I just got back from the TED Conference. It was my 7th. My first was in 1997 and I took a few years off after 2002. The conference has changed a lot over the years. Richard Saul Wurman used to treat it as his own personal dinner party. He populated the stage -and audience - with fascinating people talking passionately about things they loved. If business or philanthropy happened, it was organic. Chris Anderson, who took over officially in 2003, saw an opportunity to harness the power of the crowd and encourage things to happen. Both were right, and both put on a great show which can only be characterized as Mental Floss. The stage and the crowd are full of people who just do things. Big things, small things and in between. Whether I agree with them or not, there is no questioning their moving forward. You can read about the big names who show up, cool announcements and great talks at other sites - tons of blogs and articles are already out, with more to follow. I want to talk about a few spectacular off stage happenings. Wurman used to talk about TED moments. Times on stage when a speakers' words resonated across the entire room and the audience stared in emotionally charged silence, followed by a roaring standing ovation. My TED moments happened when I talked to strangers.
The first one happened the first night. I found myself across the table from a wonderful couple from Redlands. The gentlemen, and he certainly was one, told me he had been in the map business for 40 years (later, someone told me he actually founded and ran the largest privately held software company in the world and had 4,000 employees and over one million customers). We started talking about education. He told me a story about giving his software to a school in Detroit. A science teacher gave the program to the kids and taught them to use it. One of the boys in the class had a brother who had died of lead poisoning. There were others in the neighborhood who were sick as well. They were able to use the program to identify a locus of lead issues in people and build a report they presented to the city council. It turned out the lead was coming from the paint in dilapidated homes. The council heard the argument and the mayor provided a USD 300,000 grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to make the repairs. The students paid themselves and other students from the grant to repair the houses. They felt empowered and a new level of self esteem. I thought the story was great and told him about how important I believe it is to know why you are in school. I told him about my grandfather attending trade school at the age of 14 to learn pharmacy. I threw out the school was Cass Tech in Detroit. It turns out this was the school where he donated the software.
The next one happened at dinner on Friday. I was invited to dinner of game folks at TED. Toward the end of dinner I found myself sitting next to Henck Rogers, the shepherd of Tetris. Henck had a heart attack at a young age and was rescued by an angioplasty and survives today with stints supporting his arteries. As a game guy, he laughs that they are "wire frames." He was telling the story about his experience in the ambulance to the guy across the table. The guy happened to be sitting next to Dean Kamen and while it is a cool side note, Dean is not relevant to this one. As Henck was telling the story, the guy interrupted to explain he created the angioplasty procedure and his company made the stint. Henck reached across the table and shook his hand, thanking him for saving his life.
Finally, on a more personal note, I met a hero. Again at dinner, I sat down next to a stranger who turned out to be fascinating. I introduced myself to Ed Schifman. He is retired and said he was in the strategy game business years and years ago. He is a very nice man. Then he started talking about this job he had when he was 26. He was head of design at Kenner. One day the CEO called him in and sent him to watch a film they picked up. No one else wanted it and Kenner ended up with the license. He went to see Star Wars. He was blown away. He knew there was a big opportunity, but it was May and there was no way to get product on the shelf for Christmas. We also have to remember, this was well before the action figure era and no one really cared about licensed merchandise. This didn't stop Ed. While he knew he couldn't get product out of China in time to get on the shelf, he knew he could get a box. After much cajoling, he was able to convince market leading K Mart to accept boxes stocked with rain check instead of action figures. A legend was born. Ed didn't take no for an answer and to say he thought out of the box is an understatement. He reinvented the box.
I am not an avid Star Wars collector but I have walked among them. I would have done a disservice to all my colleagues if I did not ask the question to the head of design at Kenner at the time.
"Ed, legend tells of a rocket launching Boba Fett. It is the holy grail of all collectors. Did it ever exist?"