The Leader Behind TEDWomen

Prior to launching and co-curating TEDWomen, Pat Mitchell had already led a storied career.

Among countless other firsts, in the 1970s she was among the first women to anchor the news, and she later served as the first female president and CEO of PBS. But her impressive bio doesn’t do her justice.

As soon as we get on the phone, Mitchell warmly apologizes for ambient noise, sharing that she’s in the car following her granddaughter’s college graduation. When I inquire about the event, I expect light pleasantries about a day spent with loved ones.

Instead, Mitchell describes the gender balance of graduating students and progress she witnessed as “phenomenally positive,” but laments how little had changed on stage. Most of the administrators and faculty were white men.

“It’s evidence of work we still need to do to ensure greater representation and a more equitable workplace. The power paradigm hasn’t changed,” Mitchell tells me, “We need true representation in leadership.”

She addresses other key changes she’s witnessed in the women’s empowerment movement. “We’ve made the greatest progress in thinking about intersectionality, rather than seeing many separate tracks of work.”

She references Kimberlé Crenshaw, the feminist legal scholar, critical race theorist, and civil rights advocate who coined the term “intersectionality” and described it in her TEDWomen talk, The Urgency of Intersectionality.

This is the first three minutes of the conversation.

Then, Mitchell effortlessly and organically transitions, asking if we’d met in-person at TEDWomen 2017 in New Orleans. When I tell her we didn’t, she shares that curating prevents her from engaging as much with the content and the audience as she’d like.

For a woman who has likely participated in thousands of these types of conversations, I was struck by how genuine, reflective and present Mitchell was, building connection and rapport just moments into the conversation.

Spheres of Influence

As the first woman to own, produce and host a national talk show, the Emmy-winning Woman to Woman, Mitchell recognized her impact as a journalist and news reporter early in her career.

Making the decision to first go behind scenes as a producer and then into the executive office, she feared losing that platform, one that had allowed her to go on the air and talk directly to millions of people every day.

Then she realized that while the work was changing, her intention was the same, “You use the platform with a focus on diversity, to tell the stories others aren’t telling, to put forth an agenda to equal the playing field and reduce barriers.”

While her method and role has changed over time, based on our conversation, “activist” seems like it’s one of Mitchell’s most consistent identities. She describes the ways her impact increased and changed in her different capacities: as a journalist and an executive, and now as a consultant, board member, and curator.

Recognizing these changes, she says, “It’s all about the sphere of influence and bringing it to bear as much as possible on creating a more equitable world.”

As someone who often coaches people through career transitions, it’s refreshing for me to hear the clarity in her approach. Your job title or role isn’t the sole determinant of your ability to affect change. Whatever your role may be, your responsibility is to recognize your sphere of influence and use those opportunities to increase equity.

When Mitchell launched and co-hosted the first TEDWomen in 2010, that was her intention. “The TED platform offered women an opportunity to share their stories and ideas that was unparalleled. There’s no other platform with that same reach and impact,” she tells me, “I’ve seen it change the lives of TEDWomen speakers. I’ve seen their work magnified greatly by the experience.”

Complexity of This Work

These goals contrast an experience shared by TEDWomen 2017 speaker and spoken word poet Mwende “FreeQuency” Katwiwa. In a Medium post about her experience as a stage speaker, she stated (as she had on stage) that the organization had asked her to “cut Black Lives Matter” from her presentation.

When I ask about Katwiwa’s Medium post, Mitchell replies via writing, “We encourage all TEDWomen speakers to use their time on the TED stage in ways that they feel are most impactful, and support them in doing so.”

As an attendee at the conference, I found Katwiwa’s talk and spoken word poetry about the intersection of the Black Lives Matter movement and reproductive justice to be among the most impactful. I walked away moved by her poetry and concerned about her reference to feeling silenced by TEDWomen.

Rereading Katwiwa’s Medium piece after speaking with Mitchell, I’m reminded of the complexity of this work. Without understanding the full depth of the experience for each woman, there are elements of both of their responses that I admire.

I respect Katwiwa for speaking her truth despite her fears. Based on her Medium post, it sounds as though she had a very difficult, productive conversation with Mitchell in which she shared her experience. It sounds like Mitchell was open to difficult feedback and a challenging discussion.

Finally, in light of what she shared in our interview, Mitchell continues to see intersectionality as a key priority both personally and for TEDWomen.

Continued Impact

After a long career, many would retire and spend their time sharing war stories of being the only woman in the room. Instead, Mitchell continues to identify ways to influence the causes she cares about most deeply and immerse herself in what is often deeply challenging work.

She sees the ways TEDWomen can serve as a catalyst for others to do the same and is proud of the takeaway she hears most often from attendees: there aren’t any excuses not to pursue your passion.

For Mitchell, the conferences themselves fuel her passion for having an impact. Whether as a journalist, executive, or content producer, her commitment to affecting change has been the constant throughout her career. She shows no intention of stopping.