For more than a decade, the Squaw Valley Institute has been bringing speakers to Tahoe to foster “uncommon conversations,” as its tagline states. But in the past two years, with the arrival of a new executive director and associate director, the institute has continually upped the caliber of its speakers, selling out tickets to many of its events. Even with heightened interest in the institute’s lectures, however, the nonprofit is still struggling to increase its membership, and its future remains uncertain.

Two years ago, Renee Koijane joined SVI as executive director and came up with a winning formula for bringing talented speakers to Squaw — selecting topics that are timely and relevant to the local community, and always striving to bring the highest-level expert in any field.


“I ask, ‘Has this topic not been heard before, do people here not have access to these speakers, and is there a constituency that needs to hear this now and will they come?’” said Koijane.

And came they did. Sir Ken Robinson’s talk in October on creativity and education attracted 830 people, the most attendees at any SVI event ever. Around 600 people showed up to hear Joel Salatin, America’s best-known organic farmer, talk in February, and best-selling author Cheryl Strayed’s lecture this past January sold out.

“I’m excited that in two years we’ve established a level of credibility and built a platform, and created more of a buzz in the community,” said Koijane, noting that the demand for tickets can be so high she’s had to turn away people due to lack of seats.

In October, Matt Reardon, an events producer and former pro skier, joined the Squaw Valley Institute as its associate director. Koijane said Reardon’s arrival has energized the organization. The two are already busy planning next year’s lectures, which include a talk on bullying and another on hydraulic fracking, the controversial method of extracting natural gas from the earth. She is looking to bring experts on both sides of the issue, including the president of the Western States Petroleum Association and an environmental reporter with ProPublica. Other future topics include technology, emigration, and the Middle East. The institute will also co-host the 30th anniversary party of “Hot Dog…The Movie.”

About six months after Koijane came on board, the institute launched the Squaw Valley Kids’ Institute, spearheaded by Carolyn Hamilton. The Kids’ Institute’s 10 members, who range in age from 11 to 14, get a chance to meet with the speakers and ask questions, along with studying the relevant topics.

“It makes kids feel empowered to sit at the table,” said Koijane. “It’s a little gem.”

Despite the excitement building around the Squaw Valley Institute, its membership has stayed flat at around 150 members. Koijane’s goal is to double membership, which starts at $100 (and can be given as gifts). Even if 50 more people joined in the next few months, “it would make a dramatic difference,” she said.

“It’s like PBS or NPR,” Koijane said. “It’s great to listen to for cheap or for free, but you have to support it.”

Depending on which of the four levels a person joins, membership comes with discounted tickets and sometimes free entry, priority seating, early notification of events, and private receptions with speakers.

If the Squaw Valley Institute is unable to survive, Koijane fears it would be a terrible loss for the community.

“We would lose that ability to draw connections to the greater world,” she said. “Tahoe would be a less cultured place to live.”

For more information on becoming a member or volunteering at the Squaw Valley Institute, visit


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