Behind The Scenes At TEDWomen

Ever been curious about how TED speakers get selected?

I’ve often wondered that myself, and this week, I had the pleasure of talking with members of the TED team about their goals here at TEDWomen 2017 in New Orleans.

The speakers at TEDWomen have been so compelling, I’ve been moved to tears with such frequency that I’ve been teasing that I must be allergic to my new mascara.

The experience is not dissimilar for Lisa Choi Owens, TED’s Chief Revenue Officer and Head of Global Partnerships, despite this being her umpteenth TED conference.  

Owens oversees partnerships and the role companies and foundations can play at TED events. While TED’s curatorial team — led by Pat Mitchell for TEDWomen – selects speakers, Owens has a contagious enthusiasm for each speaker and the experience as a whole.

It's one of the first things I notice about Owens: her sense of awe and genuine excitement about the conference. Her description of the talks I missed while interviewing speakers engendered a nearly comical level of conference FOMO for me.

Over two cups of coffee and four Advil (long workdays for us both), we discussed what TEDWomen looked for in speakers and what Owens hopes women navigating their careers take away from the experience.

Leadership takes many forms.

Owens describes the conference as a celebration of the contributions women make to the economy, policy, and humanity. She says TEDWomen serves as a showcase for the wide range of ways that women can lead.

The very first speaker of the conference, Luvvie Ajayi is a self-proclaimed “professional troublemaker”. She called for us to think of ourselves as the first domino, inspiring a chain reaction. Ajayi said, “There are too few people willing to be the domino”, to serve as a catalyst by doing or saying what is difficult.

Other speakers shared quieter approaches to leadership.

In an excerpt of their play Other Women, friends Felice Belle and Jennifer Murphy shared an intimate portrayal of their chosen family: each other. As they described supporting one another through a cancer diagnosis, the deaths of loved ones, and the sillier, joyful moments of life, Belle and Murphy depicted the profound bond of what they describe as their sisterhood.

For Owens, that’s a key element of TEDWomen’s approach – to demonstrate, “There are a lot of ways to establish your power.”

Whether it’s serving as a “first domino” or quietly supporting a loved one, she explains that the talks are purposely curated to feature a range of experiences and approaches. She says, “Whether it’s leaning in, sitting back, or stopping and holding, everyone has their own circumstances.”

You can't be what you can't see.

We often think of diversity in terms of things the census might track: race, gender, income, etc. Owens also describes the harder to measure elements like personality, life experience, or phase of life as key considerations when selecting speakers.

While the conference included celebrity voices like model turned activist Christy Turlington Burns and actor and social entrepreneur Justin Baldoni, the talks that people found most moving seemed to be the ones by speakers whose names they hadn’t known in advance.

A few of my personal highlights included:

  • Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa shared a powerful poem about the intersection of the Black Lives Matter movement and reproductive justice. She described the complexities and challenges of talking concurrently about these issues in spaces like TED that are designed to share ideas – about her decision to talk about these issues even when it’s difficult or addressing them could come at professional expense. In her poem, she shared, “[America] has taught me how some women give birth to babies and others to suspects…. There is something about being black in America that has made motherhood sound like mourning.”
     
  • Cognitive scientist Lera Boroditsky shared her research into the way language informs our experience of the world. She used the example of the word “bridge”, which is feminine in German and masculine in Spanish. The way German and Spanish speakers describe bridges varies dramatically, with German speakers using words like “beautiful” and Spanish speakers using words like “strong.”
     
  • Recent high school graduates Winona Guo and Priya Vulchi described their realization that school hadn’t taught them a meaningful understanding of racism or its implications. They collected hundreds of personal stories about race from across the country to develop “The Classroom Index.” It’s a textbook designed to help foster a meaningful, compassionate understanding of race and discrimination, as well as clarity about the larger systemic ways racism operates. I hope they develop a sequel textbook for sexism.

In her own experience, Owens wished she had seen more people she identified with as she advanced in her career, a pattern that continues today. Owens says now, in her experience as a speaker, “I’m often approached by both women and women of color who say, ‘I’ve never seen an Asian woman in public speaking.’”

Beyond the people we usually see lifted up as “experts” and public speakers, TEDWomen illustrated diverse leadership by many metrics, whether it was the soft spoken peace activist, the dynamic scientist sharing her research, or the expert in sustainable design.

Those moments of inspiration are part of what motivates Owens to do this work.

A version of this piece was originally published by Forbes.