Spend a few moments chatting with Eric Kean, and you’ll catch his infectious enthusiasm. A native of Lyons, Colorado, he’s got an ingrained love of event management and a passion for making complex systems purr.
As ranch manager for Planet Bluegrass Eric has spent the last 12 years doing everything from operating backhoes* to coordinating budgets. As one of our newest team members he’s quickly made operations feel airtight. Here we talk about dealing with biblical floods, the essence of sustainability, and rethinking what it means to be a nonprofit.
What came first? Your love of event management or your love of bluegrass?
The love of event management came first. There’s a picture of me building a stage out of LEGO bricks when I was six, playing with little speakers and microphones.
Who was performing on this little stage?
I don’t remember. It was more about the setup than the actual talent. I put the people on-stage to make sure the stage was big enough to hold the people but I didn’t really care who they were.
So early on it was a love of equipment and organization?
Yeah, my parents were in the business before I was born. They had an audio and lighting company in Boulder in the late ‘80s, but they sold the business when I came along.
Did you grow up in Boulder?
I grew up in Lyons. I went to Lyons Elementary school, Lyons Middle School, and Lyons High School. Then I went all the way to Boulder for college (laughs). Now I live in Longmont.
Lyons! Isn’t there a pinball museum there?
There is a pinball arcade, yeah. It’s definitely not a museum there but you can go there and play pinball. Lyons Classic Pinball is actually a huge company. They supply all the pinball machines that are popping up in all these pinball bars and arcades and stuff all over Fort Collins, Boulder, and Denver.
And there’s a bluegrass festival in Lyons as well.
There is a bluegrass festival in Lyons called Rocky Grass. Planet Bluegrass is based in Lyons. They produce Rockygrass and the Folks Festival in Lyons, which are both three-day 3,500-person music festivals. The also produce the Telluride Bluegrass Festival.
Lyons was heavily affected by flooding several years ago, right?
Lyons was really, really, really heavily affected by the flooding and—in different ways now—still is. The flooding cut a big swath right across town and took out all but one of the bridges. The town is the confluence of two rivers, and no one really thought about it until the bridges were all gone. For the first day or so after the flood, there was a community of seven islands where there had once been a town. The flooding also tore out all the electric, all the sewer, all the water, all the gas, and all communications of any kind.
They made the decision a couple of days after the flood to issue a not-quite mandatory evacuation and pretty much everyone left, with an exception of a core, few people who stuck it out and camped in their own houses. It lasted about six weeks; my mom came and lived at my apartment in Westminster at the time. My dad stayed in the house for six weeks.
He was one of the core! Was he eating beans out of a can and stuff? Cooking on a Sterno?
I mean kind of, yeah. He had a water filtration system and he could get bottled water and stuff from the National Guard so he was fine on the front end. We’re Colorado people so he put the sun shower in the backyard because you don’t have to care because you don’t have any neighbors all of a sudden.
Did the bluegrass festival help bring the community together after that?
I was working for Planet Bluegrass, at the time in a dual role, performing festival operations and also helping maintain the property, which, in the course of one day, went from being a beautiful 17-acre, grass field to being a lake—or very wide moving river.
One of the offices floated away. All of our vehicles, all the infrastructure obviously got ripped out of the property. That was in early September, so the first event we had on the calendar was a wedding the following May and our owner just kind of made the call to say, “Let’s do it. Let’s fix it.” And we did. We did not cancel that wedding.
It happened on grass, brand new sod that had been laid down for three weeks. That couple deserves all the thanks in the world for trusting us to pull that off, because they came in and saw the property in November after the flood. We were still pulling pieces of cars and trash from upstream with a backhoe, and these people were walking around going, “I think our ceremony site will be right there.”
How does your path intersect with bluegrass. Were you a bluegrass fan growing up?
My parents started working for the festival when we moved to town, so when I was seven I went to my first Rocky Grass. I was running around throwing apples at people and hanging out. I just kind of grew up in it.
The wizardry of bluegrass is real. It’s like right up there with Slayer.
Some of the best musicians in the world are playing bluegrass. Chris Thile is the greatest musician alive right now. On any instrument. Period.
Aren’t Planet Bluegrass festivals known for their sustainability efforts?
