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Small Town, Big Ideas

A conference of thought leaders lands in Kent



In August, thought leaders from across the country will gather for a three-day idea-sharing weekend at the Kent School.

Photo by Stephen Roe, Intrepid Aerial Photography

The town of Kent will experience more than its usual swell of intelligentsia this summer. In fact there will be a huge flock of Pulitzer winners, policy wonks, and thought leaders. Kent Presents is a three-day giant idea festival to be held at Kent School from August 13 to 15. It may the largest event in Kent this year since, well, the knitting retreat held this past May. Granted, the “knit one purl two” event attracts a decidedly different crowd. 

But the end gain is the same, says Peter D’Aprile, owner of Kent Apothecary and president of the Kent Chamber of Commerce. “It will bring people to town who have never been here before, and they’ll discover the Kent has a lot to offer, including great restaurants, shops, and art galleries.” 

Kent First Selectman Bruce Adams concurs. Kent is already on the map. Motorcyclists regularly descend on Main Street each Sunday, along with a contingent of weekend shoppers and gallery-hoppers, and the Kent Memorial Library Lecture series enlists A-list speakers like Meryl Streep and Tom Brokaw. But this event will give the town even more global and cultural prominence, and give businesses a boost.

Among the 60 speakers presenting are three Nobel Laureates, numerous leaders in arts and activism, writers, journalists, ambassadors and dignitaries—many have never set foot in Kent. Local presenters include Kent resident and former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, actress/activist Mia Farrow of Bridgewater, and local authors Pulitzer-winner Edmund Morris and New Yorker staff writer Jeffrey Toobin. The event’s theme is “exploring what comes next” with topics centered on national affairs, technology, art, innovation, health, medical, and global issues.

Longtime weekend residents Benjamin Rosen, co-founder of Compaq Computers, and his wife Donna Perret Rosen, who sits on board of trustees at both the Whitney Museum of American Art and the New Orleans Art Museum, started Kent Presents as a non-profit with the goal of donating proceeds to local charities. Their concept is to create something akin to Aspen Ideas Festival, organized by the Aspen Institute in partnership with The Atlantic. The Aspen website touts its festival as the “nation’s premier, public gathering places for leaders from around the globe that present and discuss ideas and issues that share and challenge our lives.” 

The Rosen have attended similar conferences around the world. “We thought, Why couldn’t we do this here in this tiny town,” Ben Rosen says. Kent Presents will be similar to TED talks, popular inspirational online videos excerpted from the organization’s flagship conferences, like last year’s held at Whistler Mountain in British Columbia that cost $4,200 to attend.

The ticket price for Kent Presents is $1,950 per person, and the format will be different from both TED and Aspen events. Participants will be able to partake in daylong workshops, breakout session, dinners, and evening cocktail parties where presumably they can interact, debate, and argue with presenters. “Absolutely, the majority of attendees will be from outside the Kent area,” Adams says. “The speakers are volunteering, and the Kent School is offering its facilities for the event free of charge, those are two big expenses—any profit beyond covering expenses will be donated to local charities.”

Geraldine Woodruff, owner of the boutique shop Terston, has known the Rosens for years and welcomes the new event. “People seem to be coming in from all over the country, which will only increase Kent’s visibility,” she says. “Knowing that the money raised from the event will be donated back to the various causes in the community makes it a win-win situation,” she adds.

To inform residents of the event, the Rosens held a town meeting in early June. “Once people come here and see this pretty little town, they’ll want to come back again,” says Ben Rosen.

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