IdeaFestival is an unexpected journey into new thoughts. Many enter the festival one way. If lucky, they leave changed forever.

At least, the festival planners certainly hope that is the outcome. Changing the way people think is part of the mission of IdeaFestival (IF).

IdeaFestival started in Lexington in 2000 as an outgrowth of founder Kris Kimel’s love for innovation and a desire to encourage disruptive and creative thinking. Kimel, in partnership with the company he co-founded, Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation (KSTC), is one of the major sponsors of the festival.

“The festival was really based on a recognition of how important innovation, curiosity, creative thinking and disruptive thinking was in keeping things relevant.

We have examples of that, like Kodak who thought there would always be Kodak cameras and now they’re not here,” says Kimel.

Since relocating to Louisville in 2006, the festival has been held at the Galt House and the Kentucky Center for Performing Arts. This year’s event will be held from September 26-28 at the Kentucky Center for Performing Arts.



Photo Credit: Geoff Bugbee


A Festival Of Many Moving Parts

Putting on an event like IF requires a lot of moving parts and many hands to make it happen. Parent company, KSTC has 30 full-time employees. The festival has none. It’s a labor of love staffed by Kimel, part-time Managing Director and Marketing Consultant Ceci Conway, and another eight or so contractors.

With so many pieces to tend, the unknown factors become the biggest stressors.

“I think, first of all, logistics. We bring in a lot of people so there’s a lot of movement,” says Kimel. “In one case a couple of years ago, we had Shirin Ebadi, an attorney activist in Iran, and at the last minute they wouldn’t let her out of the country.”

Despite the occasional logistics nightmare, the festival pushes forward and offers guests a lineup of diverse and divergent thinkers for its audience. Kimel purposely plans the festival this way.

“We design it, specifically, so you may come out of an event about business and the next event is about science or education—to really force those collisions,” he says.
Kimel is serious about exposing guests to multiple ideas and ways of thinking and guests have responded.

“The response and feedback is very positive. They [festival guests] are inspired by the diversity of speakers and different topics and people. The festival tries to engage people in a wide variety of ideas and topics and people in a very short period of time,” he says. “We’re always trying to push the envelope.”



Photo Credit: Geoff Bugbee

Setting the Stage

Last year, the Kentucky Center was transformed into a sea of orange and white with banners and signage serving an energetic crowd, both young and not-so-young. In the lobby booths from tech companies, innovative office solutions and a charging lounge kept the attention of the crowd between programs.

At Thrivals, the unofficial first day of IF, students experienced the ideas of young professionals, such as Astronaut Yuri Golden-Castaño, Hidden Figures author Margot Shetterly and singer-songwriter Janelle Monae.

Some of this year’s speakers include:  John King, CNN Chief National Correspondent and anchor of Inside Politics; Timothy Harlan M.D., Physician, chef, author and director of the Goldring Center for Culinary Medicine at Tulane University; Emily Dreyfuss, Senior Writer at WIRED who covers the intersection of technology and society including monitoring trends, innovations and factors that influence the future; and Peter Gray, American psychologist and professor at Boston College who explores how unleashing the human instinct to play makes children happier, more self-reliant and better learners for life.

Photo Credit: Geoff Bugbee


Kentucky’s Real Economic Impact

The festival is still growing and as yet the economic impact is modest. However, the impact on the climate and culture of Kentucky as a place for knowledge is big when the festival is viewed with the right lens.

“When you look at our rate of return on economic impact, in our view, there are a lot of different metrics that you look at. The real economic impact is the type of people that we get to come. Over the life of the festival, we have brought in some of the top thinkers, scientists, creative people, artists, entrepreneurs,” says Kimel.

This makes IF something special. Changing the way people from the outside view Kentucky can impact the state’s ability for financial growth in a big way since financial growth often depends on the type of talent that is available for companies to access.

“Louisville is going through this thing about talent development. The way you grow talent is by demonstrating to people that you value talent and innovation, ideas and creative thinking,” says Kimel.

Kent Oyler, President & CEO of Greater Louisville Inc. (GLI), the Metro Chamber of Commerce agrees.  “IdeaFestival is a real feather in our region’s cap when it comes to talent attraction and retention,” says Oyler.  “This annual festival around cutting-edge thinking demonstrates that we are a region that is embracing innovation and entrepreneurship in every industry, and that is very attractive to our skilled workforce.”

For the coming year, Kimel and crew are shaking up their own thinking about the festival.  For them, staying relevant from year-to-year means adaptation and change. To produce a festival that values divergence and diversity, the producers understand that they have to morph and grow, and they have put the wheels in motion for a stronger IF 2017.

“Even when something works, we’re not wedded to anything,” says Kimel. “We believe in innovation. That means trying to strive to do better. We’re going through that process now.”


Photo Credit: Geoff Bugbee


High-End Festival, Low-Price Admission

The festival is determined, however, to maintain its high presenter quality and a good price point. Kimel likes that IF is available to so many people in the community because of its price. Other festivals similar to IF charge several times more. He feels it is important for the festival to remain accessible to different parts of the community and those at different economic levels.

“We’ve challenged ourselves in a way that we really work hard on sponsors because the price point is deliberately kept low. We’d like to be characterized by our inclusivity as opposed to our exclusivity,” says Kimel.

The price of the festival is only one piece that makes IdeaFestival an attractive and valuable addition to our city’s festival landscape.

Stacey Yates, Vice President of Marketing Communications for the Convention and Visitors Bureau says, “According to our research, the number one driver for tourism to Louisville are people attending a festival or event. So the Idea Festival is certainly a draw for visitation and the economic impact that accompanies that. Hosting an event that aligns with Louisville’s brand, including authenticity, innovation, and diversity of thought benefits the city culturally as well and reinforces a positive image.”

If Louisville is to succeed in creating a pool of talented professionals, whether through enticing them from other cities or developing them with leadership programs, the IdeaFestival is one important piece of making Louisville a hub of workforce talent and reinforcing vibrant tourism of the city.

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Erica is a professional freelance copywriter and technical editor. Her work has appeared in LEO Weekly, The Guide, Foxy Digitalis, Insider Louisville and Norton Healthcare's Get Healthy magazine. You can follow Erica on Twitter @ericarucker, but beware of honesty, activist outrage and nerdy live-tweeting.


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