This is the question we get asked the most and is one we think a lot about. When we started TEDxDirigo in 2010 we were almost singularly focused on people with a “Maine idea worth spreading.” What does that mean? Then it meant someone with a significant connection to Maine (lives here, works here, etc.) that had an idea that was separable from a business, organization, or product, that had positive impact in the world, was provocative, and/or bringing something new into the world.
That remains core to our process, and through experience, debate, and peer learning in the TEDx network we have expanded our conversation to consider other things.
For example, at our first TEDxDirigo two out of 12 speakers were women. Our friend, Jess Esch, called us out on twitter right away about this. When we reflected on this we developed some interesting insights. Our organizing committee was basically 50/50 men and women, if not more women than men. It was difficult to attribute the gender imbalance in the program to gender imbalance on the team. In fact, the women in the program were nominated by men on the team. When we looked at our nominations, we did find that there were more men nominated then women. We shared stories internally of our experiences asking for nominations and witnessing people struggle to come up with names other than white men. We also realized that when asked if they would speak, women were more hesitant and less confident than men about the opportunity.
With these insights in hand we came to understand that we were part of a system of bias. As a society, white men more often occupy positions of influence and prestige than others. This has a positive feedback loop for white men and a negative one for anyone else.
As a platform for innovation and disruption, we could not be complacent in this trend. Since that first event we have paid close attention to the gender, race, and ethnicity of our nominees and selection. In particular, we work to self monitor our blind spots. “Our” being our team’s as well as the community at large.
In regards to gender, our speaker composition has been close to 50/50 since 2011. Our last event in 2014 was 25/75 men/women.
That said we are strongly opposed to tokenism, the practice of selecting someone solely based on their gender, race, or ethnicity. Everyone asked to speak at TEDxDirigo have been vetted for authenticity of authorship and we ask ourselves honestly “is this an idea worth spreading?” “Is this something new, worth considering, debating, etc.?” We also ask if someone already has a large platform for sharing their views or not. If they do, do they have something new to share with the world via TEDxDirigo?
Other considerations for us include a diversity of fields and topics. TED originally stood for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. These were selected in 1984 because the founder of TED, Richard Saul Wurman, felt that they were the three fields most dramatically shaping our world. Both this idea of multiple fields, and ideas that are shaping our world remain intact in our process of curation. We go beyond those fields into the sciences, education, and more. And like TED, we look for personal stories of profound insight as well.
We have also expanded our view to beyond “Maine ideas worth spreading.” When we started TEDxDirigo, we wanted to build a community of creative confidence in the state and to share with the world stories of Mainers beyond lighthouses and lobsters. In these regards, we think we have been very successful. Now we think of TEDxDirigo as a platform to connect Maine with the world’s best ideas, and share Maine ideas worth spreading with the world. We have begun to invite people to speak at the event simply because their insights are hyper relevant to our theme or a challenge or opportunity we are facing.
The last thing we like people to know is that every year, we are selecting 15-20 speakers from a list of upwards of 200 viable nominations. Often times, we just have to make hard decisions based on the amount of event time we have to work with. Often someone has a great idea and for one reason (like the event theme) or another (like their field of work already being in the program) it is just not the time for them to be in the program. We have had speakers on our list for years, sometimes, before everything comes together for them to be part of the program.
We always welcome feedback and like Jess Esch’s back in 2010, we always listen, look at ourselves, and if appropriate take action.