By Anthony Pignataro
Katie McMillan is looking for ideas. Ideas that are new, elegant, thoughtful, brilliant, fascinating and, most important, world-changing. It’s difficult, time-consuming and, with deadlines looming, rather stressful.
“It’s the power of great ideas,” she told me a few weeks ago over salads at Cafe O’Lei in Wailuku. “Finding the right people to speak is like treasure hunting.”
McMillan has a tough job, but the payoff is enormous. She’s co-producing TEDxMaui’s inaugural event, which will be held early next year at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center’s Castle Theater.
TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design began in 1984 as a dinner party. Founder and architect Richard Saul Wurman wanted “the world’s best dinner party,” according to this Sept. 1, 2010 Fast Company story on TED. The first event was a mix of circus acts and presentations by Bill Gates and Billy Graham, though Wurman made explicit that no talk would run more than 18 minutes.
“Fifteen minutes would be trivial, too short,” Wurman told Fast Company. “If you said 20, people would talk for 25; 19 seems perverse, 17 is a prime number, so I made it 18.”
Today TED is a global phenomena—YouTube clips of TED Talks made by Bill Clinton, Joan Halifax and Rory Stewart, among countless others, which are always made free to the public after events, pop up on Facebook and Twitter hourly. The talks also end up in classrooms.
Now before proceeding it’s important to say explicitly what this is not. It’s not a lecture or a series of speeches, nor is it a formal meeting. It has no question and answer session at the end (seats are also limited to 600, with 100 of those reserved for students). Most importantly, it’s not a TED Talk—TED, ever careful about the organization’s brand, is NOT coming to Maui.
Rather, McMillan described this as a “locally produced TED-like event,” though TEDxMaui presentations will go onto YouTube just like regular TED Talks. TED may also pick up one or more Maui presentations.
“I would love to see presentations from Maui appear on TED.com,” McMillan said in her Sept. 15 news release. “It would allow us to share our unique wisdom with the world.”
Who exactly will appear at the TEDxMaui conference won’t be made public until Oct. 1 (tickets, costing $99 for the day-long event, go on sale Oct. 3). McMillan said she’s looking for a variety of speakers who will appear under the theme “The Courage to Dream,” which, to be honest, is vague enough to include nearly anyone.
In many ways, TEDxMaui’s event is better than an official TED Conference, which can cost attendees thousands of dollars as well as require formal applications. One of the biggest criticisms of TED was that it was elitist—open only to a select, hand-picked few (indeed, there’s actually a page on the official TED website titled “Is TED elitist?”).
By franchising the TED name to 600 or so independent groups around the world, TED opened up huge opportunities for people who, for whatever reason, simply can’t be part of TED. Though taking on a free TEDx (the “x” means independent) brand brings with it numerous requirements, most notably an agreement that any TEDx conference can’t last longer than a day or include more than 100 people (unless one of the organizers has attended an official TED conference).
For McMillan, who previously worked at Maui Community College and Inner Ocean Publisher (Karen Bouris, that company’s former publisher, is also affiliated with TEDxMaui), attending the December 2010 TEDWomen conference in Washington, D.C. was a revelation. “While I was there, listening to a talk by Elizabeth Kapu`uwailani Lindsey, the first female fellow and first Polynesian explorer at the National Geographic Society, I knew that Maui would benefit from this experience,” she said.
Those wishing to attend need to understand that this is more like a seminar than a simple speech. They must be active participants, willing to listen, of course, but also to offer their own insight and ideas, as well as network (TED attendees often say the networking alone makes participation worthwhile). TEDxMaui is in every sense of the word an experiment, and the possibility of future events hinges on how things go in January.
“I have always been inspired by all the creative minds I have come across on Maui and I want the world to know that Maui is much more than just a place to relax on the beach,” said McMillan. “My goal with TEDxMaui is to inspire the creation of a local brain trust and celebrate great ideas so that our local economy and community can thrive.”