The 2014 Washington Ideas Forum Explores Issues Under the Hood

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A good indication that a thought provoking conversation has taken place is the “legs” it has in your mind and in the minds of others who share the experience.

Such is the case with the Washington Ideas Forum – sponsored by The Atlantic and the Aspen Institute. And with the recent news of Chuck Hagel stepping down as Secretary of Defense, one of the most compelling speakers at the Conference, capturing a taste of it seemed even more appropriate.  So, at the invitation of Steve Clemons, DC Editor at Large for The Atlantic, I spent two incredible days listening to all things innovative and important.

Now, my sister (Marlene Colucci, Executive Director, US Business Council) and I have known Steve for about 30+ years.

When he ran the Japan America society in Los Angeles, I always enjoyed tagging along and engaging in compelling discussions surrounding the East-West debate of the 90’s. Steve has a penchant for creating thought provoking conversations and visibility into issues and verticals that lack transparency. So we both knew this was going to be one great show.

It appears he’s matched in that passion by his co-producer, Margaret Low Smith, and the reporters and staff from The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Washington Post, MSNBC, The Wall Street Journal, New York Times Magazine, BuzzFeed, The Cook Political Report, NPR, The Financial Times, Bloomberg News, ABC News, and lest I miss anyone else, the most senior journalists of our time, all of whom moderated truly exceptional panels.

The showing from the White House was impressive. Sure, there was the usual dosage of party line coming from several administration officials, but even they let go at certain points to lay in to some of the more complex and contentious issues of their tenure and our time.

Whether they were challenging Penny Pritzker about the anti-business policies of President Obama, Eric Holder, drilling down with Attorney General of the US Department of Justice about his intentions surrounding the prosecution of journalists or pontificating with US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on the challenges of the “new world order”and ISIS, the twenty minute interstitials dove deep enough to leave one feeling satisfied and, in some cases, truly inspired as in conversations with Dean Kamen on philanthropy or Craig Venter on advances in the study of the brain.

Speaking of Dean Kamen, Founder DEKA Research & Development Corp., no one made me want to abandon all my work more and follow him in his epic quest to make the world a better place. Talk about the Pied Piper. Whether he was inspiring children to invent by gamifying technology projects through a massive competition or creating prosthetic arms for disabled vets that had all the movement and responsiveness to mental signals of a real arm…he was amongst a small elite group of individuals who will leave the world a better place. Without doubt.

The topic of the day was, understandably with the conference taking place in Washington DC, political gridlock. But even that topic was addressed by John Barrasso, Senator from Wyoming, Joseph Manchin III, Senator from West Virginia, Jack Markell, Governor of Delaware and Chris Van Hollen, Representative from Maryland’s 8th Congressional District, with a serious desire to find ways to rise above the filibusters in the Senate and let them do their job of voting.

When most everyone can agree that Harry Reid’s obstructionism has caused a lack of productivity in the Senate, it is understandable how even the politicians want to move beyond that. Hallelujah!

In spite of the gridlock, they were all proud of the things they were able to accomplish such as improvements in the delivery of healthcare. No one can really argue with that and happily no one tried.

Penny Pritzker gave some informative insight into all the things that the Commerce Department actually oversees: the Census, the Weather Service, the economy of the coastline, international trade, foreign investment, the economic statistics and the Patent & Trademark system. She talked of the creation of manufacturing hubs, 5 out of 8 thus far completed, and of her absolute conviction that the President did care about corporate America…a great effort for those disposed to listen.

What struck me most was, in the years since Bush I, when I lived and worked in DC, Washington had managed to move beyond a one-issue town of politics, to one of ideas and entrepreneurship. In the past, most would have looked right past an entrepreneur to see if any important politician was within striking distance unless of course they were donating to your campaign. This was encouraging. People were interested to hear from Steve Crocker, the guy who created the RFC (“Request for Comments”) and who was part of the team that authored the protocols for the ARPANET, the foundation of today’s internet, joined by Steve Case.  Invented as a collaborative medium for institutions in different locations, and mandated by the authority who was funding those entities lest they may never have accepted this radical change, it was stunning to listen to this pair talk about how true it has stayed to its original roots.

The web as a collaborative medium was reinforced by Flipboard’s CEO Mike McCue who shared a stunning metric of 250k new users per day, and Etsy’s Founder Chad Dickerson who noted that there are more Etsy craft entrepreneur sellers than yellow cabs in New York collaborating and exchanging their creations. In addition to metrics, they both offered insights into how that collaboration might evolve as we scale in mobile devices and operate in a world economy.

Germane to DC was a stellar line-up from the government. I mentioned Penny Pritzker. Then there was US Treasury Under Secretary David Cohen,whose success with the addition of an intel analytical operation  to map elicit activities at Treasury has put them at the forefront of the discussion on terrorism.

