Following the theme of “Past, Present and Future,” 16 of Rhode Island’s leaders and innovators shared their stories at the TEDxProvidence event, held at the Veterans Memorial Auditorium Saturday, Sept. 30. The event has been held at Rhode Island School of Design’s Metcalf Auditorium in past years, but, this year, TEDxProvidence made the move to the Veterans Memorial, an ornate venue with expansive seating.
TEDx is an offshoot of TED, a media organization dedicated to “spreading ideas” through short and meaningful lectures. TEDx has the same mission as TED but is independently organized. This is TEDxProvidence’s sixth year in action.
Other than the company’s signature speeches, the event included videos from TED’s website and performances from the Eastern Medicine Singers, Call Security and Case Closed!, which are all Rhode Island-based music and dance groups. The conference was segmented into three sessions and ran from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Attendees were enthusiastic to learn from the speakers’ life stories. “This is really an amazing opportunity to be exposed to new learning opportunities and to have this dialogue that doesn’t necessarily exist outside of here yet, unfortunately,” said Steven Smith, an audience member who became interested in TED talks three years ago.
The success of TEDxProvidence is in part due to its diverse lineup of speakers. In a single session, attendees listened to Paul Salem ’85, who narrowly avoided death on Pan Am Flight 103; Shawndell Burney-Speaks, a former intervention specialist for the Providence school system; Cheryl Snead, founder of Banneker Industries and Dr. Raymond Mis, a legally blind, board certified gastroenterologist. In each talk, speakers honed in on the importance of persistence, optimism and understanding.
“Believing that you’re lucky is the most important thing you can have in life,” Salem said. Salem’s father told him that “he was born under a lucky star,” and this idea eventually came to define Salem’s outlook in life. This mindset not only made him take more chances but also allowed him to persist through periods of temporary failure — like when he applied and was rejected from “a thousand jobs.” He is now the co-founder and senior managing director of Providence Equity Partners.
This theme of perseverance came up in other talks. “If there’s an obstacle or challenge, I know there’s a way over it, under it and through it,” Snead said, the first African-American female to graduate with a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
Talks also delved into personal stories and desires for change within Providence. “My dream is to attend more graduation ceremonies, weddings and award ceremonies — not funerals and jailhouse visits of the young,” Burney-Speaks said, whose son was murdered in a fatal shooting in Providence earlier this year. Children in Providence need stronger support networks — kids can only thrive when they have positive role models in their lives to mentor them, she said, adding that investing in education would be one of the first steps toward achieving this in Providence.
Attendees were enthused by the talks they went to throughout the day.
“The performer that I really liked was Christopher Johnson,” said Florence “FloJo” Badejo, a doctoral candidate in pharmacy at the University of Rhode Island. “His spoken word pieces were very inspiring. He had the whole crowd going. You couldn’t sit in that room and not be enthralled by what he had to say and how he had to say it.”
“I was just over the moon,” said Darien Strassfield, another student at URI.
From the thunderous applause and bustling conversation at the end of the event, there seemed to be inspiration for everyone at TEDxProvidence.