TNP: Incubating Ideas -Fall 2017

by: Joshua H. Balling

Craig Arnold was just four years out of Nantucket High School when he attended the second Nantucket Project in 2012 on an Inquirer and Mirror fellowship.

The budding entrepreneur, who had spent time in Ghana on an exchange program in high school, had been thinking about starting up a sustainable-agriculture operation in the west African nation, but hadn’t yet gotten it off the ground.

The connections he made and the inspiration he took from the Project – the island’s answer to TED Talks and the Aspen Ideas Festival – not only galvanized his resolve to continue working in Africa, but convinced him to save his own money to return to the Project the following year.

Since then, he’s started two farms in Ghana, launched a venture-capital and holding company focused on sustainable ventures, and is heavily involved in the booming hemp and legal cannabis industry. He’s also been back to the project every year, the last several as a volunteer, where he’s made additional connections with alternative-medicine advocate Deepak Chopra and a pair of businessmen pursuing opportunities in Africa, Tonye Cole and Ashish Thakkar.

“Going to the Nantucket Project showed me that anything is possible. You can meet with anyone, and everyone has something of value,” Arnold, now 27, said. “When you see other people who have succeeded, in similar or different situations to yourself, you have vigor coming out. It pushes me. As an entrepreneur, you can get down and burned out sometimes. The Nantucket Project reinvigorates me, and inspires me to push even harder on the projects I’m working on. I come away with new viewpoints I haven’t had before. Any time you can interact with a different person, or another culture, you gain something out of it. After every Nantucket Project, the feeling I always have is I have to keep moving things forward. There’s no reason to stop now. I need to push ahead. It’s about confidence, and knowing you can do what you set your mind to.”

Over the past six years, the Nantucket Project has brought to the island some of the brightest minds in the world, as innovators, visionaries and entrepreneurs have shared their ideas – and sparked some new ones – under a tent at the White Elephant hotel overlooking Nantucket Harbor. This year’s sold-out Project is scheduled for Sept. 14-17.

Scheduled presenters include former Mexican president Vicente Fox, president Paul Kagame of Rwanda, former O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark and actress Jennifer Garner.

Past lineups have included former British prime minister Tony Blair, Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, musician Neil Young, television pioneer Norman Lear, Tour de France winner Greg LeMond, advisor to four presidents David Gergen, WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange (via hologram), former U.S. senator and secretary of state John Kerry, former Harvard president and U.S. treasury secretary Larry Summers, and actor and environmental activist Mark Ruffalo.

Others in attendance have been former Alphabet (Google parent company) executive chairman Eric Schmidt, microbiologist Craig Venter, Segway inventor Dean Kamen, theater, opera and film director Julie Taymor and former White House chief of staff and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. Presenters last year included Chopra, former White House intern Monica Lewinsky and controversial former U.S. women’s national soccer team goalie Hope Solo.

The Nantucket Project was created by Plum TV and Nantucket Nectars founder Tom Scott and Kate Brosnan in 2011 to serve as an incubator for creative thought, and take a deeper dive into subjects as wide-ranging as humanitarian and cultural initiatives, cutting-edge science and technology, politics and business, in an intimate setting.

Scott believes that mission is perhaps even more essential today than it was at the beginning.

“Some of this might relate to age, but I feel this general sense of distraction in my life these days that’s hard to contend with. A lot of it comes out of the phenomenon of political chaos we have today. Seven years ago, the idea was in part to go deeper on certain subjects, that there is value in people with a certain type of expertise sharing something personally with the crowd. I valued it a lot then, and I probably value it more now. That has remained true throughout, that value of a live presentation and conversation, particularly against the backdrop of technology and information overload we live in today,” he said.

“My wife and I are going to post our sixthgrader’s graduation on our Facebook page. I’m perfectly cool with that. But it becomes one more thing that has to fit into the midst of every other thing that we do. On a certain level, Trump and Russia compete with my sixth grader’s graduation in the flow of information you get on a daily basis. So much information competes for space today. I feel a little run down from that kind of thing. On the other end of the spectrum, sharing energy with people is something even more satisfying to me today.”

Brosnan agreed, and took the idea one step further.

“It’s the power of the shared experience. The energy in the room changes when people are sharing something. There is so much more a need for that today compared to even when we started. I don’t know that initially we thought that. We just wanted to talk about the things that mattered the most, but we’ve created an environment to make that possible,” she said. “I’m hungry for conversation that happens face to face, to connect. We all want to feel connected. We are

disconnected today. That’s the end goal, to feel connected in a real and authentic way.”

Arnold is just one of several Nantucketers who say they’ve benefited from attendance at the Project.

High-school principal John Buckey attended the first year at the invitation of the organizers, and became a charter member of its fellows program. Aside from the tangible benefits of connecting with presenters he’s brought in to speak in the schools – athletes Shane Battier and Maurice Clarett, artist Wayne White and Harvard English professor Elisa New, founder of the Poetry in America project – several staff members have attended over the years, and social studies and government teacher John McGuinness worked with Floating University, one of the original presenters, on developing a religion and philosophy course. History and social studies teacher Steve Laredo also taught a course on genocide, the Holocaust and human behavior, using the Project’s connections with Facing History and Ourselves, an international nonprofit dedicated to examining racism, prejudice and anti-Semitism.

The event’s ability to expand individual horizons should not be underestimated, Buckey said.

“It opens us up to a broader world, and provides an opportunity to think about our role in it, from health and medicine, to clean water and literacy in Africa. It always stretches my thinking. I consider ideas I might not have known about without attending the Project. Always when I’m sitting there experiencing things, there’s that ‘a-ha’ moment, where I never really thought about that, or didn’t think about it that way,” he said.

