Friday, June 12, 2009

Aspen Institute Taps Business for Social Change

BusinessWeek reported that at a time when the world's economy is in crisis, what could be more timely than a gathering of 160 innovative leaders from business, government, and the nonprofit sphere? The Aspen Institute, a public policy think tank, is hoping to set off some constructive frisson this week in Aspen, Colo., by bringing together representatives from its young global leadership programs around the world.

The three-day event is billed as a "reflective retreat." But based on the agenda, this is no peaceful monastic experience. The participants are taking on challenging topics. The programs include: "Leading in a Typhoon: Keeping Afloat in the U.S. Financial Crisis;" "Oops: Learning from Mistakes;" and "Biotech and Ethics: Where Do You Draw the Line?"

The conference will serve as the official launch of the institute's Aspen Global Leadership Network, a community of entrepreneurs who share a passion for tackling some of society's thorniest problems. Aspen's goal is to inspire participants to take on individual projects that put those values into action. "We say, 'You've been successful. Now what will you do that's significant and is going to change the direction of your country?' " says Peter Reiling, executive vice-president of the Aspen Institute.

A Call to Action
The gathering doesn't have the star-studded cast of the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, but it may end up producing more concrete results. The WEF is known for its public posturing by governmental leaders and movie stars. This Aspen event is at its essence a call to action. It worked in the past. Ever since the institute established the Henry Crown Fellowship program in 1997, it has been challenging young business and government leaders to become social-change agents. Reed Hastings, chief executive of Netflix (NFLX), was inspired after he became a Crown fellow in 1998 to get involved in public education and later served on California's Board of Education.

Among some of the high-profile presenters at the conference are Sonal Shah, the newly appointed head of the White House Office of Social Innovation; John Wood, founder of Room to Read and author of Leaving Microsoft to Change the World; David Rubenstein, co-founder and managing director of The Carlyle Group; and Walter Isaacson, CEO of the Aspen Institute and former CEO of CNN, owned by Time Warner (TWX).

The Aspen Institute invited a handful of journalists to observe the event and publish dispatches. The setup is a little awkward. Some sessions are entirely off -limits. At others, quoting people directly is not allowed unless they give permission.

Still, the opportunity to give BusinessWeek readers a view into the minds of this group seems too valuable to pass up. So please check in often on this page for updates from the conference. And, of course, please weigh in with comments.

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