When the Aspen Ideas Festival cranks up next week, top executives from some of the companies that are “underwriters” for the event will be featured speakers on topics ranging from biotechnology to climate change.
That’s no coincidence.
Many of the companies and nonprofit organizations that make financial contributions as sponsors are given an opportunity to participate in the multitude of discussions that occur during the 10-day event, according to Kitty Boone, vice president of public programs with the Aspen Institute. Usually the Aspen Institute tries to get the CEOs of companies that are underwriters to appear as speakers, she said.
The institute presents the Aspen Ideas Festival along with the magazine The Atlantic.
Some of the top executives from companies and organizations that are underwriters this year include Brett Begemann, president and chief operating officer of Monsanto; Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil Co.; Indra Nooyi, CEO of PepsiCo; Paula Kerger, president and CEO of PBS; and Fred Krupp, president of the Environmental Defense Fund.
Sometimes the Aspen Institute and The Atlantic approach companies and nonprofits to be financial sponsors for the forum. Other times, the companies approach the organizers, according to Boone.
Monsanto has been a sponsor in the past and is returning this year.
“They reached out to us,” Boone said.
The multinational agrochemical company has been a lightning rod for activists because of its work with genetically engineered seed. There was an international March on Monsanto last month.
Boone staunchly defended inviting the company to participate in the Aspen Ideas Festival. Begemann will be interviewed for a program track called “The Promise of Biotech.”
One of the big issues facing the planet is how to feed everyone as the population soars, and biotechnology applications in crops and livestock will be a key, Boone said. Those topics can’t be addressed thoroughly at the Ideas Fest without Monsanto’s participation, she said.
“I think it’s really important to have them,” she said.
Even if the company weren’t a sponsor of Aspen Ideas, a representative would have been invited to speak on the topic because Monsanto is such a key player in biotech, Boone added.
The Aspen Institute prides itself on nonpartisan presentations of information and discussions of issues. Boone said presenters on all sides of issues are invited to participate in the Ideas Festival, which is in its 10th year.
“We do that every single year,” Boone said.
The speakers aren’t paid, though their airfare is covered. Sometimes people who are invited to participate in discussions cannot attend because they can’t take time away from their jobs, she said. That can skew the balance of presenters, but topics are still handled neutrally.
Shell Oil Co. has been a consistent underwriter of the Aspen Ideas Festival and other Aspen Institute events. Executives with the oil company were given a forum in the 2010 Ideas Fest to explain how their drilling practices hypothetically would have allowed them to avoid an oil spill like the one that befell BP’s Deepwater Horizon drilling rig in the Gulf of Mexico in April that year.
This year, Shell’s Odum will be part of a well-rounded panel being interviewed on “The Future of North American Energy Leadership.” The discussion is part of the “Confronting Climate Change” program track.
Lest anyone think the Aspen Institute is going too corporate with its relationship with underwriters, the festival organizers decided this year that climate change will be discussed in terms of solutions and policies. Climate-change deniers will not have a forum.
“We took the position that we’re not going to have that debate,” Boone said.
PepsiCo’s Nooyi will be a featured speaker during the Aspen Ideas Festival’s signature event, “An Afternoon of Conversation,” on June 30. Boone said Nooyi’s place in the spotlight is warranted because she is a woman running one of the largest corporations in the world, not because PepsiCo is an underwriter of the event.
“I think it’s really important to hear from corporate America,” Boone said.