into the action sports lifestyle – surfing and snowboarding – pierced through that corporate shell other large companies have and laced their brand into their customers’ lifestyle. If you stay core and truthful, then your customer will be more loyal to you now than ever.

How does PTTOW! identify the companies and individuals you want to partner with?

It starts with the icons shaping our youth culture. This year we had will.i.am for music and philanthropy; Tom Freston, founder of MTV and former CEO of Viacom; Lee Clow, Steve Jobs’ partner at Apple; Danny Way, who made skateboard an act of daredevil feat by jumping over the Great Wall of China; and Kaskade, an electronic dance music (EDM) pioneer. The second group of partners includes companies with a movement. And finally, brands young people identify with. The Sony’s the Coke’s, the AT&T’s. And we love having unexpected guys like Sebastian Copeland, an arctic explorer, and Alec Ross, who ran innovation for Secretary Clinton for the last four years. We have three principles: One, to be radically inclusive. Two, to learn, share and collaborate. And three, to practice trust and generosity.

Power of PTTOW

What does that recipe create? What does convening these different, yet complementary, brains yield?

First of all, respect for each other. Respect leads to inspiration because the peers we bring together are the best in the world at what they do. Our members are fans of each other, which is really cool to see. They get to know each other, which builds trust... and that trust leads to unexpected partnerships. The best way to sum up PTTOW! is that we’re a business accelerator for large companies. We do so by inspiring them and helping to fuel business partnerships that will accelerate growth… all while having a positive impact on their customers.

Any partnerships you’re especially proud of?

There have been some awesome ones. The State Department partnered with YouTube to create a virtual Iraqi museum, and with Quiksilver to send snowboarding ambassadors to Eastern Europe. Chrysler also partnered with Clear Channel to be the headline sponsor of the iHeartRadio Festival. And I think we’ll see a lot more of these kinds of partnerships going forward.

Joe Tripodi, chief marketing and commercial officer for Coca-Cola, was a keynote speaker at the 5th Annual PTTOW! Summit earlier this year. Watch him talk about why Coke must constantly re-invent itself to keep up in a rapidly changing world.