The Project each year also makes space available for two Nantucket High School students to attend.

“It provides them a safe forum to think about things they maybe wouldn’t have thought about until college. The intimacy of the Nantucket Project can not be overstated. Some great minds are presenting, and then you can talk to them later,” Buckey said.

It’s these one-on-one conversations that resonate the most with many, including Darcie Evans, a licensed clinical social worker on the island who has attended the Project three times. She was inspired to create We Run Nantucket, a “gentle, mindful running club,” following a conversation at last year’s Project with documentary filmmaker Sanjay Rawal, an avid runner working on a documentary about the world’s longest endurance race.

“He inspired the running group for me. It grew out of a personal discussion over coffee. He is so passionate about running, and the way he ran, he made it a spiritual practice. I could see that happening here,” she said.

Evans has also created Nantucket Rising, a lifecoaching initiative aimed at inspiring health and happiness on the island.

“Like Nantucket Rising, the idea of the Project is to have a ripple effect, where we can take good news, healing energy and inspiration, and spread it as far as we can spread it,” she said.

“Nantucket is like a microcosm of the world. There are real challenges here, just like there are real challenges everywhere. If we can heal and inspire Nantucket from the inside out, it can become a beacon, in whatever way, to show people we are truly living in a beautiful place.”

With that in mind – and ticket prices starting at $5,000 to attend – organizers are constantly trying to find new ways to expand its reach further into the island community beyond its Nantucket Scholars and I&M Fellows programs that provide free and reduced-price attendance, Scott said.

In recent years the Project has added the Islander Pass, which allows Nantucketers to attend one or more sessions for free, and held at least one session outside the tent open to the public. Last year it also scheduled a one-day winter session, with presentations and performances by former “Tonight Show with Jay Leno” band leader Kevin Eubanks and Neil Phillips, founder of the Visible Men Academy, a tuition-free charter school that provides boys from low-income communities high-quality education in a nurturing environment.

Subsidized $1,500 tickets are available for students and educators, and more than 100 volunteers are offered multiple opportunities to participate when not filling their shifts.

“The last two years, every person who has applied (for an Islander Pass) got about double the time they requested. If we can do it, we want to make sure it’s significant enough so they get the experience,” Scott said.

“We’ve talked about working out of a bigger space to bring more people, but I don’t know that the demand is there right now. At the moment, it’s a math question, and the math is pretty well in line. Are there people who don’t sign up, and don’t apply because they think it’s hard to get? I don’t know. The general sense is that we’re sort of filling the demand right now, and I’m OK with it.”

Yet Scott acknowledged that the only real way for the Project to reach a more widespread audience is probably through the very technology he believes is hampering our ability to communicate on a personal level.

“We can’t create the experience in the tent for everyone, but the fruit of what happens there creates a pretty decent substitute that’s more thoughtful than the usual story. The Gund family film (a documentary which examines businessman and summer resident Gordon Gund’s battle against blindness) is a good example. It has ended up at film festivals, at conferences and other places,” Scott said. “It’s sharing the story in an intimate way, it has a life. The Larry Lessig film (on campaign-finance reform) was viewed 6 million times. When viewed with patience, the focus is a little bit different than what you see in the 24-hour news cycle.”

Tucker Holland, the town’s affordable-housing specialist and a Project scholar last year, has seen the impact of effective storytelling first-hand.

“Affordable housing is a complex topic, and in order to communicate your message, you need to be able to speak about things that are complex in a more simplified manner. I got a tremendous amount of help on storytelling last year, and it paid off when I spoke to the governor and lieutenant governor this summer about the housingbank bill before the legislature right now,” he said.

“I prepared a one-pager that was really tight, and they got engaged in the conversation, and said (the bill) made a lot of sense for a place like this. We’ll see what happens, but their body language indicated they were in support. Being able to tell your story well really helps move things forward.”

This year’s Nantucket Project theme – “Understanding Understanding” – stems directly from a conversation Scott had with TED Talks founder Richard Saul Wurman.

“Understanding Understanding is a Richard Saul Wurman original. How do you know when you really understand something? What is it to

know what it means to understand something? Part of what we hope to explore is how one comes to understand about becoming one who can understand the world,” Scott said.

“How do you become an empty vessel? When you ingest a topic, how do you know that you’ve come to understand it? It links very closely to this concept of conversation, as it turns out, if you look at what conversation does. It shouldn’t be surprising that families, businesses, relationships, they are all stronger with conversation. You learn better through dialogue as opposed to monologue. How does one come to understand what it is to understand?”

Moving forward, organizers are looking to take the Project’s reach even further, while at the same time making the experience even more intimate, Scott said.

“What we’ve been working on is taking our content, and mixing it together in different forms, and then afterward, having a conversation. One of the things we’ve looked at, and intend to launch in the fall, is a series of conversations in living rooms around the country,” he said.

“It’s as simple as that. It’s a similar concept to a book club. The difference is, you have the shared experience of consuming the content through one of our films in the first place. The film showing takes up about 25 minutes of time, then there’s the shared conversation. It’s informal, it’s personal, and people seem real passionate about it.”

As for the shelf life of the Nantucket Project, Scott is leaving the question open-ended.

“This time of year, I’m kind of crazy, I act like I’ve never acted, I burn for 12 hours a day. It takes a lot of energy, a lot of time, there’s so much that goes on. Wherever that desire comes from, to do these things, I trust that,” he said. “It’s different from having a master plan on how much longer this is going to run. The general feeling is there’s an absence of this information from other sources. As long as we continue believing that what we’re doing has value, we’re going to stay passionate about it. Right now, I feel as strongly as I did six years ago that I want to keep it going.” ///

Joshua Balling is the managing editor of The Inquirer and Mirror and associate editor of Nantucket Today.

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