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Monsanto, PepsiCo bail on Aspen Ideas Fest

Walter Isaacson, President and CEO of the Aspen Institute interviews Bill Gates at the Aspen Ideas Festival in 2009. This week, festival sponsors Monsanto and PepsiCo announced they wouldn't be returning to this summer's event.
File photo |

Two high-profile underwriters of the Aspen Ideas Festival won’t be returning for this summer’s edition.

Monsanto and PepsiCo are withdrawing from the annual event, which draws global heavy hitters in politics, business, culture and other fields. Past speakers and panelists have included Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates, Alan Greenspan, Condoleezza Rice and Karl Rove.

Institute officials were made aware of the development this week, said Kitty Boone, director of the Ideas Fest and the Institute’s vice president of public programs.



“We got a call that Pepsi had to pivot their markets and we’re not fitting into their new strategy, which is for a very young audience,” Boone said, noting the average age of Ideas Festival attendees is in the late 40s and early 50s.

Boone said Monsanto’s decision was financially driven, calling it a “fiscal situation.”



She declined to reveal each company’s monetary contributions to last year’s festival. Underwriting contracts are renewed on an annual basis, she said.

Messages left with St. Louis-based Monsanto and Purchase, New York-based PepsiCo seeking comment for this story were not returned.

The pull-outs come after the Institute clarified its position in January on the role of sponsors and donors that provide funding to the think tank. Boone said the policy’s intent was to create a “church and state” scenario to avoid the appearance that sponsors and donors influence the Institute’s content in its programming and publications.

“The Aspen Institute retains editorial control of all of our publications and events,” the policy says. “We have the final say over what gets published, what topics are covered and who speaks at any of our convenings.”

The Institute’s mission, as outlined in its 2014 Overview and 2013 Annual Report, is “to foster leadership based on enduring values and to provide a nonpartisan venue for dealing with critical issues.”

Monsanto President and CEO Brett Begemann and PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi were among the featured speakers at last year’s Ideas Fest.

PepsiCo also had a food truck on the Institute’s Aspen Meadows Campus and Monsanto had a tent offering smoothie drinks.

Boone said the Institute’s position on sponsors and donors had no bearing on the exit of Monsanto and PepsiCo. The Ideas Fest is poised to see returning underwriters such as Hewlett-Packard, Mt. Sinai Health System, Shell Oil Co., U.S. Trust and the Walton Family Foundation, Boone said.

Last year, Boone told The Aspen Times that Monsanto’s CEO would have spoken at the Ideas Festival regardless of the controversial agrochemical company’s sponsorship status. Begemann was interviewed for “The Promise of Biotech” program, which addressed feeding the world’s booming population.

The new policy hasn’t pushed away underwriters, Boone said.

“We thought we would see a lot more people say, ‘What do you mean we can’t speak?’” Boone said. “We’ve created opportunities for them to present advertorial-sponsored content where they curate the content.”

The Institute reported $43.8 million in grants and contributions in 2013 and $40.2 million in 2012.

This year’s Ideas Fest, which is presented by the Institute and The Atlantic, will be held in three segments: Spotlight Health is slated for June 25 to 28, Festival 1 runs from June 28 through July 1 and Festival 2 is scheduled for July 1 to 4. Speakers at the festival haven’t been announced. The Institute, which has campuses in Aspen, Maryland and Washington, D.C., rolled out the festival in 2005.

rcarroll@aspentimes.com


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