by Kendra Hovey
Sold out in one day. Attendance up five-fold. All the sudden, TEDxColumbusWomen is a rock star. In its fourth year, the live-stream of the annual TEDWomen conference added something new: five talks from local speakers—which might explain the sudden surge in interest, except it was announced after the last ticket sold.
This post shares some event highlights and commentary, but for those eager to skip ahead…
For local TEDxColumbusWomen speakers:
Jump to Session II
For TEDWomen speakers:
Jump to Session I
Or, to begin with general info and impressions, simply read on.
TEDxColumbusWomen was held on December 5th at the Columbus Foundation. TEDWomen 2013: Invented Here streamed from San Francisco—the title, in part, an acknowledgement of the host city. The first set of TEDWomen talks (Session I: To Be Is To Do) took the most literal approach to the Invented Here theme, rolling out one innovative product after another: an energy-generating soccer ball, an affordable artificial knee, a preemie incubator for home use, a smarter spacesuit, and more.
Ideally, content should stand on its own, and when that content is literally bouncing (soccer ball) or walking (spacesuit) on the stage in front of you, this ideal seems almost possible. But, as both neuroscience and social science tell us, to veil identity (gender or otherwise) is not so easy, nor is it always helpful. Plus, to gloss over the subject would make TEDWomen less interesting. The event had me constantly thinking about gender. It’s kind of the point of it, even as gender was rarely the actual topic of a talk.
Beyond sharing hidden histories and the great breadth and diversity of women’s work, accomplishments and insights, the event brings gender into focus in other ways. Krista Donaldson designs products for people living on less than $4 a day. Jessica Matthews delights in other people’s hacks to her products. User-focus is in no way gender-specific, yet there was something different in how speakers, repeatedly, put the user at center stage. And when speaker Jane Chen called her life-saving scientific invention “technology powered by love,” I wondered would she say it exactly like that at a technology conference or at Big TED? And if she did, would it come out just as easily and just as heartfelt? Maybe, but that I had the question at all is what I mean when I say gender was on my mind.
Also, not every event takes note of its male audience members. This one did. And the irritating buzz that accompanied the first few talks couldn’t help but make me aware of gender. TEDWomen is one of TED’s three annual conferences, and I’ve never seen serious technical glitches like that at livestreams of TED or TEDGlobal.
And then there are the MCs. They talk a lot, in a way some may find supportive, but that I find cloying. It is less the MCs, though, then my reaction to them that had me acutely aware of gender. I’m hard-pressed to think of a time when two men on a stage represented all men, but the day I can listen to these MCs and be merely annoyed instead of cringing, it will be a sign of a more enlightened world and a more enlightened me. [For good or bad, the MCs are not in the online videos.]
Here are some of the stand-out talks from Session I: To Be Is To Do:
- Jessica Matthews, partly for jump roping in heels, mostly for her delight when users change and improve her products, and also for her big points that 1) play is a tool for social impact and 2) invention is less about the product and more about the people it “invents.”
- Dame Stephanie “Steve” Shirley who fell ill, so instead was spoken about by Google VP Megan Smith, who also shared part of a documentary about this early programmer. For me, this talk was a bargain: I went from utterly ignorant about women in technology to somewhat knowledgeable in just ten minutes. Did you know that the first programmer was a woman? I didn’t. Far more shocking, Megan Smith didn’t either.
- Maya Penn because she is creative, generous, industrious and only thirteen.
- Diana Nyad because she is riveting and her presence is commanding. Plus, there’s the deadly box jellyfish and hallucinations of the Taj Majal.
Following a break for cupcakes and conversation, Session II featured five talks from local speakers, sharing insights on diverse topics. If there is a throughline that connects them all, it is that each spoke from the knowledge that comes from lived experience and that each, on some level, is a story of self-invention (yet another take on the theme Invented Here). Also, ranging from four minutes to fourteen, the talks are short. To watch all five, you can go straight to the playlist. Or, for more of a foothold, without giving much away, here’s a brief word on each:
1. In her talk, Celia Crossley shares her rather circuitous route to her career as a career strategist helping others route or create their own careers. Her big point: by all means, Lean In, if you can, but know that there is another path to job satisfaction, personal fulfillment, and economic viability: Leaning Out.
2. Her country, her community, and her comfortable day-to-day life suddenly collapsed. As a Tutsi married to a Hutu, her family collapsed. As a person who was loved and suddenly deemed an outcast, her identity collapsed. After the genocide in her home country, Norah Bagirinka did not feel human and did not think she would ever feel human again. Her humanity fully restored and thriving, she shares her story, her current work with Rwanda Women In Action and her insights into what it takes to create a bridge to a new life.
3. Barbara Allen can work a room. That’s one reason to watch this video. Another is to learn about the improv mantra: Yes… And…. Currently in vogue as a work organization tool, the concept may not be new, but Allen’s wholesome and big-hearted delivery is.
4. Gabrielle Smith is a teenager entrepreneur. She’ll graduate high school this summer, almost three years after she launched her small business. Her talk shares what can happen when a maker takes her passion seriously.
5. JoDee Davis works with people that you, most likely, do everything you can to avoid. It’s okay, says Davis, she once tried to avoid these people, too. But an experience changed her. On one level, her talk is an interesting story about meeting success time and time again and struggling to understand why (with help, she eventually does). On another level, her talk is a powerful story that has a strong potential to shift your understanding. And I’ll leave it at that.
All photos by Tessa Potts, except Diana Nyad by Marla Aufmuth, courtesy of TEDWomen 2013