Better Off Ted: CMCers Organize First-Ever TEDx Conference For The Claremont Colleges, Friday, Sept. 23

Unexpected connections. Extraordinary insights. Powerful inspiration. If all goes as planned Friday, Sept. 23 at Pomona College’s Seaver Theater, those will be just three of the take-aways from Friending the Future, the first-ever TEDxClaremontColleges, organized and hosted by CMC seniors Jason Soll and Brian Hoffstein.

TEDx is patterned after TED, the global conferences launched in 1984 to disseminate “ideas worth spreading.” The name stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design and brings together some of the most inspirational and brilliant speakers across the three disciplinesand across the worldto an intimate stage setting. Their messages must be sharp, engaging, moving, diverse, and extremely distilledto the tune of just 18 minutes. The difference between a TED event and a TEDx event, Soll explains, is this: Whereas TEDGlobal conferences are considered the “major leagues” for popular players like architect Frank Gehry, historian Niall Ferguson, actress Thandie Newton, and film critic Roger Ebert, TEDx would be considered the minor leagues, allowing communities across the globe to organize their own neighborhood TED-modeled venues (the x’ stands for independently organized event), whether it’s people casually critiquing a series of presidential debates in someone’s living room, or an assembly of eclectic, passionate speakers sharing the stage, one 18-minute presentation at a time.

In the case of TEDxClaremontColleges, the idea was to harness the diverse intellectual talent represented throughout The Colleges and the community, and let that human capital shine in front of a highly engaged, equally bright (and hand-selected) audience. In this case, the majority of listeners will be students from across The Claremont Colleges who didn’t even know at the time of the online application process who the speakers were yet, still responded by the hundreds. The show has since sold out. (Read Soll’s interview with The Student Life newspaper.)

“I sincerely hope that this event not only continues year after year, but grows into something bigger and better,” Soll says. “We’re only scratching the surface this year as we lay the foundation for the community. For example, next year I’d really like for a student and professor from each of The Claremont Colleges to have the opportunity to give a TEDTalk. Ultimately, this platform should serve as a tremendously valuable asset for The Claremont Colleges, internally and externally.”

Exactly who guests will be treated to on Friday night is no longer a mystery. The speakers include:

former presidential advisor Gordon Zacks;

former budgeting wizard for Harvard University and New York City Allen Proctor;

Grammy award-winning composer Mateo Messina (“Juno”);

associate professor of chemistry and biology, and HIV-AIDS researcher, Karl Haushalter, Harvey Mudd College;

neuroeconomics founder Paul Zak, professor of economics, department chair, and founding director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University;

and hopeful, Hollywood screenwriter-turned-urban agriculturalist/food visionary Jesse DuBois, chief eclectic officer of urban farming company Farmscape.

Bringing TEDx to Claremont

Soll, a PPE major, was just 18 when he presented at a TEDGlobal conference in Oxford, UKspeaking while performing a series of card-flourishing maneuvers throughout his talk. (If you don’t know what card-flourishing is, watch him in this Imogen Heap music video.)

Soll says it is his own deep connection with TED conferencesboth as speaker and attendeethat seeded the idea for a TEDx in Claremont. Largely liberal arts in scope, the colleges offer unique specialties in a wide variety of disciplines. Similarly, what makes TED events special is the unique blend of speakers and attendees that fill the venue. In Soll’s view, that makes The Claremont Colleges and TED a synergistic fit.

And timing was good. Through a member of the CMC administration, Soll heard that classmate Brian Hoffstein had applied for a TEDx license to put on an event at the College. “I immediately got in touch with him,” Soll says, “and together we chartered our course for making this a high-impact event for the entire Claremont community.

“I always believed that the wide variety of students at all of The Claremont Colleges would very easily recreate the social experience that is unique to TED conferences,” Soll says. “By reading through the amazing applications we received, I am feeling tremendously confident about the validity of that prediction.”

While most social encounters at Claremont involve traditional small talk (What school do you go to? What year are you? What is your major? Where are you from?), TEDx encourages a creative name-badge system that encourages bullet pointsmeaning, each member of the audience has pre-selected three “talk to me about” conversation starters that will be listed on their tags, right under their names. Those words could be: skydiving, martial arts, world hunger, screenwriting, Claremont McKenna and on and on.

