Value Added: Nantucket Project combines intellectual stimulation and civic activism
By Thomas Heath,
The annual de-population of Nantucket gets underway every Labor Day weekend, with lots of boldface names migrating back to Washington after an August recess.
The island off Massachusetts is a summer playground for the “good and the great” from across the country. You can’t throw a seashell without whacking a bigwig.
Washington area businessmen such as Ted Leonsis, Evan Jones, Jimmy Reyes and David Rubenstein decamp for Nantucket for at least part of the summer. So do media types such as Luke Russert and his mom, Maureen Orth; Chris and Kathleen Matthews; Barbara Harrison; Greta Van Susteren; and David and Beth Gregory. The list goes on.
But Washington native and entrepreneur Tom Scott is hoping to bring some of the island vacationers back in October for some intellectual stimulation.
Scott, a Chevy Chase native who made a fortune building Nantucket Nectars, has created the Nantucket Project, a downsized version of the Aspen Ideas Festival and TED Conferences.
It’s heady stuff. Businessman and investor Eddie Lampert talked last year about the disconnect in the way society views business profitability and philanthropy. There was a presentation by Tony Award winner Julie Taymor on the risk and sweat that go with innovation. Investment manager Mellody Hobson talked about the importance of financial literacy to a person’s independence. Poet Sarah Kay read “Montauk,” her work about the “in-between” moments in life.
But the Nantucket Project is also about civic activism at work, and how the rich and influential used business smarts and neighborly arm-twisting to keep the local economy humming when the summer crowd has departed.
One way to do it is to try to move some of big-city wealth from places like Washington up to the island, even if for a long weekend.
Scott, 46, and co-founder Kate Brosnan, 53, are targeting Washington, with its persons of influence and decision-makers, as a big source of speakers and customers.
This confab is expensive and exclusive. Tickets run $3,400 each. Even if you can afford it, you must be invited. The ticket includes the food and lectures, but patrons must find their own transportation and lodging. This year’s theme is collective intelligence.
The lucky few hundred who go to the four-day event (Oct. 5-8) rub elbows with the likes of hedge fund bigwig Lampert (also chairman of Sears), Rubenstein, former lobbyist Jack Abramoff (really), former senator Bill Frist, David Gergen, Henry Louis Gates, former Barclays chief executive Bob Diamond, former NBC Universal chairman Bob Wright, Ken Mehlman, Eric Schmidt, scientist Carolyn Porco, investor Peter Thiel, former Thomson Reuters chief executive Tom Glocer and former Treasury secretary Larry Summers.
There were 325 participants at last year’s event, with 290 paying customers and 35 speakers.
“We do three things,” Scott said. “The presentations are 20 minutes. Panels are 45 minutes.”
For those who think 20 minutes on economics is a long-winded room-emptier, the “third thing” is seven-minute “interstitials” by musicians, comedians or even poets, designed to give the brain a rest.
“It shouldn’t be just talking heads,” Brosnan said. “We are not afraid to say that you can entertain and be smart at once.”
There are a couple of other differences. There is only one session at a time, so no need to shuttle between conference rooms.
Then there’s the session itself, housed in a tent overlooking Nantucket Harbor.
“There is one tent, no walls, no hidden spaces and no private places to eat,” Scott said. “When it’s Eric Schmidt’s turn to talk, he goes up to the stage and speaks and you get to spend time with those people and eat with them.”
Scott and Brosnan learned how to put on events such as concerts and road races, and all the promotion that goes with them, while running the marketing side of his beverage company.
“I like media,” said Scott, a self-described Charlie Rose junkie and the co-creator of “The Neistat Brothers,” an HBO documentary series.
Scott is the strategist/
marketer, while Brosnan is the day-to-day operator. Both leveraged their considerable local and national connections to get the event off the ground, including more than $500,000 in initial seed money.
“It’s an enterprise in the vein of the start-up,” he said.
The event is the result of an evolution over the past decade or so. Scott and Brosnan have insatiable curiosities. Scott has been to the Aspen Ideas Festival, and he is an angel investor in Big Think, a sort of online think tank. Big Think helps the Nantucket Project find guests for the annual seminar.
“The connecting thread is a love for Nantucket,” said Brosnan, who headed Nantucket Nectars’ philanthropic arm, known as Juice Guys Care. “The island after Labor Day empties out. But many businesses are open through the fall. This was a way to help Nantucket in the shoulder seasons” of spring and fall.
The turning point came about five years ago when the locals teamed up with Atlantic Media to put on Bookmark 2007, a Nantucket book festival.
Scott and Brosnan wanted to reproduce a similar gathering on an annual basis. They leveraged some of Nantucket’s natural assets and resources, including its beauty, exclusivity and deep-pocketed residents.
To put it bluntly, “one of the things about Nantucket that is unique is that it draws wealth,” Scott said.
Brosnan, a 35-year resident, worked her island connections. The woman knows nearly everyone.
“What I did was I found people who cared about the community,” Brosnan said. She went to Boston developer Steve Karp and his wife, Jill, the island’s providers of high-end hospitality (Wauwinet, White Elephant), to help with lodging and promotion. They signed on as sponsors, along with search engine Bing and Big Think.
She called on her friend, Wendy Schmidt, who runs an organization called reMain, which is dedicated to keeping Nantucket’s economy healthy. Everyone talked to everyone else. The movement went viral.
Brosnan got financier Tim Mullen of Chicago and his wife, Alicia Cannon Mullen, to help out. She also persuaded banker Bob Diamond and his wife, Jennifer, to pitch in with money and influence.
Even with seed money, they had to find speakers: The Mullens persuaded Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to come to the 2011 inaugural event. The Diamonds helped bring Summers. Wendy Schmidt brought her husband, Eric, the executive chairman of Google. Scott’s wife, Emily, the former chief executive of J. Crew, used her leverage with Lampert, who is chairman of the Sears board on which she sits.
The nonprofit structure of the organization continues to evolve. The event brings in just over $1 million, and it costs slightly less than that. The leftovers go toward the project’s fellowship program.
That’s a million bucks that might have been spent in Palm Beach, Hawaii or in Europe. Instead, it is staying in Nantucket.
To read previous Value Added columns, go to postbusiness.com