No stone was left unturned and no subject matter given short shrift. US Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has sadly since resigned from his post, oozed credibility and strength. He gave articulate and compelling answers to many of the same state security questions asked of David Cohen and others – albeit from different angles. And by the end of the conference, one felt as if they had truly seen issues from every angle.  But what’s unique about Chuck Hagel is that he gives you a feeling of being able to hand over every bit of personal information and you know know it will be safe. He’s one tough act to follow, especially in that role.

One of my favorite talks by far was T Boone Pickens. How can you not love a man that says “all men want to please their wives.” The audience ate it up as he boasted he was very happily married at 86 years of age (and still doing push-ups when directed). I immediately started thinking to myself, why–did-I-not-move-to-Texas!

The audience, however, wasn’t quite as receptive to his views that global warming doesn’t exist – a view largely outnumbered by most including Shane Smith, CEO VICE. But the great part about this conference is that everyone was talking about it. Not shouting, with the exception of one protestor, who it turns out did not even have to shout as his question was the next in line for the interviewee Eric Holder, but discussing confrontational issues in an intelligent manner. How refreshing.

As I say to my children, I care less about what side of the political fence you’re on; I care more about your having a reason for holding that belief. True to that philosophy was probably the most compelling, and of course most humorous speaker of the day, Cole Bolton, Editor-In-Chief of The Onion, as he shared some of his favorite headlines over the years.

The relevant one in this case read: “Area Man Passionate Defender Of What He Imagines Constitution To Be.” As he got to the last of about 10 slides, I sat there wishing he had 100 more but realized I’d have cried off every stitch of make-up I had almost no time to apply in the taxi on my way over. Who would have known that a lawyer, his profession prior to starting The Onion, could have ever grown into such a likeable fellow. 

Then there were the women. Yes, you had the new CTO of the White House Megan Smith, on the job just a few short months but already taking hold of her mission, Penny Pritzker – smart and articulate with an unshakable conviction that the Administration is making a positive change in people’s lives, and Susan Rice, White House National Security Advisor, who handled hard and probing questions about the state of our defense with dignity and ease. But then – all of a sudden – you were listening to these unexpectedly great speakers like CEO and NASCAR Vice Chairperson Lesa Kennedy and Pelicans Vice Chairman and New Orleans Saints Owner Rita Benson – a wonderful departure from the traditional roster of women paraded on stage to create gender equality.

Both working in almost completely male-dominated verticals, (and I thought law was bad), these two women rocked the room. Not only were they thoughtful enough to bring a parting gift for their interviewer of a signed football and a cool NASCAR helmet, but what they’ve accomplished using their sports franchises as vehicles to rebuild depressed economies and to rally for the comeback from Hurricane Katrina took the concept of a sports franchise to an entirely different level. (NB: Yes, girls, even working on the business side of sports can get you a Superbowl ring :-)

One can’t overlook Carlyle Group Co-Founder and Co-CEO David Rubenstein’s talk about his charitable efforts: anyone who pledges to give back most of his wealth to the country that made him has to be inspirational. What we didn’t realize was that he was also a comedian. We laughed, cried and cringed as he described his refusal of the offer to watch semen extraction or insertion into the giant pandas he had just funded. A man with heart and humor thankfully on stage to give pause to everyone in this very powerful room if only for a short moment in time but hopefully longer in the minds of those who experienced this talk.

Then came Peter Thiel – seriously intense and articulate. The interviewer, David Frum, could not have felt more honored and respected than by the way Peter listened intently and answered purposefully. If you’re looking for substance in the Valley, there you have it…serious insights from the Co-Founder of Paypal and Chairman of Palantir Capital. It’s no surprise why entrepreneurs love to work with him.

We heard from NRG CEO David Crane, learned about education from EdEx CEO Anant Agarwal and from Jim McKelvey, Co-Founder, Square and Co-Founder, Launch Code, and that the world for novelists was shrinking even more and doomed to eventual obliteration in an incredibly humorous exchange between Joseph O’Neill, Author of Netherland and Gary Shteyngart, author of Little Failure. Interviewed by Scott Stossel, these two novelists provided the final comic relief as we rolled around “ in their head” and listened to them explain the thought process of their writing. Their books are now on my list.

In the end, the program was topped off with cocktails and a decadent candy table from Comcast/NBC/Universal (am I forgetting any other company they’ve appended to their masthead lately?) The day was truly inspirational. As I sat there throughout the day, I could not help to think I wished more people could have benefited from this thoughtful day. If not to be able to share these special experiences in life, what good are they? So, albeit after a few weeks wherein all that rich content and data soaked in, this is my grateful recitation of the highlights of the day. Hopefully there will be many more, for only in dialogue can we truly bring about revolutionary change.

Top photo Ideas-shared. All other photo credits: Michele Colucci.

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