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TEDxWilmington expands offerings as ‘tribe’ grows

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TEDxWilmington began in 2012 as an annual conference featuring talks from some of the brightest minds in the region. The speakers spent months preparing, and they covered a wide range of topics. The conference drew both local business leaders and world-renowned thinkers.

In recent years, however, the conference has expanded its scope. Ajit George, the lead organizer for TEDxWilmington, has taken steps to turn the brand into an umbrella for a whole series of events on everything from dating in the digital age to fiscal responsibility. The goal: share more ideas from more people.

“We try to showcase people here who have ideas worth spreading,” George said.

Starting in 2015, George added three TEDx “salons” to the lineup. These events featured fewer speakers, but were able to focus on a single topic.

In 2016, he organized a total of six salons, plus a conference devoted to women speakers. This year, there will be nine salons, one classic TEDx conference, and a youth event at Ursuline Academy in Wilmington.

TEDxWilmington is part of a network of independently organized events that are licensed by TED, the nonprofit media organization that held the original TED conference. Local organizers pick their own speakers and promote the event themselves, but they have to follow a set of guidelines to use the TED name. (Here in Delaware, there’s also TEDxDover – which recently held a conference at Delaware State College, the first historically black college to host a citywide TEDx event.)

Salome Heusel, who manages the TEDx program for the main brand, said that local groups are increasing their reach as they evolve and forming deeper roots in their respective communities.

“We see it as positive change for the TEDx community,” he said. “Connections become deeper. The range of conversations and topics covered expand. Salon events often engage subsets of a community that might not yet be as engaged with the main TEDx event.”

Between 2012-2016, TEDxWilmington attracted about 190 speakers. Videos of the talks drew over 1 million views online, according to George.

“Once you have the annual license and you’re successful, then you can get additional licenses to do additional events,” he said.

In part, TEDxWilmington’s expansion was driven by George’s personal desire to meet more interesting people. But he had practical reasons as well. As the main conference grew more popular, George said, the number of applications far outnumbered who could actually speak. Additional events opened up the platform to a wider set of speakers, as well as a larger pool of volunteers.

“By having events throughout the year, we have attracted a large number of volunteers who are fans of TED and TEDx to become part of the TEDxWilmington tribe,” George said. “It is much harder to attract volunteers for just an annual event.”

Adding more content was also a draw. Under the TED guidelines, the main conference can’t focus on a single topic. With salons, that’s the whole point.

“Our goal is to find topics that can bring speakers in that can really have an impact on one topic,” George said. “That’s what makes it interesting, to find conversations that are compelling enough to make a salon.”
Upcoming salons will tackle topics such as emerging trends in hospitality, the future of transportation, fiscal responsibility, and technology. On May 2, TEDx will host a “women in business” salon.

The speakers, who often come from expert backgrounds, have so far appreciated the level of focus that comes with a smaller, more tailored event.

“I enjoyed the format,” wrote Kevin Carr, an author and TV host who spoke at the most recent salon “Swipe Left: Love, Dating & Situationships,” in an email. “The speeches were concise and provided the substance, and the event seemed to be just the right fit.”

As TEDx expands, however, can it retain the same level of quality?

Robyn Odegaard, a TEDx speaker coach who has worked with four speakers from TEDxWilmington, noted that people still have to apply months ahead of time. Organizers like George will also refer less-prepared speakers to coaches like Odegaard. She adds that through her own process she can get a speaker prepared within eight weeks.

“I don’t think this is watering down the brand,” Odegaard said.

Indeed, George makes the case that this model has only enforced it.

“Salon events function as a source of continual nourishment for each individual TEDx, feeding into the community that they have already built,” George said. “All of the little ripples add up in the end to create waves.”

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