I was proud and excited to attend the Aspen Ideas Fest earlier this month. The event brings together some of the smartest and most influential people on the planet for a week of discussion about politics, innovation, education, health and other key topics impacting the world today. This is the place to be if you want to be on the forefront of ‘what’s next’ for the world.
The conference gets better and better every year, and I go for the different points of view presented by liberal and conservatives alike. People from Madeleine Albright to Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan all come together to share ideas in an environment that is lively but less contentious than Congress.
The conference began with the reading of Martin Luther King’s letter from the Birmingham Jail. Anna Deavere Smith read the letter and reminded us all of the eloquence and brilliance of this man. Honestly, I was moved nearly to tears by her powerful reading.
One of my favorite sessions was with David Boies, the lawyer who successfully argued the case against the Prop 8 ballot initiative in front of the Supreme Court. He outlined the legal precedence that had to be met to limit the rights of citizens and how Prop 8 sought to limit the rights of a certain group without any proof of harm to other groups. In addition, he talked about the numerous findings of the fundamental right to marry as part of our culture. His testimony was both intelligent and emotional, and his personal empathy for the plaintiffs, whose rights had been stripped by the measure, was clear. His speech was spectacular and reminded me of why this country is great.
Of course, as this conference was happening, an uprising was occurring in Egypt. We were fortunate to have Madeleine Albright present to discuss the long history and challenges of democracy in the Middle East. There were also Supreme Court Justices Cagan and Breyer in attendance to discuss recent rulings and how the court works to find consensus on constitutional issue.
Politics wasn’t the only topic on the agenda. Innovation and design played a big role in the panels. One panel was entitled “Design Love into your Brand.” One of the panelists was in Istanbul when the civil disturbances broke out. They wanted to get onto the Internet because CNN and others not reporting on what was actually happening in Turkey. They went to the place where everyone was – Starbucks. No one riots at Starbucks. Everyone wants their coffee. But what they supplied to her and the Turkish citizens was more than coffee – Starbucks was their trusted link to the outside world. They designed love into the brand and it shows.
However, the discussion that actually motivated me most personally was a twist on my own field – venture capital. Given my experience in the tech industry, I’ve always been a fan of the TED conferences. Some people asked me which one I prefer. I think they’re quite different events, so I prefer to attend both. In fact, the founder of the TED conference, Chris Anderson, spoke at Aspen Ideas Fest along with his wife, Jacqueline Novogratz, who is a member of the Aspen Institute Board of Trustees. Chris interviewed Jacqueline about her non-profit organization, which was most interesting to me because of her work as a kind of non-traditional VC. She has taken on some of the toughest world problems, including poverty and hunger. Her fund puts money into entrepreneurs who are challenged in every way by their environment, such as Haiti and Rwanda. Then she gathers her network of friends and scholars to guide and advice these companies towards success even in the face of minimal business training and resources. Yet, she has been enormously successful creating companies that are finding solutions for clean water, clean air and economic growth in impoverished regions. She is proving that the model of social entrepreneurship can work. More importantly, she challenged those of us who have been successful to give back.
If you know me, you know that I often talk about giving back in whatever ways you can. But in this case, she needs people to give back who can go into uncomfortable environments and circumstances to give time and advice to people who are not Stanford grads but have gotten by without the networking and resources of Silicon Valley.
Richard Branson continued this theme of giving back. While he is famous for Virgin Airlines and some of his unconventional branding and business approaches, it is his charity work that was really impressive. Richard put together the Elders program with key heads of state such as Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter and Nelson Mandela. The goal of the Elders it to address the big global issues – world hunger, world peace, world health initiatives and other matters that often seem unsolvable. He told a story about how the Elders had Saddam Hussein convinced to leave the country and renounce his position just the day before America bombed. Had America waited one more day, the whole war could have been averted according to him.
And this gets me to my big takeaway from the conference – we all have to go out in the world and do whatever we can to make a difference. Help people. Do something. Offer your time, energy, knowledge…whatever you can. But get involved and be part of this great planet.
For me, Aspen Ideas Fest is a chance to learn about things beyond what I do every day and take a macro view of today’s global issues. My challenge is to go back to normal life and try to do things differently…even at the heart of Silicon Valley on Sand Hill Road.