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A View from TEDx Detroit 2011

“It’s like a trip to Disneyland for your mind, except the rides come to you!” - Ron Arnold, TEDx Detroit attendee.

The 3rd TEDx Detroit event started for me just after 8am, Wednesday. That’s when the doors of the Max M. Fisher Music Center opened and the registration began. After looking around for a few minutes, the huddled hoard of hundreds was asked to gather in a courtyard outside, around the corner, for a group photo – a giant X.

By 9am, we returned to Orchestra Hall and the sessions began.

The stage step up was simple. A lighted sign proclaiming “TEDx Detroit”, a few monitors and a video projector.

TEDx Detroit curator Charlie Wolborg started the event by stating that he wanted the Motor City version of TEDx to be a place that could lend the “fuel for the perpetual motion machine” of new ideas and innovation to speed the rebirth of Detroit.

I thought I’d give you a taste of the range of ideas presented:

Lex Kuhne, a lawyer by trade, was one of the masterminds that launched the radio station 89X in Windsor/Detroit in the early 1990s. Kuhne talked about how we are constantly branding ourselves and others as left or right brain, the battle between the creative and the structured impulse. Kuhne talked about the need to adopt an attitude of “no labels” and look beyond what we normally do in order to evolve, grow and innovate on the personal and professional level.

• Mark Salamango of Robot Town is working with the non-profit to turn the assets of the Motor City into a place for robots to be born in order to help with the everyday. From self-driving vehicles to medical and military uses, Salamango urged the audience to get behind him and assist in the effort.

Christina Keller is with Triple Quest, a division of Cascade Engineering. Keller spoke about the idea that “we are living in a world where doing “good” has become polarized.” To those ends, she demonstrated how her company has been able to help people transition from welfare to work successfully. Keller says it’s possible when companies listen, understand the culture & challenges and seek to assist those in need. She laid down the idea that by listening to stakeholders, understanding environmental concerns and seeking financial growth it is possible to build a truly sustainable business. But she feels it must be in the order – ideas/people before business as usual.

Tara Michener turned being bullied as a child into a way to give back. Michener started writing the “Who I Am” series of books to help kids build self-esteem. She also started a literacy effort in schools and communities. Since then, she has also branched out into books for teens to help them deal with "growing pains". Michener says for her the heart of the great things she is doing is Detroit.

• Grand Rapids native Rob Bliss says it all started with zombies and pillow fights. After taking part in several small group meet ups concerning both, Bliss started to expand the idea of using facebook to get thousands to show up for staged events in his hometown. When “Newsweek” called Grand Rapids “a dying city”, Bliss created the world’s largest “lip dub” – a music video where people lip sync to a song. Taking over the streets of Grand Rapids, and featuring a cast of 30,000 locals, Bliss says it brought huge attention to the city.

Bliss says previous events he created caused thousands to show up and local restaurants to run out of food. He says that’s not bad to a 22 year old who wasn’t the greatest student in college but always had a creative streak.

Julie Clark says it’s all about beating the odds. She’s survived breast cancer twice. But before those struggles, Clark was the creator of “Baby Einstein”, a series of videos that included images and classical music. Starting in her basement with a borrowed video camera, Clark grew “Baby Einstein” to a multi-million dollar business before she sold it to Disney about a decade ago. She says the point was never to start a massive business; it was about trying to find something her daughter would like. Clark urged the audience to look beyond what people would consider a “crazy" or “wacky” idea and work with their passion. In the end, she says the best thing in life is to be thankful and help others.

• Randal Charlton, the CEO of Tech Town, says his life before coming to Detroit was kind of a mess. He failed as a restaurateur, his felt like a failure when his daughter – a schizophrenic – committed suicide and we felt even worse when he went from starting companies to delivering phone books for a living. Charlton says losing confidence in himself was the worst thing of all. Then he met some people with the idea of taking $500,000 in venture capital and investing in bio-medical. Charlton says he thought about where to go… that place was Detroit. Why? He says it was the low-cost place. Plus, he says the area offers many things to the entrepreneur – 20% of the world’s fresh water resources, we are close to Canada, we have great science and labs and we are starting to get our confidence back. Charlton urged the audience to take the confidence and resources and run with them. After retiring from the business world in 2007, Charlton took over Tech Town, a business incubator that currently works with 225 companies and interacts with over 3,000 people a year.

• On the hard science front, Dr. Claude Pruneau of Wayne State University spoke about what he called “the perfect liquid” – quark gluon plasma. Long story short, he says the effort to isolate this rare material – which was present during the big bang – can explain what he sees as an evolutionary idea in science. The idea is that science is not just about "how" things happen, but about "why". And, he says we should continue to seek those answers to better understand the universe, our planet, our communities and ourselves.

• Bobby Smith is from Jamaica. His love of fencing brought him to Wayne State University and eventually led to the founding of his non-profit, En Garde Detroit. The organization works with kids in schools around the area to teach them the sport of fencing coupled with life skills like financial literacy, nutrition and mentoring. Smith says he feels appalled that he was never told growing up that he could grab the reigns and build his own company or organization. He says it is imperative for schools to teach social enterprise, break the cycle of poverty and give children a chance to understand the broad range of opportunities the world can offer. Smith says what is truly missing in the American education system is empathy (cultural understanding), financial literacy and alternative fitness. As a black man, Smith says his community is "playing chess with missing pieces". He says African-Americans have a lot of strong “queens” but are missing “kings”. Smith urged the audience to help develop the next generation of Black leaders in the vein of Dr. King.

