Another successful year for Kent ideas festival

KENT — From quantum computing to income inequality, from potential Alzheimer’s treatments to the threat posed by North Korea, there was hardly a hot-button topic that wasn’t touched upon last weekend at the KentPresents Ideas Festival at Kent School.

The festival, now in its third year, is the brainchild of Kent residents Donna and Ben Rosen. In the beginning — the summer of 2014 — the couple were looking for a creative way to bring greater financial support to deserving small charities in the Northwest Corner of Connecticut.

Aware of the great success of the Aspen Institute and TED Talks, in which leaders from government, business, academia, science and the arts share their thoughts with audiences who value fresh ideas and different perspectives, the Rosens began to imagine conducting their own forum.

It had to be intimate, informal and scaled to fit the small-town flavor and physical accommodations of Kent. It also had to offer enough variety in presenters and subject matter to ensure that everyone who came would find something to their liking. And it had to generate enough profit through paid attendance to have something substantial left over to give to those charities.

Most people in Kent initially thought the idea a little daft, a little too ambitious, and so did some of the people he asked to be speakers that first year, Ben Rosen said.

Henry Kissinger later told me he agreed to participate only because he figured it would never come to pass,” Rosen said.

But most people find it hard to say no to the Rosens, who have a deep well of accomplished friends and associates from which to draw presenters.

Ben Rosen is a retired venture capitalist, chairman emeritus of Compaq Computers and chairman emeritus of the California Institute of Technology. Donna Rosen is a longtime gallery owner and board member at several major museums, giving her broad connections in the art world.

The result has been an outstanding roster of presenters and topics each year.

Kissinger, former U.S. secretary of state and 1973 Nobel Laureate, came the first year and every year since. This year he participated in two seminars. In “Diplomacy in the 21st Century,” he traded analyses one afternoon with Ambassador Nicholas Burns, former undersecretary of state during the Obama administration and a Foreign Service officer for 27 years. The next day he talked about the rise of China with John Pomfret, an award-winning journalist with a focus on China, and Christopher Hill, former career diplomat and now dean of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

Other repeat presenters and Nobel Laureates are economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman and Harold Varmus, former director of the National Institutes of Health and author of over 350 scientific papers and five books in the fields of cancer and genetics.

“We like to think our festival is different,” Donna Rosen said. “Most striking … we’re smaller. Much smaller than Aspen or TED, for example. With perhaps 80 presenters and maybe 300 attendees all gathered on the beautiful Kent School campus each day, everyone has multiple opportunities between sessions and at end-of-the day receptions and meals to network, to chat informally, to try out fresh ideas, and to make new friends, if that’s their inclination.”

“Sure, we cover the major global, intellectual and cultural topics of the time,” Ben Rosen said, “but we go out of our way to put together panels whose members come to their subjects by different paths and intellectual disciplines. The conversations onstage between the presenters as well as the questions from the audience often take surprising turns.”

The Rosens ensure success by taking a hands-on approach to the conference year after year, even now that they have a board of advisers and a small paid staff to take over some of the organizational chores. Both can be seen during the festival, quietly moving about, taking notes, attending every session, if only for a few minutes, to assess what is going well and where something may need tweaking next year.

KentPresents has sold out each year. Attendees come from as far away as California and Washington state, with a good number of people from Connecticut, New York and Massachusetts. Kent residents are counted among festival-goers, some as attendees, but many more wearing the green T-shirts that identify them as the volunteers.

Just as importantly, the goal that inspired KentPresents in the first place is being met. In each of the last two years, an independent board set up by the Rosens has distributed $100,000 in grants to 26 different charities in Litchfield County. This year’s festival appears to be on track to continue that generosity.

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