Hundreds of people pack into the Capitol Theatre to see Ruth Milligan and Nancy Kramer, but the two women didn’t really want to be here. They are tired, exhausted, and they flat out tell the crowd as much. But the magnetic energy of powerful ideas was too strong—the TEDxColumbus event they founded has grown bigger than them, bigger than the volunteer team they assembled, bigger than the last venue, bigger even than their desire to put it on hiatus. Columbus wants TEDx. Not next year, now.
Kramer and Milligan, the co-organizers of TEDxColumbus since its inception in 2009, promised after last year’s event that they wouldn’t hold one this year. It needed to be revamped and to find a new home, but they were burnt out. No event next year, they assured each other by way of a pinky swear, then we’ll revive it the year after. They intended to hold sacred this bond of small fingers. But then Doug Kridler of the Columbus Foundation told them that wasn’t an option, and he upped his financial gift to ensure TEDx 2014 happened. So here they are, back at center stage on November 7, holding the sixth iteration of the symposium for sharing ambitious ideas of individual, citywide, and global significance.
TEDx events are offshoots of the popular TED (technology, entertainment, design) talk format, and Milligan and Kramer are among only a handful of original TEDx organizers still active out of thousands of events worldwide.
“Ours is really about showcasing ideas, concepts, and conversations that are relevant to the Columbus community,” Kramer says. They only accept local speakers, or those with very strong ties to the city. The theme for this year’s event is STEAM (science, technology, education, arts, math); 14 speakers approach the topics through the lenses of their expertise and personal stories, often weaving the two together to deliver a potent message.
Milligan and Kramer relinquish the big red fabric circle placed on the ground at center stage where speakers hold court. Christian Long and David Staley, the curators for the first session, take their place. Long tells the audience that 200 years ago America made a beautiful and ridiculous promise to educate everyone; “a moonshot.” Then Staley says that the first speaker will talk about the need to transform art education, but if we listen closely, we’ll realize she’s talking about reforming all education. They wrap their introduction, and she walks out to take her position on the circular red spotlight.
The hallways outside the theater hum with energy. The Paparazzi Bot snaps photos of smiling audience members as people discuss their favorite speakers and the ideas that provoked them most. It’s not just a symposium for experts who take their work seriously; it’s a place for concepts as currency.
“We’re not only studying ideas, but we are changing the way people share them,” Milligan says.
The concern with an event like this one is that once the initial electricity dissipates, the ideas will merely float into the ether. While that’s certainly true in some cases, TEDxColumbus has also produced its share of ongoing conversations and lasting results.
Onstage in 2012, Nancy Kramer interviewed Frederick Ndabaramiye, a survivor of the Rwandan genocide who had both his hands chopped off with a machete. He was fitted with prosthetics in Columbus in 2003 through Partners in Conservation, a nonprofit branch of the Columbus Zoo. Ndabaramiye’s book, Frederick: A Story of Boundless Hope, was published this fall and given as a gift to all this year’s speakers.
“We’re not only studying ideas, but we are changing the way people share them.”
Chris Domas, a speaker at TEDxColumbus in 2013, had the video of his talk about hacking and cybersecurity moved to the TED.com main page, where it went from 650 views to more than 760,000. Alex Bandar, the creator of the Columbus Idea Foundry, took the stage this year to give an update on Franklinton and to talk about an entrepreneurial-themed team challenge they held in the neighborhood earlier in the day. He attributes the rapid expansion of the foundry to the increased attention and funding he received as a result of his TEDx talk in 2011. The foundry relocated to Franklinton earlier this year and is now the largest maker-space in the world.
Cindy Foley has been going to TEDxColumbus for years, and one of her favorite aspects of the event are the so-called collisions afterwards, in which she tries to mesh the speakers’ ideas with her own. One such meeting happened after the 2010 event when she was inspired by a talk about the type of city Columbus should aspire to be. The man who gave that talk was David Staley, the first session curator who introduced her to the stage this year.
“If you have ideas and you share ideas, all of us will end up on that stage at some point, right?” Foley says. “‘You’re next—that’s my message to everyone.”