Think global, speak local

Brandon Weber


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TEDxSacramento founder Brandon Weber doesn't want to give too much away about this year's daylong event, scheduled for Friday, June 28, at Sacramento City College (3835 Freeport Boulevard) from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Like its counterpoint in the annual TEDGlobal conference, each independently organized TEDx gathering aims to not only draw in the region's most interesting speakers and panel discussions, but to also incubate diverse perspectives. The emphasis, Weber says, should be on ideas, not marquee names. “We want people to go into it with an open mind,” he said. Weber, who also founded The Urban Hive, a co-working space in Midtown, talked to SN&R about TEDxSacramento's growth since its 2009 launch, and why preparing for a “speak” is a lot like staging a play.

How has TEDxSacramento evolved?

The first one was just 50 people in my office—very small and very low-key. There were no live speakers; we just had food and wine and hung out and chatted. At the time, so few people knew about TED—it was just a gathering of people who were into TED. You either knew about it and loved it or didn’t. So, essentially, we just gathered a lot of people with a lot of like interests. We were one of the first ones. There was TEDxBerlin and Amsterdam and then Sacramento. Now, it’s [grown into] a community of like-minded individuals. We’ve grown to have more than one event a year with speakers and live streaming of the global TED conference, and we also have salons that are shorter, more informal events.

How is TEDx tied to the local community?

I can’t speak to other cities, but ours is really diverse, so you can just as likely be sitting at one of our events with the CEO of one of the best-known companies on one side of you and a high-school teacher or artist on the other side. That’s what makes it so special—we don’t just want it be a bunch of executives, or for that matter, just artists and teachers.

Favorite past TEDx talk?

Last year, we had a speaker who’d applied through our website. We get hundreds of applications online, most of them are self-promotional, but this gentleman, Chris Ategeka was different. He was from Uganda, and both of his parents had died of AIDS. He’d raised his siblings on his own, and, as a teenager, he met up with some people with [the nonprofit] Y.E.S. Uganda who were from Northern California. They invited him to come to the [United States]. He went to community college in Berkeley, and later, transferred to UC Berkeley, where he got into the [mechanical-engineering] program. And he’s still thinking about Uganda, and he goes back and hires 10 engineers to help him design a wheelchair and [three-wheel] ambulance built from the bicycle parts that are often discarded in the landfills there. He trains them and launches [CA Bikes] and saves [thousands of] lives.

He's only 23, and when he came to present his talk, his [African] accent was very strong, and he was very uncomfortable, but his story was so beautiful. In the end, he got a standing ovation, and there wasn't a dry eye in the house. I loved that he wasn't already a household name—we don't usually release our speaker names until a week or two before the event.

Why is that?

Because people don’t go for the speakers, they go for the experiences, for being a part of the discourse.

This year’s speakers include midwife pioneer Ina May Gaskin, America’s Next Top Model winner Naima Mora, and co-founder and CEO of LendUp Sasha Orloff, which helps people build credit. What’s the thread?

It’s very disparate. That’s part of our goal. It’s similar to TEDx Conferences in [other cities]. The purpose here is to have diversity. This year’s theme is “confluence,” which means confluence of ideas. It’s all very diverse—which seems fitting for Sacramento. We have developed a [more specific] thread, but I can’t speak to it yet. There’s a real back-and-forth that happens with our speaker teams. We work with our speakers to develop the best possible talk for them. For example, there’s one presenter who initially thought [the talk] would just be about professional stuff, but it’ll probably end up a more personal, intimate talk. The talks are always evolving.

I didn’t realize it worked that way, that the talks are almost like plays worked out before opening night with rehearsals, etc.

Yes—they’re all given run-throughs. By the time you hear a final talk, it’s changed. We tell people you’re giving talk of a lifetime in 10 to 15 minutes.

What do you hope people to get out of TEDx?

We want to blow our attendees’ minds. We really want to have them walking out [thinking], “Oh my God, I can’t believe I did that!” … We’re trying to make Sacramento part of the global discussion. Sacramento can be a place where ideas come together.