TEDxUniversityofNevada draws more than 1,500 people to share big ideas

Speakers challenged assumptions, encouraged dialogue around numerous current – and often uncomfortable – issues and begged the question, ‘What makes me special?’

TEDxUniversityofNevada took place Saturday, Jan. 21 at the Grand Theatre in the Grand Sierra Resort.

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1/24/2017 | By: Nicole Shearer |

"When you hit discomfort, you hit complexity, and that creates growth."

These words from Bill Eckstrom - one of 21 speakers to take the TEDxUniversityofNevada stage, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2017 - provided an overarching theme for the event. With 22 talks and performances (one performer also presented a talk), more than 1,500 attendees were given the opportunity to hear ideas that offered clear viewpoints and powerful calls to action. While not always comfortable, these ideas seek to inspire audience members to be open minded, learn and broaden their perspectives.

TEDx events are locally organized programs aimed at sharing short talks focused on one "big idea worth spreading." The format helps communities, organizations and individuals spark international dialogue through videos of the talks and performances, which will be posted to the official TEDx YouTube site in the coming days.

This year's event was another milestone for organizers at the University of Nevada, Reno's College of Business.

"Our goal is always to create an inspiring event, and given current events, we really aimed to find speakers and performers who could offer ideas related to relevant topics," Bret Simmons, College of Business associate professor and TEDxUniversityofNevada organizer, said. "All of this year's speakers and performers hit it out of the park. Combined with the help of community volunteers from more than 21 different organizations, along with the new venue at the Grand Theatre in the Grand Sierra Resort, the event was our best yet."

Session 1: Identity, discomfort, leadership and ownership

Walking on stage and singing the national anthem unannounced, Albert Lee quickly brought the crowd to its feet. Lee, an assistant professor of voice and opera at the University then spoke about what being an American meant to him and called for better citizenship. Following Lee, Eckstrom, founder of EcSell Institute, shared his story of being fired from a high-profile corporate position. Eckstrom's idea that growth only occurs in a state of discomfort, was supported by a number of personal and historical stories. Reynolds School of Journalism faculty member Vanessa Vancour then started her talk completely in Spanish. Vancour transitioned her talk about assumptions to English and described the surprise many people often show when they realize her Mexican heritage.

Peabody Award-winning journalist and national correspondent for NBC News and MSNBC Mariana Atencio's talk drove the theme for the event, "What makes me special?" Her idea - when we label someone as different it dehumanizes them - wove through her personal narrative. "The only thing we have in common is that we are human," she said.

Not one to mince words, former U.S. Navy SEAL, best-selling author and podcaster Jocko Willink got right to the point. "War is awful. War is hell. But it is also an incredible and brutal teacher..." He then described a time in combat where everything went wrong and there was only one person to blame - himself. His willingness to accept the blame defined his role as a leader.

Finishing the first session with a bang, The Warning rocked a three-song performance. In their return TEDx appearance (The Warning also performed in 2016), the three sisters from Monterrey, Mexico, Daniela (16), Paulina (14) and Alejandra (12), introduced songs from their new album and described the challenges of making music that reflected themselves and their values in an industry that wanted them to change.

Session 2: Birth, death, systemic racism, recovery and the stories behind the music

Switch Executive Vice President of Strategy Adam Kramer kicked off the second session by thanking Paris Hilton for changing his life. Kramer spoke about the importance of doing what you love for a company you believe in. Next, University faculty member and certified doula Ashley Greenwald Tragash asked the audience, "Who gave birth to your baby?" In her talk, she advocated for improved maternity practices and an end to the over medicalization of child birth.

University Student Speaker Competition Winner and MBA student Ashley Evdokimo encouraged people to think about how they want to die and detailed the importance of completing a state-specific advanced directive.

Fashion and systemic racism was Ebonee Davis' big idea. She described being a black fashion model and the treatment she has received in the industry. Davis, who wrote a letter to the fashion industry that was published in "Harber's Bazaar," emphasized the responsibility the fashion industry has to be representative of culture and diversity.

Julia Picetti was the final speaker of session two with her heartfelt and eye-opening talk about the loss of her daughter Jane Aubrey, who passed away in March 2015 from an opiate addiction. She was followed by Grammy-nominated country music artist Cam, who sang three songs and took time to share the stories behind each of them.

Session 3: Gender, race, violence against women and music as a tool for survival

Tyler Glenn opened the third session singing and speaking of the crisis of faith he was thrown into last fall when the Mormon Church announced a new policy that identifies those in same-sex marriages as apostates. "LGBTQ people, you are divine. You are beautiful. You have a story and will change things," he said.

ProtectHer founder Alexis Jones then declared, "Violence against women is a house on fire." Her talk detailed work she does with athletes in locker rooms trying to help them directly understand the problem. Ashley Clift-Jennings, founder of Girlmade, challenged the audience to think about soul mates and shared the story of when her husband revealed being transgender. Her talk wove a narrative of selfless love.

Wrapping up the session, slam poet and Davidson Academy student Ming Li Wu moved the audience with two of her poems and a monologue in between about how poetry has allowed her to open up about some of her personal vulnerabilities. Cam closed the third session by sharing her belief in music's ability to help us survive.

Session 4: Relationships, religion, recovery and punch lines

Songwriter, producer and lead vocalist for O.A.R., Marc Roberge opened the final session of the event. His talk about real connections was echoed in his music, which told stories of relationships he's had throughout his life.

Samina Ali followed Roberge with a powerful talk about the hijab, a head covering worn by some Muslim women. Her detailed historical account behind veiling questioned its significance in today's culture. Model and body diversity champion Iskra Lawrence then came on stage to talk about women's "self-care." She pleaded with women and men to stop comparing themselves to others and instead challenged them to begin a journey of self-love.

Recovery advocate and former Miss USA Tara Conner opened her heart and educated the audience with an honest and raw talk about addiction and recovery. According to Conner, the average age of kids drinking today is 11-years-old.

Closing the day's event, comedian Michael Jr. had everyone in stitches as he described not only how comedy works but also the reason why he does comedy.

All told, the event was a resounding success and left audience members enlightened and eager to discuss the myriad topics.

"We are eternally grateful to our sponsors and volunteers, without whom this event could not have happened, Simmons said."

Event sponsors include the University of Nevada, Reno; the University's College of Business; Associated Students of The University of Nevada (ASUN); the Nevada Wolf Shop; Grand Sierra Resort and Casino; JamPro Music Factory; The Abbi Agency; Bristlecone Holdings; Dolan Auto Group; Marked Studios; Reno-Tahoe Limousine; Red Carpet Events and Design; Your Authentic Image; KTHX-FM; Microsoft; AT&T; RSCVA; Argentum Partners; Marcio Decker Fine Arts; Roundabout Grill; edible Reno-Tahoe; and Yelp!

All TEDxUniversityofNevada talks will be posted to the TEDx YouTube site. A complete photo album of the day's event can be viewed on the event's flickr site.

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