Civic Action

Summer at Aspen: Resnick Aspen Action Forum

October 1, 2017  • Zach St. Louis

In a world that seems more perplexing by the day, the more than 300 Fellows at this year’s Resnick Aspen Action Forum needed space to think—and to reconnect.

“I don’t know about you, but I’m feeling a little bit confused with the world right now,” Peter Reiling, the Institute’s executive vice president for leadership, said at the opening of this year’s Resnick Aspen Action Forum. “The timing of this event could not be better. I believe that more than a few of us need this moment just to be still, to exhale, and to think.”

Each July, hundreds of Fellows from the Institute’s Aspen Global Leadership Network gather in Aspen.

Now in its fifth year, the event brings together international business leaders and provides them with a space to pause, reflect on their values, and develop ideas to create positive change—”Action Pledges” to address a challenge in their societies. With over 230 pledges made this year alone, including committing to transforming health care in 1,000 public hospitals in India by 2020 and reducing the number of children living in poverty in Detroit by 50 percent by 2022, Fellows are determined to move society forward.

Resnick Aspen Action Forum

In only a year, Fellows had witnessed major global shifts: American and British citizens shocking the world at the ballot box; growing instability in the Middle East; China increasing its investment across Asia. Called “The Great Re-Set,” this year’s Action Forum gave Fellows an opportunity to consider how best to respond without losing sight of integrity, compassion, civility, and respect. A feeling of uncertainty about the world was a common sentiment this year. “I’ve always thought that the society we live in here gives you endless possibility and reasons to believe,” Catto Fellow M. Sanjayan, the CEO of Conservation International, said between sessions. “But there is in the depth of my heart some doubt creeping in now.”

Fellows meet in small groups throughout the five-day event for deep discussions centered on a relevant theme. Some conversations use essays or poetry as a jumping-off point; others start with brief presentations on topics like national service, personalized learning, and artificial intelligence. Fellows often leave these sessions with their horizons broadened and a new perspective on a difficult topic. Laughter is a given. Tears are not uncommon.

Fellows remain hopeful about the future—a future they aim to make better through their Action Pledges.

Each of the 300 Fellows from 30 countries who gathered this summer was drawn from of one of 14 distinct fellowship programs within the Aspen Global Leadership Network. Some of the fellowships are specific to a region, like the Central America Leadership Initiative; others are specific to a vocation, like the Health Innovators Fellowship. Individual classes of 20 Fellows meet multiple times over the course of two years. But the Resnick Aspen Action Forum is the singular event at which leaders across all of the fellowships come together and learn from one another. “The value for leaders is to get a diversified perspective on issues that affect your business and your strategic thinking,” Brian Wong, the vice president of Alibaba Group and a member of the China Fellowship Program, said. “One of the things I have learned is that diversity is a strength. Having people from Africa, Latin America, the US, Asia, the Middle East—it’s an amazing opportunity to get feedback on your ideas.”

Walking across campus at the Action Forum, you may see two Fellows wandering down a path in intense conversation or chairs haphazardly pulled together in the Marble Garden so a group can keep the discussion going. Henry Crown Fellow Chadia El Meouchi, the co-founder of the Middle East Leadership Initiative and a managing partner at Badri and Salim El Meouchi, said, “Coming to the Action Forum is magical opportunity to reunite with loved ones, reconnect with myself and my dreams, and make new friends who enlighten my thoughts. Each year, I return home to Lebanon full of hope and ideas to put into action.” “Fellowships are a gift,” Henry Crown Fellow Rebecca Blumenstein, the deputy managing editor of The New York Times, said. “We’re at a point where government and politics are almost at a complete paralysis, so we’re seeing business play a greater role in affecting events around the world. But as a business leader, it’s easy to get too comfortable. You’re not meeting people who are fundamentally different than you are. That’s a special magic of the Action Forum—you come across people you never would otherwise. It stretches you.”

Action Forum Panel

“It’s quite a rare combination of people with strong business acumen who are trying to deliver a social dividend as well as a commercial one,” said Joshin Raghubar, the executive chair of iKineo Ventures and a member of the Africa Leadership Initiative–South Africa. “This is where we have our tribe—business people and social leaders who are trying to do just that.”

Other Fellows shared what they view as today’s biggest international challenges, including climate change, the global migrant crisis, and changes to the traditional concept of work—a point that particularly resonated with Henry Crown Fellow Jocelyn Mangan, the chief operating officer of Snagajob. “We should be able to live a fulfilling life if we’re working 40 hours a week,” she said. “The basic values of ‘I work hard and therefore I can pay my bills and I can come home and spend time with my children,’ those are all under threat.”

Fellows remain hopeful about the future—a future they aim to make better and more equitable for everyone through their Action Pledges. Optimism is their nature. Henry Crown Fellow Lisa Skeete Tatum, the president and CEO of Landit, shared her vision of what a true reset would look like. “I imagine a world where everyone is free to bring the full measure of their talent on their terms,” she said. “Imagine what that world could be.”