• Young entrepreneurs were also welcome at TEDx Detroit. 16-year-old program developer Will Smidlein made a return and welcomed an even younger businessman to the stage, 9-year-old Sebastian Kuipers. The Muskegon area boy is the owner of “Sebastian’s Gourmet Lemonade”. He talked about his effort to start the business, offering 24 flavors and making money at the local farmers market over the summer. Kuiper says he plans to develop his web presence, start bottling and buy a cart to help out his business in the coming year. Kuipers and Smidlein showcased at the event a feeling that even kids can innovate and can probably do a better job than people twice their age.

• Detroit’s homeless problem is well known. But creating answers for those in need was the point for CCS graduate Veronika Scott. Scott created, with the help of Detroit’s homeless, a coat/sleeping bag. Starting with an idea, she has gone on start a business which has the Red Cross asking for 20,000 to assist with disaster relief efforts. Scott says Detroit is “the Wild West of Creativity” and then if you don’t have a job here, you create your job and opportunities. Scott says she never though she would be able to make an impact in people’s lives until she was much older, but with her coat/sleeping bag, Scott says she’s been able to make an impact at the age of 22, something she’s extremely proud of.

• The end of the second session capped with a tribute to recently deceased Detroit poet David Blair. The video below was shown of Blair proclaiming his love, in free-form slam style verse, to his adopted hometown. Blair has been part of the past two TEDx Detroit events.

When the video ended, the crowd clapped loudly for the legacy and passing of the Detroit cultural figure.

• After lunch, Denise Caston, a former Radio City Rockette, talked about returning to Detroit to start the Motor City Tap Festival to reinvigorate tap dancing in the city. After a performance by five members of the Detroit Tap Repertory, Caston urged the audience to find out more about her organization.

• Then a man who has graced the stage of Orchestra Hall many times came to speak. Maestro Leonard Slatkin spoke of the need for people to demand arts programming in public schools and the community. He talked about the impact of Mrs. Otto, his elementary school music teacher, had on his life growing up in Los Angeles. Slatkin told the audience that 82% of Detroit Public School students have no music classes. He spoke about how the arts make people will rounded, help with problem solving and have informed the backgrounds of great people of business, industry and creative fields. Slatkin says it is up to each of us to advocate for better arts education in our community.

Hatch Detroit is a non-profit working on retail entrepreneurial development. Ted Balowski of Hatch spoke about the group, its efforts and its four focus areas: encourage, engage, support and take action with people seeking to make a go at business. He left with a simple idea, the Nike motto, “Just Do It”. Because by doing it we learn, even in our failures Balowski says how to make a better effort in the future.

• A ball of energy named Hailey Zureich then reached the stage. A comedienne and improv actor from GO Comedy in Ferndale, Zureich called herself the “idea goddess” and proceeded to talk about how positivity can manifest itself in the real world. She talked about making the conscience effort to make each day great by “articulating reality”. Basically, Zureich advocates expressing outwardly, and through our actions, the world we would like to see. She says it is a choice and once we make that choice we need to be married to it and commit to making the world what we would like it to be. Zureich also stressed the importance of improv comedy to make people think on their toes and be creative.

• The term child’s play has a profound meaning to author Dr. Anthony DeBenedet. The father and researcher says too much TV/computers, overprotective parents and too much focus on book learning has moved children away from “rough housing” and active play. DeBenedet says physical play with children has many mental and emotional benefits. He says in order to power Detroit we need to empower parents to have physical time with their children. DeBenedet says through physical play, a parent can teach a child can learn to be confident, creative and connected.

• Brian Mulloy says America’s desire for freedom probably owns more to the First Nations people of the country than to the ancient Greeks. Mulloy spoke about Detroit and Michigan history related to the French and Indian Wars, the American Revolution and Chief Pontiac. Mulloy’s discussion on Pontiac and the chief's place in American/local history was eye opening to me. Because I can say when I hear Pontiac I think of the car first, the city second and the historical figure third. I have to say that order should be changing fast for me on the personal level.

• From up M-22 in the Leelanau Peninsula came Bob Sutherland of Cherry Republic. Started 22 years ago, Sutherland has created a brand for all things cherries. 170 different products – food, clothing and other sundry items are available. But what Sutherland has learned is that it’s the heart, not the head, that helps to sell his business and make it grow. He says the key is to connect with people on the personal level – something he does through a weekly e-mail to over 50,000 subscribers. Also, Sutherland says the idea to take what your do seriously but do not take yourself seriously. For example, various humorous signs around his shop such as “No one over 18 admitted without a child” and “The Owner is a Simpleton: selling products made from more than one fruit would be confusing”. Sutherland says connecting with people on the personal level will bring Cherry Republic its one-millionth gift basket sold later this year since the businesses started.

Josh Linkner says no one should ever stop you if you have an idea that you are passionate about. Even if your mentor doesn’t approve. Even if he thinks it’s a “stupid idea”. Even if that mentor is your father. Linker is the CEO of Detroit Venture Partners – a firm started last fall by Linker, Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans fame and others. A recent member to the group is Ervin “Magic” Johnson. Linkner imparted five keys to being a success: put passion first, pursue the unconventional path, aim for the future, let go of the good to cease greatness and never cave to your detractors.

In the end, TEDx Detroit 2011 offered new ideas for the gathered, and beyond, to engage and help build the next version of our fair city. What we do with the ideas, the concepts, the various engagement opportunities is ultimately up to us as individuals. But I hope that these ideas are not left to sit like day old newspapers on the doorstep, never to be read, never to be brought in and considered. Hopefully, a handful, or more, of the hundreds in attendance will pick up the messages and help create the new, fantastic and important visions for all here in the Metro Detroit area.