Paul Anderson: Fair Game
July 4, 2011
Lauren Walters attended the first Ideas Festival four years ago, and something stuck. He learned about an American traveler named Blake Mycoskie, who, in 2006, befriended children in Argentina and found they had no shoes to protect their feet.
Wanting to help, Mycoskie created TOMS, a company that would match every pair of shoes purchased with a pair of new shoes given to a child in need. One for one. When Mycoskie returned to Argentina later that year, he arrived with 10,000 pairs of shoes, each pair made possible by a TOMS customer.
This one-for-one idea changed Walters’ view of social service. A venture capitalist, he partnered with friend Will Hauser, formerly of Goldman Sachs, to focus their energies and resources on helping malnourished children in Africa. Together, they created Two Percent, a food company that manufactures nutrition bars. Their motto: “Is Good, Does Good.” Their target: 200 million children in need. Two Degrees describes two degrees of separation between consumers and the children they help.
When you buy a Two Degrees bar, a child in Malawi, Kenya or Ethiopia receives a nutrition pack containing a highly fortified, nutrient-dense paste made from grains, nuts, seeds, milk powder, sugar, oil, vitamins and minerals. These life-sustaining contents are precooked, portable, require no water or refrigeration, and are ready to eat straight from the package.
At this year’s Ideas Fest, Walters described Two Degrees as a one-to-one business model that provides social halos to discerning consumers: “If I told you that my bar is as good as the bar you eat now, but that it creates social value, would you spend a little extra for it? Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people I ask say ‘yes.'”
This kind of business model redefines philanthropy, a fellow panelist remarked. Giving occurs with consumer choice instead of by writing a check at the end of the year. Entrepreneurial ambition tied to social benefit fosters value in two sectors of society.
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Two Degrees not only reflects a revolutionary business model, but it is also a powerful endorsement for the long-term value of the Aspen Ideas Festival. Here, ideas foment ideas through the synergy of personal growth, achievement and optimism.
When not attending sessions on diverse topics like happiness, food, global economics, social media, the arts and culture, medicine and music, I asked random participants for their takeaway from the program.
“It’s a beautifully presented smorgasbord that’s first-class in every detail,” effused a man from Texas. “It’s like a glorious food court where all the choices are good.”
“I went to one dinner and was amazed at the people sitting at the table with me,” said a man from San Francisco. “It was an incredible set of luminaries. The Aspen demographic makes it so.”
“The presentations are enlightening,” said a woman from Denver, “but the audience is what really makes it meaningful.”
“The importance of the event for me,” summed up Time Magazine columnist Joe Klein, “is not in the formal sessions. Where I learn the most is in the informal discussions I have in hallways.”
One man fanned out a handful of business cards. “Connections are part of it,” he said, “but also the reinforcement and confirmation I get for what I’m doing. There’s an incredible culture of inquisitiveness and creativity here.”
“This festival,” said Time Magazine editor Richard Stengel, “is a cornucopia of ideas. It makes you feel like your head is bursting.”
Some said the festival overloads on inputs, that it’s too much about delivery and not enough about dialogue, that there are too many choices and never enough time to experience the beauty beyond the Meadows campus where snow-clad mountains beckon. But the critics wore smiles at a festival whose mission is to focus on an inspiring week of intellectual stimulation with divergent presenters, and a full and demanding menu.
Talk to anyone, including the cordial and attentive Institute and Meadows staff, and there was a bright glow of appreciation for the place, the time, the events and the serendipity of it all. The festival is a glorified Chautauqua, said one man. It brightens and enlightens.
Ideas Fest reflects something deep from Aspen’s history. It harks to the shared experience of a convocation in a canvas tent in a mountain meadow to hear Albert Schweitzer, Thornton Wilder, Ortega y Gasset, Robert Maynard Hutchins and other luminaries of their day. The Ideas Festival is an annual rebirth of Aspen’s cultural renaissance of 1949, a celebration of founding principles and a high point in history.
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