Aspen Times Weekly: The Smartest Men in the Room … Are All Women |

Aspen Times Weekly: The Smartest Men in the Room … Are All Women


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The Ideas Festival, June 22 through July 1, is not only the showcase for the myriad projects and initiatives of the Aspen Institute, but is also the embodiment of its mission, which is to gather people to talk, present and ask questions on timely and critical topics.

And if those topics seem a bit, shall we say, scattered, that is somewhat the point. The vita-mixing of seemingly disparate subjects across multiple disciplines is actually what makes the Institute and the Festival so unique. Think tanks are usually quite narrow in their subject matter and really just churn out papers. University departments rarely co-mingle outside the annual holiday party. The Aspen Institute, however, gathers chemists, historians, musicians, high school teachers, teenagers, governors, faith leaders, politicians, writers and disrupters of every feather in a forum really unlike any other.

“On any given day we’re dealing with economics, global affairs, creativity, morality, artificial intelligence, genetics, politics,” explains Killeen Brettmann, managing director of public programs. As one can imagine, and as was universally noted among the staff, this is an endlessly inspiring place to work.

It’s inspiring for the festival attendees, as well.

“On any given day we’re dealing with economics, global affairs, creativity, morality, artificial intelligence, genetics, politics.”

“People leave a session and run for office, donate millions, get grants for research,” notes Kitty Boone, vice president, executive director of public programs and founder of the Ideas Festival. Of course, it’s not always that dramatic. Some people just fall in love. Eric Motley, executive vice president, can think of at least three couples that have met here. In fact, he recently went to a wedding where the couple had not only met and married, but started a company together, as well. All thanks to the Festival.

So, if those are the results, how on God’s green Aspen Meadows campus do they pull it off? Well, “they” is a team of about 30 full-time staffers and 20 or so interns based here in Aspen who handle every last detail from the lecture topics, to the scheduling, to the friendly faces who pick up guests at the airport. “Customer service is a huge, huge priority to the running of the festival,” Kitty emphasizes. The team is responsible for some of the most high-profile and high-powered people on Earth.

“People always want the schedule earlier, but it is literally changing as the festival is taking place,” Killeen explains. Last year was particularly rough, as not only did Bill Clinton decide to have a tarmac-side chat with the attorney general but the citizens of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union — all this mid-conference, which caused quite a few scheduling snafus. But, it’s that kind of crisis management that the team is trained for. This year, they actually brought in efficiency experts from Toyota to evaluate more efficient transport routes to get people to and from the various venues.

And that this streamlined enterprise is carried out each year by a team of women is a staffing detail no one had really thought about. In a world where the workforce continues to demonstrate gender divides in everything from tech to finance to education to entertainment, it’s both inspiring and thought-provoking to see an all-female staff at the helm of one of the most important conferences in the world. Why do more women go into nonprofit, into event planning and production?

“Maybe there’s something about the culture here that doesn’t necessarily attract more women, but certainly retains them,” hypothesizes Editorial Director Tricia Johnson. “It’s a very open, supportive and inclusive environment. Plus, we all just like each other.” The female-dominated workplace is a big change for Anthea Viragh, an Austrian-American, Bangkok raised, Middlebury graduate whose last internship was at BMW in China, an all-male workplace.

“People are more open to listening, sharing ideas; no one holds back. Which is great, but sometimes, well, can get a bit overwhelming,” she observes.

Farahnaz Afaq, an intern from Afghanistan, actually finds the environment quite familiar. “Honestly, working on a largely female team and being surrounded by mountains and rivers reminds me of being in my hometown in Afghanistan. All the public schools are single gender there and the countryside is surrounded with beautiful mountains just like Aspen, but less green.”

How and why demographics play out the way they do is exactly the kind of question that the Institute would — and has — tackled in a much more thoughtful and informed manner than I am doing here. What seems evident is that the culture within the Institute is very much a reflection of its mission and values, one devoted to diverse, intellectual pursuits and fearlessly tackling problems big (climate change) and small (where is the catering for the Koch Room?)

This isn’t to say that the enterprise isn’t immune to the systemic and cultural shortcomings that even the smartest people in the world have yet figured out. But when it comes to this crack team, I’ll leave it to Beyoncé to conclude:

“My persuasion can build a nation /

Endless power, with our love we can devour.

Girls, we run this motha.”

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