Inside the Modernist, an exclusive club for Silicon Valley's tech elite

JP Mangalindan
Chief Tech Correspondent

To better understand what makes Silicon Valley hum — the energy, the ambition, the money — try scoring an invite to a night at The Modernist, a private social club in downtown San Francisco one block from the water and the city’s famed Ferry Building.

Over 400 members belong to the two-year-old club, a 2,000-plus square-foot space housed in a nondescript building and marked by steel beams, exposed brick, chrome accents and a door entry system with a four-digit passcode that changes daily.

Among the clientele rubbing shoulders over cocktails and tapas-style molecular cuisine: former Evernote CEO Phil Libin, Kabam co-founders Kevin Chou and Holly Liu, and Yuan Yuan Tan, principal dancer at the San Francisco Ballet. Even Elon Musk, Tesla (TSLA) CEO and PayPal (PYPL) co-founder, has wined and dined at The Modernist on occasion.

The Modernist is a 2000-square foot private social club housed in a nondescript building in downtown San Francisco. Source: Amir Proushani/Yahoo Finance

The barrier to entry at The Modernist is steep. Members pony up as much as $3,000 a year in fees, although $1,000 of that can be used as credit towards food and drink. Cocktails such as the Yogi Bear – Glen Grant 10 malt scotch, salted caramel, shiitake mushroom and truffle — hover between $12 and $17, while bites like sea bass siu mai and lobster tempura fetch between $11 and $20. 

To even be considered for membership, a current club member must recommend the candidate. A candidate also undergoes an interview process, in which one of the club’s employees — from one its co-founders to the bar back — can veto that person as a candidate. The rationale: a strict “no-a**hole policy.”

“What’s most important to us is that our members are fun, friendly, accomplished, they’re respectful, and they’re unpretentious,” Modernist co-founder Albert Chen tells Yahoo Finance.

The Modernist serves up a number of bites, including sea bass siu mai and lobster tempura. Source: Victor Velasquez/Yahoo Finance

‘It’s the people that are really the content of the club

A club that charges $3,000 a year? That’s pocket change to many of the tech elite, but for just about anyone else, that’s a down payment for a car. Chen, who co-founded The Modernist with entrepreneur Steve Chen and Carlo Splendorini, former corporate bar director of the Mina Group, contends that cash goes towards creating a controlled environment where many career professionals feel comfortable and safe to mingle.

“When you put together the product for anything, whether it’s a community or a tech company, you have to consider all the elements that make that product amazing,” Chen adds. “What makes this place amazing is one, hospitality, and two, the membership. It’s the people that are really the content of the club.”

The Modernist is hardly the only club of its kind on the local tech scene — nor is it even the most popular. The Battery, a San Francisco social club, cost $13.5 million for entrepreneur couple Michael and Xochi Birch to buy and millions more to renovate into a five-floor, architectural marvel. It regularly draws high-flying tech figures such as famed Apple designer Jonathan Ive, Dropbox CEO Drew Houston, former Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer, and former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo, among others.

Cocktails such as the Yogi Bear – Glen Grant 10 malt scotch, salted caramel, shiitake mushroom and truffle — typically hover around $15. Source: Victor Velasquez/Yahoo Finance

Another private spot, Wingtip, prides itself on offering its members a setting geared towards the “modern gentleman,” mixing counters and slabs of burnished wood, granite, and marble. It even has an in-house barber and tailor.

But where The Modernist comes up short — it has fewer members and offers fewer luxurious amenities than Wingtip or The Battery — it tries to make up in other ways, namely, a more intimate setting and more diverse clientele.

Pascale Diaine, a principal investor at the Menlo Park, Calif.-based venture capital firm Storm Ventures, joined The Modernist 11 months ago in part for those very reasons.

“I think other clubs are a bit more ‘bro-ey,’ if I can say that,” Diaine explained. “And I think the Modernist is breaking that stereotype that private clubs are for men. The more women, the better.”

“I think the Modernist is breaking that stereotype that private clubs are for men,” Diaine says. “The more women, the better.” Source: Victor Velasquez/Yahoo Finance

A place to recruit top talent

Diaine also contended social clubs like The Modernist provide an excellent setting to network and recruit talented tech workers — a notorious challenge in Silicon Valley, where companies like Google (GOOG, GOOGL) and Facebook (FB) offer jaw-dropping salaries and perks to hire and retain the créme de la créme.

“What I really like are the nights where I start a discussion on a personal level, and just connect with the person,” Diaine added. “This idea that I like hanging out with somebody. I want to have a beer with that person; therefore, I’m really inclined to work with them, either as a co-founder, investor, employee. It’s a war for talent here. It’s really hard to recruit people. So if you have a connection with somebody, it’s just going to be much easier to hire that person, to convince that talent to join your company.”

Other members of The Modernist including David Zamir, CEO and founder of the home-services platform Nana.io, contend the personal connections they’ve made at The Modernist make the annual membership fees worthwhile.

 

“It could be perceived as tech people ‘doing their thing,’ but if you look at the composition of the membership, there are people doing amazing things with their life,” explained Will O’Brien, COO of Keen IO. Source: Victor Velasquez/Yahoo Finance

“I find myself skiing with the guys from the Modernist, going to birthdays,” he says. “I find myself camping with people from the Modernist. Friends for life. That’s the perfect thing I got from here: friends for life.”

Will O’Brien, COO of Keen IO, acknowledges places like The Modernist could come off as elitist.

“It could be perceived as tech people ‘doing their thing,’ but if you look at the composition of the membership, there are people doing amazing things with their life,” O’Brien said. “You know when you walk through the door, you’re going to run into somebody that you enjoy getting to know.”

And if that person ends up their next co-founder, investor or employee? So much the better.

JP Mangalindan is a senior correspondent for Yahoo Finance covering the intersection of tech and business. Email story tips and musings to jpm@oath.com. Follow him on Twitter or Facebook.  

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