More than a thousand people converged at the Paramount Theater in downtown Charlottesville on Friday for the area’s first taste of TEDx, the local variation on the internationally acclaimed global nonprofit conference series.
From educators and musicians to playwrights and entrepreneurs, TEDxCharlottesville hosted more than 20 speakers from across the community at a debut that coordinators said sold out in a matter of days.
The conference provided a platform for speakers to share “ideas worth spreading” – TED’s official moniker.
Among Friday’s lineup were Zoe Romano, the first person to ever run the entire route of the Tour de France; South African singer-songwriter Vusi Mahlasela, whose music helped to inspire many in the fight against apartheid; and Dawn Averitt, whose Well Project provides a slew of health resources for women diagnosed as having HIV and AIDS.
“We made a big effort to have people that you wouldn’t normally be able to see if you lived here,” said event co-chairman Roger Voisinet.
Many of those people, Voisinet said, are hiding in plain sight – like Laura Mulligan Thomas, director of the Charlottesville High School Orchestra.
When Thomas joined the staff at CHS, the orchestra program had just eight students.
Today, it has grown to 150 members with three international tours under its belt and a case full of trophies and honors.
“Recently, we’ve received an invitation to perform at Chartres Cathedral outside of Paris,” Thomas said. “We intend to take them up on that offer in June.”
Thomas said she shares the success of the program with her students, who enjoy their craft as much as she does.
“It’s difficult to measure and today the world wants to measure that because we like to test,” Thomas said. “But, it should not be underestimated. It’s good for the spirit. It’s good for the soul. It’s important.”
And that, Voisinet said, is what TED Talks are all about.
Since the first TED “talk” in 1984, the project has grown from a one-off event in Monterey, Calif., to a global phenomenon with more than 1,500 talks available free online and more than 1 billion views worldwide.
When it started, TED Talks emphasized the spheres of technology and design, harkening back to its days in Silicon Valley, but with headliners at TEDxCharlottesville like Ralph Cohen, co-founder of the American Shakespeare Center, it’s clear the project has broadened in scope.
TED Talks also has branched into new media.
Today, TED Talks can be found everywhere, from Netflix to NPR.
But that shouldn’t deter folks from attending a local TEDx when they can, Voisinet said.
“People’s experiences with TED Talks are sort of fractured,” said Voisinet. “They watch a disembodied talk on TED.com or YouTube or Netflix and then they might watch one more and then they go watch something else. It’s not a coherent event.”
The difference, Voisinet said, is the same as grabbing a bite at the buffet or sitting down for the full four-course meal.
“When you come to a TED event you get the whole meal, you get the vision of the chef,” he said. “If you go to a TED event, you could cry at half of these. But, you rarely do that watching at home on a laptop.”
Area residents Eddy and Amanda Almand said it was TED’s popularity online that sparked their interest in attending the local conference.
“I’m really interested in technology and design and the merging of the two,” Eddy Almand said. “All too often we fall into either technology or arts, but we don’t really merge the two, and this conference kind of brings all of that together.”
“We’re also in a stage in our lives where we want to be inspired by something,” Amanda Almand said.
She said she was most taken with local educator John Hunter, inventor of a hands-on geopolitical board game featured in the 2010 award-winning documentary “World Peace and Other 4th-Grade Achievements.”
“I was really interested just listening how the students were inspired by his teachings and how they took away a life lesson from him,” she said.
Edward Freeman, a professor at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, was the highlight for Eddy Almand.
“I was just really inspired by his talks on taking the traditional capitalist idea of money and greed and changing that thought. I thought that was inspiring,” he said.
Inspiration is really the name of the game for TEDx events, Voisinet said.
That’s especially significant because TED has prohibited licensed, third-party TEDx events from pulling in a profit.
The goal, event coordinators in Charlottesville said, is just to break even.
But, with a sold-out theater, Voisinet said Charlottesville’s first TEDx may have exceeded expectations.
“I sort of knew it would sell out all along because the TEDx brand is so powerful,” he said.
Selling out, Voisinet said, meant that nearly 235 tickets for the conference were able to go to students in the area who wouldn’t otherwise be able to attend.
It also means something else for locals who left TEDxCharlottesville hungry for more, he added.
“We are already thinking about what should we do differently if we do it again,” Voisinet said. “Once you do one of these, the second time is much easier for obvious reasons. So, I think it’s something we’ll definitely want to do again.”