The news alert came at 2:20 p.m. Aug. 25. Though a man was delivering a fascinating speech about the greatest entrepreneurs in Houston’s history, my mind immediately went back to the speaker who’d just left the stage, astronaut Nicole Stott, who’d spoken of her experiences in outer space and the work she does at NASA.
My mind went back to the speakers we’d heard before lunch—Jacob Cohen, chief scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center, who spoke of the potential of synthetic biology in space; Bob Richards, a space entrepreneur and founder of the International Space University, Singlularity University, the Space Generation Foundation, and Moon Express, Inc., who spoke of the commercialization of the moon and what space could look like in 2062 using the catchphrase, “It’s not about boldly going; it’s about boldly staying;” and Sarah Worthy, who had told us about SpaceUp, an organization geared toward generating discussion of and passion for space.
As soon as I saw those words on my phone – “Neil Armstrong, first man on the moon, reportedly dead at age 82.” – I knew the lives of the speakers we’d just heard, who had dedicated their lives to an industry and way of life Armstrong dramatically impacted, would never be the same. And I knew that others, when the news was announced tearfully from the stage 10 minutes later followed by a moment of silence, would feel the way I felt—that there was no better place to learn of the sad news than at a conference celebrating his achievements and discussing the future of the space program.
The inaugural TEDx Sugar Land conference was not specifically about outer space or Armstrong or any particular field. Rather, it was an event – held in the Houston suburb my Dad’s side of the family has called home since 1912 – that invited speakers from several fields and walks of life to share “ideas worth spreading.” The theme of the event was “The Age of Wonderment” and its speakers all focused on getting participants to simply start wondering about things. The hundreds of participants included high school students, adults, families, couples, and individuals all hoping to learn, to be inspired, or to think about things they had never thought of before.
The difference between a TED event and a TEDx event is that TEDx events are independently organized within, by, and for a community. TED, which features new free lectures and ideas on a variety of topics every day, and hosts two conferences annually, lends only its name and a few guidelines to the TEDx events.
Speakers at the Sugar Land event ran the gamut. Lorna Ortiz-Soto, a chemical engineer, shared the story of her son, who was diagnosed with autism—a diagnosis she disagrees with. She founded an organization, Curando El Autismo, to connect parents who have helped their children recover from the sicknesses she believes were mislabeled as autism to other parents struggling with similar issues.
Javier Fernandez-Han was the youngest speaker. At 18 years old, Fernandez-Han is a high school senior whose passion for inventing – which he’s done since he was seven – led him to found a non-profit, Inventors Without Borders, in 2008. He has won multiple awards for his inventions, and a curriculum he developed to teach invention is currently being implemented in high schools. His father, Peter Han, discussed the family business, Play Fully Creative, built on the idea that creativity is essential to life, especially in children, and is the key to keeping children from turning into “teenage zombies.”
Journalists Andrew Schneider and Faridoun Hemani shared stories of their careers and thoughts on media. Schneider talked about the speed of news, and how he believes the 24-hour news cycle and the Internet have led many outlets to focus more on getting stories first rather than getting them right. Hemani, who flew in from London to speak, said the eye he temporarily lost when his news station in Sarajevo was bombed in the 1990s helped him to figuratively open his eyes and report on the world of human trafficking. There are 27 million slaves right now worldwide, he said, and human trafficking, which generates $32 billion in annual revenue, is the fastest growing form of organized crime.
Other speakers included local education leaders, advertising executives, poets, musicians, and neuroscientists, all passionately sharing their stories, talents, and ideas.
Rahil Jafry, co-organizer of the event, said the goal is to try to host a full TEDx Sugar Land conference every year, but he hopes that’s not where participant interaction ends. He said he hopes participants will have made friends at the event, and eventually meet up to create their own derivative events.
”If you leave inspired by one thought, one speaker, one idea today, we can sleep tonight knowing we’ve done our jobs,” he told the audience as the event began.
I would bet that in the sniffle-punctuated moment of silence we all took to remember Armstrong’s life, I was not the only TEDx participant thinking about how the hero impacted generations, how he had inspired many of the speakers we’d heard that day, and how fortunate I felt to be where I was at that exact moment. While it was news none of us wanted to hear, I can think of no time or place I would have rather learned it than in the presence of those who are living his legacy, who are helping build the future he paved the way for. And in that moment I thought about the true beauty of TED and TEDx events—how many heroes find their passion from hearing the ideas of others? How many people discover their own strength when they allow themselves to simply wonder?
Follow Anna Schumann on Twitter at ASchumannCMN.