Yes! There have been huge sustainability efforts since the foundation of the company, it’s always been a part of the mission. Telluride was the first carbon-neutral festival in the world ever, of any kind. We also produced the first festival to use a three-bin composting system.
This past summer, we launched a reusable plate from program to get us off single-use plates, cups, and bowls. Reduce is at the top of the recycling triangle: reduce, reuse, recycle. It’s actually an order with recycling at the bottom of the best practices.
It requires a lot of energy.
Yeah. The best thing you can do is reduce. And if you can’t do that, reuse it. And if you can’t do that, then recycle it. If you can’t do that, then compost it.
What brought you to TEDxMileHigh?
A couple of things: I’ve always loved events but I also kind of have a socially active streak in me. I wanted to do something with my energy and my skills that was a little more productive for the community around me. I just felt like, “If I don’t have a great big idea of my own, then I may as well take the skills that I have and make other people’s great ideas louder and bigger and better.” Hopefully I can do that here.
What are some of the unique challenges you noticed right away with producing TEDxMileHigh events?
The biggest startling difference is the same thing anyone will say ever if they switch from the for-profit world to the nonprofit world, which is just the difference in resources. In the private festival world, launching a new initiative, writing a big check, pulling the trigger on something, we could just go for it. This is non-profit event production. You’ve got to really make sure you’re capitalizing on the time and financing you have available and on the relationships you build.
You have to reduce, reuse, and recycle.
You do have to reduce, reuse, and recycle your money. You have to think about things from a different perspective. Doing it right is always important, but doing it in a cost-effective manner becomes a higher on the priority list. I came on board a month before the Women’s event, and my biggest takeaway was that the group of people attending these events are really motivated. They are … let’s go to festival jargon: their level of stoke is super high!
That’s official festival speak?
That’s officially festival speak, yeah! It was kind of remarkable to see people show up and really commit to active listening and active engagement for a full conference day. I loved how much they took away from it. The conversations that were happening later in the evening were astounding.
Do you have a favorite TED talk?
There’s a really marvelous TED talk by an entrepreneur named Dan Pallotta who worked in nonprofit funding. He produced fundraising events for nonprofits and approaches the work a little differently. His TED talk is about how success is judged in the nonprofit world compared to how it is for public and for-profit companies. He introduces the idea that a for-profit company can run non-stop, for years, at a loss as they built their brand and their identity and their product and their network, but if a non-profit company were to do the same thing and run without giving anything back to the community, without developing a product, without pushing out content for six months, it’d be thrown under the bus.
Having worked for a few nonprofits and a few for-profit companies over the years, I feel like nonprofits attract more of the type of people that I enjoy working with.
I agree with you. I like the people that I work with. I think everyone is pretty amazing and the relationships that we have in the community are pretty phenomenal. It’s just a wonderful spring of really enjoyable people with really great personalities.
I know you were also really inspired by Amal Kassir’s talk from our It’s About Time event, “The Muslim on the Airplane.”
Yeah, that talk really blew me away. I think her message is something that’s really worth hearing. But more than that, I think right now, our country needs to hear strong messaging of acceptance delivered by people who can do it with a smile on their face, and a twinkle in their eye and lift us all up. We need to accept all points of view, even the ones we disagree with and I think she is a shining example of that.
Her talk was very much like an invitation, not a directive.
That’s a really good way to put it. She opens up her arms and says, “Here’s what I think and I’d really love for you to join me.”
Absolutely, it’s very inspiring. What are you looking forward to in 2017 in terms of your work here at TEDxMileHigh?
Here at TEDxMileHigh, I’m really looking forward to digging deep on our two events. We have some pretty exciting growth plans for this year—a couple of things that kind of shake it up and push us to the next level. Combined with that, I think there’s just a kind of push all-around to streamline things: to really enhance the experience for our attendees. It’s really, really interesting work. It’s fantastic work!
It must be. As you’re talking about it, your eyes light up and you start smiling.
What else is going on in your life that you are excited about for this year?
I’m getting married in September and that will be a thing.
Congratulations. Have you picked the location? A flooded field, perhaps?
No! We’re going to get married at my parents’ house in Lyons. Our backyard is just awesome … friends and family and big, casual party. It’s going to be awesome.
Watercolor portrait by Filmon Merid
*For a full list of construction-grade vehicles that Eric knows how to operate, track him down at our next event!