Beverly Hills boasts its fair share of celebrities, and their ranks will swell this week as politicians, Nobel laureates, and high-profile business execs flood the Beverly Hilton hotel for the Milken Institute’s annual Global Conference.
Monday’s agenda alone will feature speakers including former Vice President Al Gore; retired Army General Stanley McChrystal; former World Bank President Paul Wolfowitz; and Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google Inc.’s parent company, Alphabet.
“The objective is to try and bring together some of the brightest minds in the country involved in impacting policy in the various areas in which they work, to exchange ideas, and be exposed to new things,” explained Mike Klowden, 71, chief executive of the Santa Monica institute. The nonprofit, nonpartisan think tank was founded in 1991 by Michael Milken.
Now in its 19th year, the conference encourages the roughly 3,500 attendees, who come from more than 50 countries, to continue the dialogue over meals and in hallways when not attending one of the 14 simultaneous sessions held over several days.
But what’s the ultimate impact of all that discussion and debate?
Klowden explained that it varies, but organizers see the impact more in rippled waves that might surface years later.
“The first solar plant in Rwanda came from a (conference) meeting between an Israeli involved in solar plants and the president of Rwanda,” he said. “A number of years ago, cancer researchers told us that by going to business sessions they saw different ways of approaching their problems.”
Still, an index compiled by the University of Pennsylvania in 2014 rated the Milken Institute Global Conference as No. 53 of the world’s 55 best global think-tank conferences. Klowden said the score is partly tied to the fact that the institution elected not to participate in the index. As a nontraditional think tank, Klowden explained, the Milken Institute focuses on applied rather than basic research.
“I doubt if any of the people who follow us are aware of or care about that ranking,” he said.
Indeed, despite the event’s $12,500 entry fee, which includes membership to the institute, demand always exceeds capacity.
While Klowden wouldn’t disclose the conference’s total price tag, he admitted it’s steep.
“Certainly, it’s expensive when doing an event of this size with this many people and of this magnitude,” he said, noting that the speakers are unpaid. “But it’s very cost-efficient and not an opulent event. We’re not giving people caviar and champagne.”
What’s more, the Milken Institute doesn’t even advertise the event, Klowden said.
While the majority of attendees are from outside California, the state is the biggest single source of attendees, at 25 percent. Even so, the conference gets more press from outside of California.
One speaker at this year’s conference is Dr. David Agus, a professor of medicine and engineering at USC who has spoken at or attended the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland; TED Conferences; and the Aspen Ideas Festival.
He noted that these types of events each have their own flavor. While the Davos forum might be more international in scope, the Milken conference deals more with the economic implications of policy issues in the United States.
“There’s really a focus on the U.S. and our role in each of these issues that I think has its power,” Agus said. “I think its impact is heard across the country.”
Agus, whose panel will discuss the potential and ethics of new genome editing tools, credits the conference’s scope and depth in each of the various topics covered to Michael Milken himself.
“Mike has the ability to cross disciplines like nobody I’ve ever seen,” Agus said. “He can speak in depth and with knowledge about policy, medicine, biology, economics, and sociological issues.”
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