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Young Memphian Brings TEDx to Memphis

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pattonIn Memphis, TEDx events have been popping up and one big event is happening on August 29th. The man behind TEDx Memphis is a young Memphis University School student named Patton Orr. We sat down with Patton to talk about TEDx and Memphis.

C901: “Why did you want to bring TEDx to Memphis?”

Patton: “That’s kind of the root of the whole matter. So my sister went to the University of Chapel Hill, we’re four years apart so when I was freshmen in high school she was a freshmen in college, and she went up there and participated in TEDx UNC. She came back after freshmen year in May 2013 and said, ‘Hey look at this speaker conference I did up here.’ It was then that she introduced me to TED Talks and after doing a bit more research into the program I started watching a lot more TED Talks, but also started learning a lot more about TEDx and the difference between TED and TEDx. So I went onto their website and they had the map of all the TEDx events scattered across the country. There are 200 pins there. There was kind of, I wouldn’t say a glaring hole, but it was a noticeable hole right around Memphis. It was like, ‘What are these other cities doing that we’re not?’ It was sort of an ‘Aha’ moment that this would put the city on the next level toward forward thinking,  sharing  ideas, and coming together as a community to hear these ideas. It was surprising to see that it never caught on in Memphis. That was the first motivation. It was very important to create a citywide event. Because so many TEDx events are subsections of the city or regional neighborhoods, but I really felt that it was go big or go home to start this first one. There’d be no TEDx East Memphis or no TEDx MUS, my high school. I needed to create an event that everyone in the city could not only attend and watch the videos, but appreciate and appreciate the ideas that are coming out of the leaders in the community.”

C901: “What was the process you had to go through to organize the event?”

Patton: “At the time when I first came up with the idea I was 16 years old. I’m still unsure what the final product was going to be whether you go for a small event and then graduate to a larger event. Do I have it at my school? Is it completely school sponsored? Do I take completely 100 percent ownership of it and organize it by myself? I quickly threw out all those ideas and I just realized that in order to create a great event for the city of Memphis, I had to get a leadership team together and really get the wheels in motion to organize such a large-scale event. I couldn’t own this and make it my little baby to say I’d done everything. I needed some help. So that was the first thing was moving beyond a simple school event and really setting ourselves on a citywide event. The next thing I did was I recruited my family friend Luke who went to the same high school as myself. Together we were the partners in the early organization efforts of TEDx Memphis.

The first thing you may or not know about TEDx is that of the vast majority of events that happen are organized and scheduled. The large majority of them are limited to 100 attendees. I’d say 80, 85 percent of them. TED can easily grant people license to do that. Organize a small event, give it a few speakers. Then there’s what’s known in the TEDx community as a large-scale of more than 100 participants. What you need to do to get clearance is you have to go to one of the three big TED conferences they put on. Because for 25 years it was just their conference once a year. Those were the only videos they put out. Only after they put their videos on the internet and their brand began to grow is when they started the TEDx program. They’re very controlling of their brand, which I think is a great thing. I was answering these questions last night ‘What’s unique about your event?’ I was like ‘Well, beside from the fact that it’s showcasing Memphis, it’s nice that TED already has the brand set up for you to follow.’

The past five or six years, TED has three main events. One is called TED Global, which is not in North America so thats kind of out of the question, then there’s the regular TED conference, and then along with the TED conference they host a companion conference called TED Active in a nearby location. So Luke and I both applied to attend TED Active and it was a fairly lengthy application process. It’s not like you drop the dough and are able to get in.

We applied in December 2014. The way TED Active is set up is it runs alongside the weeklong TED conference. It’s named TED, it has the stage, it has the speakers, but in an alternative location TED Active is held and it will have a couple of its own speakers, but the main thing is that you’re watching a very well-done live stream of the event in real time. They’ll incorporate you, they’ll ask questions from the TED Active audience. But, it’s really geared for the TEDx community. So it’s a different crowd. The main TED conference is a bunch of business executives and similar people. But, at TED Active it was sort of the younger, millennial crowd who were organizing these local TEDx events in the community. They named it active for a reason, it was very engaging throughout the whole week.

During our week there we actually met with the head of licensing for TEDx and he was thrilled to hear someone was working on TEDx Memphis.

So after we went away from that week, we learned a lot about what the feel of a TED conference is: really great TED Talks, a really good attendee experience. We came back not only with that, but the clearance to go ahead and apply for a license for an event with more than 100 people, which was the big thing.

Over that summer, I guess 2014, we linked the application proposal. One of our biggest things that we were going to do was apply for the name TEDx Memphis— which is a name they want to make sure they don’t give away freehandedly. But, we submitted our application and they replied back in August with “Although you have essentially no experience organizing a TEDx event before, we feel that the quality of your team is such that we are willing to not necessarily give you a shot, but we think you can handle this in the application and move forward.”

