TEDxPSU: Founding a Tradition

By Steve Garguilo, February 2015

It all started on Facebook. I wonder how often that is said now.

In February 2010, I was browsing my Facebook newsfeed and saw that a fellow Penn State alum was participating in something called TEDxCMU. I took a peek at their website and saw this was an off-shoot of the popular TED Talks.

TED, a non-profit organization dedicated to ideas worth spreading, brings together the most compelling people on the planet to share ideas. It started with ideas specifically around technology, entertainment, and design (T-E-D) but has now expanded in scope to include talks about social sciences, philanthropy, the arts, business, you name it. A TED Talk is often called “the talk of your life,” a 4-18 minute message that speakers prepare for months with a goal of flipping a switch in someone’s brain. TED Talks are some of the most popular content on the Internet, having eclipsed over one billion total views.

As I read more and more about this concept of TEDx (independently organized TED-style events that people put together in communities around the world), I knew I really wanted to go to one of these events. The TED Conference, after all, is a very exclusive experience, and given that TED is an invite-only event with an $8,500 price tag, TEDx seemed like a much more accessible place for having conversation about new ideas.

So I looked at the list of upcoming TEDx events, seeing events at Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Southern California, the University of Denver, and scrolled through looking for, “When’s the one at Penn State?”

When I didn’t see Penn State on the list, my first thought was, “Gosh, someone should really do this,” which is a thought that often quickly and dangerously turns into, “I guess I really could do this.”

By Blue/White weekend 2010, I had assembled a core team of alumni and held an open kickoff meeting where we described the vision and got to work to establish this experience. One of the beautiful things about the kickoff was that it included Penn State alumni living in different parts of the country (like Ryan Dickson, Rich McMillen, Andrew Brown, and Mark Poblete), it included current Penn State students (like Zach Zimbler), it included interested State College residents (like the wonderful Judy Speedy), and also Penn State faculty and staff like Herbert Reininger (who now serves as the Advisor for the student club) and Tara Sollman (who based on her work preparing the speakers now runs her own storytelling company).

It would be nice to say that the vision from the beginning was one to create a robust, diverse community around ideas worth spreading, but that’s really not the case. We looked at the event as a nice one-off — a fun opportunity to bring people together, and a chance for some rich dialogue about our shared future.

It wasn’t until after the event that I really understood the real power of TEDx.

Ali Carr-Chellman, a professor in the College of Education, gave a talk about engaging boys in learning using gaming. At the time, this was really just a side passion of hers. That soon changed as her talk went viral, a 13-minute talk that’s been viewed over 800,000 times around the world. Based on the popularity of her talk, Ali was appointed to the Advisory Board of The Boys’ Initiative, was invited to join the Commission to establish a White House Council for Boys to Men, and is now an authority figure on the subject.

Sam Richards, the incredibly popular face of World in Conversation in the College of Liberal Arts, gave a talk that is still one of my all-time favorite talks, entitled “A Radical Experiment in Empathy” that challenged participants through powerful examples to live in someone else’s shoes for his 18-minute talk. That talk has now been viewed over 1.5 million times, many of those views coming from the Middle East. Based on his talk, Sam has appeared on NBC to talk about empathy, and was recently invited to speak at TEDxLaçador in Brazil.

Once I saw these scenarios unfold, that’s when I internalized that TEDx is not about events at all. TEDx is about unburying the most interesting ideas and individuals in a community, giving them a platform to shine, and then allowing for those ideas to spread around the world.

And that last part is really powerful. Even in the age of Buzzfeed lists and cat videos, TED.com remains one of the most popular sites on the Internet, where people actually set aside time to watch mini-lectures from speakers who they want to learn from. And thanks to TEDxPSU, talks from Penn Staters now appear as part of that global conversation.

I’m incredibly proud to see Penn Staters celebrated in this way, not for any superficial reason, but for their intellect and their ideas, and how those ideas can influence the thinking of others and the advancement of society. We know there are plenty of people from our community who we can amplify and unbury, and it’s exciting to see that continue.

Beyond the destination of TED.com and the impact of sharing ideas from our community with the broader world, also having a forum to talk about ideas locally is great for a community like Penn State because ideas are a great unifier, a great common language for different groups to come together around.

And I can’t think of a community with a more diverse set of stakeholder groups than a community like State College. There are students coming together from all over the world, different departments across the University, staff, and administration, then the existence of all of the above at 24 different campuses, then the Town & Gown relations of University people mixing with locals, then alumni, then as a state-related institution you have the citizens of Pennsylvania, then even all of that list replicated at peer institutions throughout the B1G and the country.

With a desire to see all of those parts of the community come together, we worked in early 2011 to create a sustainable model for TEDxPSU to continue. As the largest alumni-driven event in Penn State’s history (and winner of an award from the Alumni Association for being a high-impact, new program) we decided to leave TEDxPSU in the hands of very-capable students to drive moving forward through a student club. This student club would certainly be championed by students, but with a continued effort to include community members from all walks of life in the organizing effort.

There have been many different ripples and dimensions of the community that have come to life since and continue to come to life. TEDxPSUBerks, the first TEDxPSU event organized entirely outside of University Park, took place in November 2014.

As TEDxPSU turns five this February (five years since the team first started) and also celebrates its fifth event in March (TEDxPSU 2015 occurs March 1 — tickets are available at tedxpsu.com) we should be proud as a community to be hosts of such a rich conversation. My hope is that everyone in our community considers taking advantage of the opportunity to discuss new ideas with your fellow community members. Challenging the way you think is never a bad thing to do. And it would be great for each of us to always be on the lookout for the next Ali or the next Sam, members of our community who have something to share with the rest of the world that might just change it for the better.