By Sonya Rehman
If you haven’t ever watched a TED talk in your life, stop right now. Log onto Youtube and pick a video from the hundreds featured on the TED channel and begin watching at ease.
By the end of the talk(s), it’s unlikely that you won’t be inspired. Each TED talk will shake you up like a little snow globe – giving you something to think about – primarily clarity vis-à-vis your own life, your goals, and where you’d like to see yourself years down the line.
Standing as a non-profit organization, TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) has been hosting conferences for years, featuring inspirational speakers from all walks of life, who bring ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’ (the TED tagline) to the table. Also, anyone, anywhere in the world can organize their very own TEDx event after acquiring an official license from TED. This has led to TED’s widespread, global presence – roping together inspirational instigators of change into a vast network who pay it forward by motivating their audiences in a multitude of ways.
In Pakistan, the TED phenomenon has been huge. From TEDxLahore to TEDxKarachi, from colleges, universities and schools hosting their very own TEDx events – independent, local TEDx conferences are the next big thing in the country after fashion shows, gigs, literature festivals and theatrical performances.
A young, twenty-something Pakistani from Kinnaird College has hosted three such inspirational TEDxKinnaird conferences over the span of three years – in 2009, 2010 and 2011. Areej Mehdi discovered the TED website through a blog she used to visit.
“My interest in TED quickly took the shape of an unhealthy obsession – I used to skip college in the initial days to watch TED talks at home,” states Mehdi, “And in a small amount of time I realized I was undergoing a change – I was more interested in my surroundings and more empathetic of other people’s emotions. Observing these changes, I came to a conclusion: more girls at my college [Kinnaird] needed to know about TED.”
In 2010 Mehdi was also the co-curator of the much talked about TEDxLahore event in the city, along with Asim Fayaz (a student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences at the time).
“TEDxLahore was a whole different ball game,” Mehdi says, “TEDxLahore was on a larger scale than what I am used to and so it was a learning experience through and through. What most people fail to recognize is that the folks who are behind TEDx events aren’t in it for the money or the fame. We’re crazy, passionate people with equally crazy, idealistic notions, but we believe in sharing them with our communities.”
Mehdi believes that TEDx events are imperative for “any community which wants to grow,” and for that reason, the events are important for a country like Pakistan. “There are so many examples where global TEDx events have prompted their communities into taking action.”
Given the increase in TEDx events in Pakistan over the past few years, perhaps one criticism has been that some of the local events lack depth regarding speaker talks (due to poor speaker selection), and bad management. “Being a part of the TEDx movement since 2009, I’ve watched it expand to an entirely new level,” states Mehdi, “For some reason, Pakistani audiences have been unable to understand that there exists a difference between TED and TEDx. Even people who organize TEDx events sometimes have a totally warped conception of what a TEDx event constitutes: spending big money does not necessarily mean your TEDx event will turn out well. It is not about the branding, rather the spirit of TEDx that I feel more people should come to recognize by now. Like TED, TEDx is supposed to be about inviting your undiscovered, local thought leaders, instead of media moguls that everyone can watch on television.”
Mehdi believes a lot goes into putting together an effective TEDx event; for organizers hoping to “slap together” an event in a few weeks have a hope in hell. “One thing that Pakistani TEDx organizers need to communicate effectively to potential partners is that partnering with a TEDx event means you leave behind the role of a traditional ‘sponsor’ and embrace the role of a partner – one who is interested in getting the conversation going in your community. A lot of poor management issues arise because of that.”
For her own three TEDxKinnaird events, Mehdi states that in the initial stages the public was invited to nominate speakers. Parallel to that, personal recommendations counted too. “We gathered data about a prospective speaker, discussed at length whether he/she was a good fit to our theme and the TEDxKinnaird ideology, and then conducted final interviews to decide who got to speak.”
This year Mehdi was selected to attend a TED conference, TEDActive, in Long Beach. Standing as one of 600 individuals from 51 different countries, Mehdi’s entire trip was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation as a TEDxGates Scholar.
However, it took Mehdi three years to attend a TED event primarily due to ensuing visa rejections! “Back in 2009, Lara Stein, the TEDx Director, invited me to attend TEDIndia 2009. Due to security concerns and the fact that I had my final exams on the same dates, I had to pass up the opportunity. Early in 2010, I was invited to attend TEDGlobal, which was being held in Oxford. My visa application was rejected and I forgot about the matter after that. 2011 didn’t fare any better either, after the UK embassy refused my application, again. Late 2011, TED asked me to make one last attempt by applying for the American visa, which was rejected as well.”
But this didn’t deter the TED team. “They were adamant to get me to TEDActive [in 2012], and they succeeded,” Mehdi says. TED specially assigned an attorney to work on Mehdi’s case, and soon enough, she was granted a visa.
Mehdi’s experience at TEDActive was nothing short of amazing. “I loved how the conference was a blend of speaker talks as well as community action. We would have regular breakout sessions in groups to come up with possible solutions to regional and global issues, such as education, health and city development. All of these were termed as TEDActive projects and we were encouraged to be a part of them.”
During her trip, Mehdi experienced, first-hand, the effort that goes behind each TED event. “From design, to audience curation, to speaker selection – I could hardly find any fault with how the entire conference was conducted. TEDActive cemented my belief that your audience is as important as your speaker line-up. At TEDActive, it was the audience that made half the program with workshops, activities and social gatherings. Getting so many people excited for a common cause is difficult work, but channelling all that energy towards a common good, can be an interesting prospect for future TEDx events in Pakistan. I’m hoping more of us learn that and soon.”
Given that Mehdi graduates from Kinnaird this summer, she has “high hopes” for the new TEDxKinnaird team to churn out future events. “As for me, I’m now focusing more on the sustainability of the TEDx movement in Pakistan.”
Photos by: Bilal Rashid, Mishal Saeed and Michael Brands.
The Friday Times