That Bezos bunch |

That Bezos bunch


I am a cap guy, which is to say that I have a bunch, more than my share, of baseball caps. They come from various places I have been, companies I have worked with, teams I have rooted for or events I have attended. One of my favorites is a kind of dull beige cap that says “Bezos Scholars” across the front.

I like the hat not so much because of how it looks — it really is pretty boring — but rather because it reminds me of an evening I spent two summers ago videotaping interviews with a group of high school kids and their teachers. The kids, who were all hams when the red light went on, were some of the most charming, bright and engaging people I can remember meeting.

They were the 2011 class of the Bezos scholars.

The Bezos scholars are beneficiaries of a program founded and funded by the Bezos Family Foundation. Established by Mike and Jackie Bezos, parents (and seed investors) of founder Jeff Bezos, the Bezos Family Foundation is a private, independent foundation that is, among other things, committed to supporting young people and their educational pursuits.

In 2005, they partnered with the Aspen Institute to bring a dozen high school juniors and, get this, their teachers to Aspen for a week during the Ideas Festival. Students apply for the program with an extensive, five-part application process that includes a thorough review of the students’ academic records, four written essays, interviews with the Seattle-based selection committee and a nomination of an educator who will attend the festival with them.

It is a rigorous test just to go through the process, and the meek shall not inherit a spot.

Obviously, the original goal of the program was to enhance the learning opportunities for the students while giving them a great, all-expenses-paid trip to Aspen for the Ideas Festival. Students get to meet speakers such as Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Conner and political pundit David Brooks. Sounds like a great idea.

But what I discovered was that, as valuable an experience as it is for the scholars who attend, it is even more significant to the Aspen Institute and the Ideas Festival to have these kids in the house. Anyone who has attended the Ideas Festival knows that it is basically the choir speaking to the choir about how they have the ability to fix/control the world — wealthy, educated insiders talking to wealthy, educated insiders about things they all really already know everything about (or at least think they know everything about).

These kids, the Bezos scholars, are the proverbial breath of fresh air. They have yet to attend the great universities or go to work for think tanks or run hedge funds. They are simply kids, albeit very smart kids, who have a young and unformed perspective of the world we live in. Without pretense or insecurity or any of the other things that mark the elder attendees, these kids simply exude creativity, informality and good vibes.

The Bezos scholars may well be the best idea ever to come out of the Ideas Festival.

This week, the Aspen Institute announced the 2013 class of the Bezos scholars, who will be attending this summer’s Aspen Ideas Festival. The dozen students selected hail from all over America. They will be joined by another three scholars from the African Leadership Academy in South Africa.

If you see them on the street, be sure to give them a tip of your cap.