On Saturday morning, the first ever TEDxYale conference will kick off in the auditorium of Sheffield Sterling Strathcona Hall, tying Yale to a brand famous for working to spark curious minds around the world.
Yale is not the first university to host a TEDx event. Whereas the well-known Technology Entertainment and Design conferences have been invitation-only for both speakers and audience members since the group began in 1984, TEDx events are licensed by TEDx, not TED, and organized by independent communities.
Over the past three years, 3,100 distinct groups, ranging from students in Ghana to entrepreneurs in India, have hosted these spin-off forums intended to mimic the TED experience. This weekend, TEDxYale and 11 other TEDx programs in locations such as Portugal, Belgium and Kenya will add to that number.
Organized by Yale students to bring new voices to campus and to showcase Yalies’ own ideas, Saturday’s all-day event aims to create an intensive day of sharing ideas and sparking collaborations that don’t otherwise happen at Yale. The educational gap that TEDxYale intends to fill is one of narrowed thinking.
“We get very secluded in our little rat mazes of Yale,” TEDxYale organizer Naima Sakande ’14 said, referring to the “three-block radiuses” that lock students into routines of thought and action. “The idea is to promote an environment where students can get their minds blown.”
For Miles Grimshaw ’13, Diana Enriquez ’13 and the other students, faculty and alumni involved in the conference, this Saturday’s debut is just one of many planned events that Enriquez said she hopes will help Yalies burst out of their daily “bubbles.”
All TEDx events are open to anyone willing to pay admission and sign up before space fills. Three hundred and fifty community members — the auditorium’s maximum capacity — are expected to attend this weekend. By Monday night, almost 200 of those registered were Yale undergraduates, 88 were Yale graduate students and 15 were Yale alumni.
As the TEDx community takes root, the organizers hope to continue tapping into and sharing the resources of Yale. They believe the Yale community needs to learn in new ways, and Yalies themselves have the ideas to make that happen.
‘LATE TO THE PARTY’
Last spring, Grimshaw and Enriquez realized that the Yale community was missing out on the TED experience. Tapping into a network of students and alumni willing to contribute, they launched their campaign to inspire the community through a TEDx on campus.
In April 2011, the Yale World Fellows Program hosted TEDxYaleWorldFellows, showcasing talks by each of the term’s World Fellows. But ever since then, the TEDxYale movement has been solely student-organized and student-powered — setting Yale apart from many other universities that throw TEDx events.
“This is a great example of two students who have an idea and creative determination with little to no University help,” said Robin Hogen, who helped organize TEDxYaleWorldFellows as the director of strategic communications at Yale’s Office of Public Affairs and Communications.
Still, Hogen added, Yale was “a bit late to the party.”
Lara Stein, the founder and director of TEDx, said that the push to host TEDx at universities can come from administrators, teachers or students, depending on the school. At CalTech, administrators pushed for a TEDx conference, she said. At the University of California, Berkeley, TEDx team member and student Kevin Gong said, “the group of organizers responsible for each year’s conference includes one to two students; the rest are community volunteers.”
At Yale, the process of organizing the conference has been entirely student-led since they began last April. TEDxYale is a registered undergraduate student organization and will be hosted on campus, but the conference is funded largely by corporate sponsorships and donations from alumni.
For Enriquez, Grimshaw and members of the TEDxYale team, planning and organizing this one-day conference has been an “insane” time commitment, Grimshaw said.
“To put on an event like this is a complicated thing,” Boston-area resident and co-founder of TEDxNewEngland Stephen Baker said. and posted on his Facebook wall that he was interested in bringing TEDx to Yale.
ENHANCING THE YALE BRAND
Enriquez, Grimshaw’s high school classmate and an attendee of the TEDGlobal 2009 conference, “liked” the post. Ever since, they have worked as a team to lead and organize the effort to produce this year’s TEDxYale.
