When the Milken Institute Global Conference first got underway in 1998, there were about 60 speakers with one or two dozen discussion panels. The event started on a Monday night and was over by Wednesday afternoon. In 2011, more than 500 speakers will trade thoughts and ideas over the course of four days with more than 3,000 people getting to choose from 140 sessions.
Skip Rimer is the executive director of Programs and Communications at the Institute. He’s worked there since 1998 and says the conference was started to bring together business leaders and policy makers to talk about the Asian financial crisis, which was reaching its pinnacle that year and raising fears of a worldwide economic meltdown. From year to year, the conference has grown not only in terms of its guest list but also in the topics up for discussion.
“We talk about a number of things that we think affect prosperity in the world, so finance and making financial markets more efficient is an important area for us,” says Rimer, adding that energy, education, health, media and technology are integral parts of the conversation. This year, the economic recovery will play a central role. “The world has gone through a horrible recession, and it looks like a recovery is happening at last. So we’ll talk about how the global economy is different today.”
The conference is of particular interest to small business leaders for a number of reasons, Rimer says. With so many panels to choose from, the intellectual stimulation makes attendees feel as if they’ve gone back to school for a few days. Many of the “classes” are about economic trends, and financial leaders from the hedge fund, private equity, venture capital, and banking industries talk about where business is going.
There are also plenty of opportunities to have one-on-one conversations with presenters and fellow attendees, so the networking and relationship building that takes place here can be hugely valuable. Plus, this is a chance to get away from day-to-day operations and take a broader view of the economic landscape and of political and cultural matters as well.
“Most people say it’s just an intellectual rush for them. We go from 6 in the morning to 10 at night,” says Rimer, recalling a comment made by Larry Brilliant, an advisor to eBay co-founder Jeff Skoll and Google, in which he said he could hardly go ten feet without bumping into someone who had something really interesting to say. “People are exhausted by the time they’re done, but they’re high on intellectual stimulation and compelling, practical insights. Many people say it’s the best conference they go to all year.”
The ideas explored during these few days often go on to make an impact in the form of helping to develop real and sustainable solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges. An initial discussion on an issue such as the world hunger crisis will lead to further meetings with policy makers and food agency representatives on how to use the financial markets and other tools to create sustainable responses.
“It’s a place where ideas are generated and nurtured. We bring people together who haven’t had a chance to talk about a particular issue,” Rimer explains. “And then ideas gain traction, whether it’s through specific U.S. legislation or private market developments. The conference is a place for us to spread good ideas.”