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Doing Good Well: Aspen Action Forum 2019 Learnings

September 10, 2019

By Irina Marinescu

Diversity Tools for Success

This summer, I had the immense privilege of participating in the Reznick Aspen Action Forum, an annual gathering of global leaders dedicated to leveraging their talents and resources to do good. Part of the 3000+ strong Aspen Global Leadership Network (“AGLN”), it brings together builders, scalers, storytellers, connectors, innovators, mobilizers and other proven leaders in business, non-profit and government for a week to reflect, refresh and recommit to making measurable positive impact in the world, thanks to the generosity of Lynda and Stewart Reznick, founders of The Wonderful Company. This year’s program focused on the borders within and around us and proved a perspective-shifting chapter for me, so I thought to collect and share my learnings here.

To borrow from the Forum welcome letter, borders are having a moment of reckoning. On the one hand, they are disappearing as technology continues to connect us in global trade, commerce and community — from borderless currencies like Bitcoin helping Venezuelans combat crippling inflation to Gen Z’ers reporting few friends “in real life” with many more deep connections online. On the other hand, borders are increasingly divisive — from online communities that segregate and radicalize to increased border clashes with climate refugees or casualties of political breakdown. The Forum forced this reckoning through tools of diversity and highlighted how critical diversity is to effecting positive change — here’s how:

Diversity of background, perspective, experience

The Forum brought together hundreds of global leaders and afforded them a platform to educate others about their ventures and impact. There was something to be learned from everyone. A few examples include: Marcelo Claure’s 1Million Project, which aims to provide one million students with internet access and connected devices for four years, having already reached 14,000 high schools and 115,000 students; Joshin Raghubar’s iKineo Ventures, which aims to create 4,500 tech jobs in South Africa by 2020, having already placed 2,000 people and secured a funding pipeline of $20 million; and Srikumar Misra’s Milk Mantra, which is transforming the lives of dairy farmers in India through ethical sourcing and supply chain improvements. The contrast and depth of each high-integrity, action-oriented leader’s background, drives, perspective and experience fostered remarkably eye-opening and candid conversations that brought us all even closer together and in so doing, expedited the exchange of experiences and ideas.

Diversity of medium — method of connection

The Forum brought us all together for awe-inspiring conversations with statesmen like Olara A. Otunnu, X-Prize CEO and astronaut Anousheh Ansari and Ctrip CEO Jane Sun, female CEO of China’s largest online travel platform, as well as intimate hikes, meals, picnics, performances and even a 5K. The primary togetherness tool however was the traditional Aspen Institute seminar — moderated by Forum veterans and impact-oriented doers, we connected and exchanged the depth of our differences only to rediscover the strength of our common human threads over 2–3 hour poetry roundtables. Surrounded by impactful leaders who have dedicated years or decades of their lives to effecting positive change, while an extremely humbling and inspiring experience, also managed to highlight through seminar study, our collective humanity — everyone regardless of station in life shares a common experience of working to overcome obstacles at work, at home and in their private lives even as they work to effect incremental change each day. This was an energizing reminder to continue down that path earnestly and of the power of an artistic forcing mechanism like poetry, which is not a language I typically speak, to bring us all together and in so doing, share our best learnings and ideas with each other.

Intergenerational diversity

The Forum also featured a Youth Camp, which provided a lens into the future. Having younger generations educate us on their priorities, worries and experiences while showcasing their talent and vision for the future was also eye-opening and inspiring. It can be easy in today’s walled gardens to fail to connect with youth and the risk to not hearing them is that we discount their concerns. Having the opportunity to connect with passionate young leaders as well as more senior, experienced leaders fostered intergenerational connectivity and empathy.

Each of these 3 tools of diversity broke down barriers to connectivity. As a result, they brought a uniquely assorted, talented and effective network together. In so doing, information discovery was remarkably easy — the cultural impact of Apartheid or race relations in Chicago or LA was felt and understood by anyone listening even if never experienced. This helped us (i) efficiently exchange best practices or learnings acquired from our diverse experiences and (ii) remember how to think on a massive scale toward effecting change. We all know diversity is good for business but Aspen illustrated how it’s so effective by showing how folks can come together to leverage their networks, skills, resources and talents for collective action. Aspen showed me how you can do good well.

I am deeply grateful for the renewable and lasting font of inspiration, encounters and action items I took away from the Forum and to Paul Hastings for inviting me. By way of background, over the course of the Forum’s 6-year history, we at Paul Hastings have institutionally assisted 50 AGLN fellows from as far away as Syria and Australia with 1500+ pro bono hours valued at $1.35mm to help them overcome various pain points in their ventures, from data privacy to structuring, capital raising and IP. In so doing, we put our resources to work contributing to education, affordable housing, gender equality, financial literacy and access, leadership development and tolerance and equality enterprises, and continue to pledge our capital — both through our active and consistent pro bono efforts as well as our launch of a practice area dedicated to social enterprises, impact investing and sustainability (more info here). If you are long-term greedy seeking to effect measurable change and would like help, please reach out. I would love to learn about your pain points and how we can leverage our talents and resources to better serve this space.

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