The digital experience is central to the TED brand and to TEDx: TED gained notoriety and cult status amongst technology and design junkies six years ago when it launched online resources. Videos of TED talks posted on its website and YouTube channel have garnered over 500 million hits in the past three years alone.
The TEDxYale team will be streaming Saturday’s event live through their website. The videos of the talks will then be posted on the TEDx YouTube channel, joining the growing pool of educational videos. They hope that some of the talks will be picked up and featured on the TED website.
“Philosophically, TEDx is an open-sourcing of the TED brand,” said Lara Stein, the founder and director of the TEDx program. “Anybody can apply to host [an event].”
Of the 6,282 applications that have been submitted to TEDx over the past three years, though, only 3,100 TEDx events have been approved. Those chosen range from low-budget, one-room events in Pakistani schools to citywide conferences in China. All use TED’s brand, image, and framework for their own conferences.
The university events have served as the “backbone” of TEDx’s global presence, Stein said; in South Korea, which has been home to 90 TEDx events, she added, “an overwhelming percentage are at universities.”
TEDxYale will bring its own distinct brand of ideas to the mix. Grimshaw said he and Enriquez approached Hogen in April 2011 about the prospect of putting on the event.
“It’s going to project a very positive image,” Hogen said. “I think it just adds value to the Yale brand.”
While many Yale events aim to bring high-profile speakers to campus, the TEDxYale organizers hope the event will draw from members of the Yale community and project their ideas onto the broader global canvas, Grimshaw said.
“This is about bringing Yale to the world in a modern format,” Grimshaw said. The organizers have focused on including technology in their campaign, putting together a student-designed website, iPhone app and promotional video.
Still, the online experience is not as interactive as the “intimate studio” provided by TEDx’s in-person format, which limits the number of audience members to facilitate a more active experience.
TEDxYale organizers and speakers interviewed referred to their experiences with TED talks both online and in person as “life-changing,” influencing their everyday decisions and changing their ways of thinking. But they said Yalies could benefit from the format of an all-day conference, which TEDx supports.
FITTING A LOCAL AUDIENCE
TEDxYale will feature 25 speakers, 20 of whom are Yale-affiliated students, professors, lecturers and alumni. Following TED rules, none are being paid for their time. The student organizers chose each of them in an extensive selection process, which began in September, to talk on the theme of “A Twist of Fate.”
Matthew Claudel ’13, an Architecture major and one of 10 students selected to speak, will open the conference with a talk on the challenges inherent in “creativity and the creative process,” he said.
“There’s not really a good open forum for students to talk about things they care about, besides the Mellon forum,” he said, referring to the presentations that seniors give in each residential college about their thesis work. “Everyone here has things they care about that would be worth sharing with people.”
Another student speaker, Danijela Bule ’14, said she is going to give her “spiel on life,” which addresses taking risks in talking to people in order to improve confidence. She said she hopes that attendees will be able to implement her advice.
“The point of TED is to introduce the idea to you; you will follow through,” Bule said.
As Bule and the other student speakers have prepared to give their talks since the competition for their selection in Nov., they have attended training sessions led by Yale Debate Team members, a Yale School of Drama student and past TED speakers and psychology professors Paul Bloom and June Gruber.
This training and the extensive support from the TEDxYale organizers have helped Bule achieve the goals she will present in her own talk: “Being a good speaker is not easy!” she said.
Grimshaw said he sees TEDxYale as “filling a void” in the liberal arts curriculum that students follow at Yale, as it introduces students to “things you don’t know you don’t know.” Tiffany Sommadossi, the co-head of TEDxUChicago, said she believes that TEDx events can help to shake up and reinvigorate the educational experience for students.
“You don’t want to stop learning, you just want a different format,” she said, adding that TEDx talks are short and designed to be engaging. “Students know what they’re going to get in the classroom.”
She emphasized that the important thing is the flexibility and independence that TEDx organizers are afforded, which allows them to tailor their event to the needs and interests of their local audiences.
“Every TEDx event offers up something really relevant to the community,” TEDx director Stein said.