That was September 11, we received our license last year. And for the past year we’ve just been working steadily on growing the event and planning it. It has really grown larger than I thought it would when I first thought of it two or three years ago. Our original plan was to have 300 people there. Our first venue is the University Center Theater at the U of M and that was 350 or something like that. But, as we started approaching speakers and sponsors the feedback that we got back was “The community is overly excited about this, you really need to expand.” It’s been a little daunting at times.

In terms of the level of TED events, most people will get a couple of small events under their belt and slowly kind of move their way up, but we really felt that we wanted to deliver with this first event and go big and create something the city could appreciate and the city could look at as a positive thing. I want this to bring the same sort of impact that the recent success the Grizzlies have had. It has not only brought the community together around one pillar that everybody’s excited about, but it’s also evaporating those socioeconomic and racial lines. It makes people forget about that. During things like that, Memphis is one community. And that’s what we hope to do with TEDx Memphis: Give the community an event that they can come together as one, that it’s not TEDx East Memphis or TEDx South Memphis or TEDx Downtown. It’s for the city as a whole.”

C901: “Why did you choose Memphis?”

Patton: “It’s my hometown. I’ve grown up seeing the ups and downs over the years. I look at the city now and I see a lot of “up.” A lot of people are quick to point to the crime and other things that are still affecting our city. But, with TEDx Memphis I wanted to showcase the positives that are happening in Memphis because I see so many of them. You just have to be exposed to them. The redevelopment of the Pyramid, the redevelopment of Overton Square and what that looks like now compared to when I used to go dinner there four years ago is a completely different feeling, and with the Grizzlies, the revitalization of Beale Street and the entertainment district. It’s really nice to see a lot of great things happening in Memphis. It’s just that Memphians, by their nature, choose to look at the negatives. I think that’s something that TED brings to the community: the ideas matter, the people matter, and the community matters. It’s really such a powerful national and global brand that when intertwined with the local community it can bring about some collaboration.

People are now excited to say that they’re from 901. It’s ‘I’m from Memphis’ and you’re proud of it instead of trying to skirt the issue. I see so many tweets from high schoolers saying ‘I can’t wait to get away from Memphis blah, blah, blah’ and it’s kind of sad. Memphis has so many things going for it, but when people are not invested in the city actively it is going to suffer. That’s when I saw a huge opportunity with TEDx Memphis to expand the flow of ideas throughout the community.”

C901: “What are some ways young Memphians can be successful in Memphis like you have been with TEDx?”

Patton: “Really it’s been two things: not letting my age define me and just say, ‘Oh, I’m too young, this is no project for someone my age,’ but more importantly it’s seeking and asking for help and being okay with that. No 18 year old or 17 year old in the United States right now could have done this singlehandedly. No matter how gifted or talented you are, you can’t go into the offices of business leaders and ask for sponsorship money, you can’t go ask for speakers, and stuff like that. I’ve been very willing to ask and seek help from adults. My parents have really helped me manage the processes as a high schooler.

I think the thing is: if you have an idea, go do it. What’s keeping you from doing it? The answer is absolutely nothing. It’s really investing the time, the resources, and the energy and just throwing off the fear of something going wrong. So many times in high school people do things just for resume building, just so they can put something in their college applications.  That was never my intention in the first place. I did this because I love Memphis and I love to learn. Those are the two big passions in my life. I saw TEDx Memphis as an opportunity to bring those two together. My love of learning and sharing information with other people along with my love for my city. It’s going to be incredible in a few days to watch the faces of people as they’re inspired and entertained, but most importantly as they just learn.

All throughout high school the grades are never the motivator, it’s not success, it’s just a love of learning and a love of knowledge, but also cultivating and sharing that knowledge with other people. That’s essentially the whole idea of the TED brand. Their slogan is ‘ideas worth spreading.’ And I think many Memphians are thirsty for ideas and inspiration that they would really look to an event like this and enjoy it, and maybe it changes something in their own life.”

C901: “What should people look forward to in the upcoming TED event?”

Patton: “For attendees, I think they should look forward to a really engaging experience. People won’t be there to listen to lectures. It’s an interactive, engaging experience with other attendees. The theme is about ‘what’s next’. People will be there to listen and hear about what’s next in Memphis, talk about that, spark conversation with each other, and be part of the experience. For the rest of Memphians, this is an event that will continue over the years. We’ve put a lot resources into filming the finished talks very professionally so that when they are put online, Memphians can share them with their friends here, but also with their friends scattered across the country and show them all the good ideas that are flowing in Memphis. It can be something that Memphians are really proud of to have this event here and to share them with other people.”

You can learn more about the TEDx event here.

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