And when a TED event works because of such details, it practically crackles with enthusiasm, Soll says. “Everyone is as equally excited to meet fellow attendees as they are to meet the event’s speakers,” he explains. “The attendees feel this natural pull to the new people around them, thereby establishing a high-energy community with a passion for sharing ideas and changing the world.” The biggest take away, he hopes, will be “sheer amazement” at the quality of Claremont students.

Not your typical summer vacation: Other CMCers who’ve presented at TED

Claremont’s connection to the Technology, Entertainment, and Design platform reaches beyond Jason Soll. Anneke Jong ’05 is a past TED presenter and earlier this year, CMC seniors Chris Temple and Zachery Ingrasci (pictured above, from left to right) proved to be media stars of a TEDx conference in Buenos Aires, talking about the two months they spent in Guatemala, in the village of Pe?a Blanca, living on less than $1 a day. Their goal was to truly understand hardships faced by the poor in third world countries, and as word leaked of their social experiment, reporters paid attention and wrote about them. (The Huffington Post was among the outlets.)

“We believe that understanding the reality of poverty is the first step in addressing the problem,” Ingrasci told their Buenos Aires audience.

Now back at CMC and a few pounds healthier (they’d lost a combined 18 kilograms eating mostly rice and beans), “I learned more in those two months in Guatemala than in any other time in my life,” Temple says. “The first thing the experience did for me was put a face to poverty, a person and a friend behind the statistics. Secondly, it made poverty real for me. While we were not fully replicating the extreme hardship of poverty, getting a glimpse into how more than a billion people live day after day was shocking. The constant hunger, lethargy, and stress of living at that level gave us a profound respect for the strength and optimism of our friends in Pe?a Blanca.”

Trying to emulate the unpredictable finances juggled by poor households, Temple and Ingrasci every day pulled a number from a hat, and whatever was written on that slip of paper was how much they could spend that dayeven if just a few cents. It was a broader lesson in financial survival. “In many ways I couldn’t break away from my misconception that the lives of the poor would be simpler than mine, until I became close friends with Anthony,” Ingrasci says. “At 24, Anthony already supports three children and four family members.

“Once I understood that our friends in Pe?a Blanca were poor not because of lack of intelligence or drive, but because of an absence of opportunity,” he says, “I understood the importance of supporting bottom-up solutions that address specific needs in a sustainable way.”

Their TEDx talk on Youtube “felt like the right thing to do,” Temple says. Next, the two CMCers will be releasing a documentary in early November 2011 at CMC, and on their website. From there, they say their plan is to develop a follow-up project that raises awareness about pressing issues, identify solutions to those needs, and share the stories using short films.

(Those interested in becoming a part of Temple and Ingrasci’s journey can follow them on Twitter @LivingonOne.)

Catching the TED Bug

For Ingrasci, presenting at the TEDx conference in Buenos Aires was a life changer. “When Chris and I gave our TEDx speech in Buenos Aires, we were immediately immersed in a week of some of the most interesting conversations, dinners and engagements that I have ever had,” he says. “Besides being able to share our own project on a stage in front of 1,200 peopleand thousands more onlineI was continually inspired, surprised and astonished by everyone around us.

“People that come to TED talks are there to be engaged, and are usually doing some amazing things themselves,” he says. “I was able meet a couple lifelong friends and connections by just being there.”

Temple and Ingrasci, both international relations majors with a focus on economic development, are happy about the TEDx conference at Pomona.

“CMC is a community of innovative thinkers and future leaders who have the potential to create change in the world around them,” Temple says. “I think the talks there will inspire a number of CMCers to not only continue following their passions, but share their valuable experiences. The students are the schools’ greatest assets.

“I never would have been able to give a TED talk without being able to bounce ideas off of my friends and learn from their perspectives,” he says.

More about the TEDxClaremontColleges event tonight, including speaker bios and TEDx T-shirts for sale, can be found on the official Web site that Soll and Hoffstein launched last month. Plus, in a cool twist of marketing, you can also download the TEDxClaremontColleges iPhone app.