TED, the annual gathering of self-made billionaires and those who orbit them, has followed an all-too familiar trajectory. What started out in 1984 as a cool, underground, "dinner party" for information designer Richard Saul Wurman and his A-list friends has become so popular that it has lost some of its specialness. TED's growth last year prompted a move from the Conference Center in Monterey, Calif. to the much larger Performing Arts Center in Long Beach, Calif. This year, 1,500 people paying $6,000 per head attended the conference, which ends on Feb. 13 after four days of networking, schmoozing, and speechifying. (Five-hundred humbler attendees paid $3,750 apiece for the privilege of watching a simulcast of the live event at the Riviera Resort & Spa in Palm Springs, Calif.) Attendees complain that TED is a victim of its success: It's getting harder and harder to bump into a friendly billionaire.
Over time the organizers noticed a troubling aspect. TED's prevailing demographic, in the words of its community director, Tom Rielly, is "straight white men from Silicon Valley." Not, he is quick to assert, that there's anything wrong with this. "These are great people," says Rielly, a gregarious and irreverent character who has been involved with the conference since the mid-90s. All the same, TED was looking dangerously homogenous.
TED resolved to become both inclusive and exclusive. Which is why there were occasional splotches of sartorial color among the button-down shirts and pressed jeans of billionaires and their venture capitalist pals. Bola Olabisi, sitting on a floor cushion in a tent called the Global Village, wore a brightly hued African dress and head wrap. Olabisi founded the Global Women Inventors and Innovators Network, a Nigerian group that aims to improve conditions and opportunities for women worldwide. She is among 45 TED fellows who attended the conference this year.
Fellows—to quote TED guidelines—are "young world-changers and trailblazers" from such places as Karachi, Nairobi, and São Paulo, "who have shown unusual accomplishment and exceptional courage." The fellows, who attend for free, were chosen from a list of hopefuls, whose numbers TED officials decline to reveal. (Twenty are senior fellows, who get to attend gratis three years running.)
a fresh fundraising tale
TED's fellows program, which began last year, is not original. The World Economic Forum has been inviting young global leaders to its annual gab-a-thon in Davos for years. Still, the fellows bring TED a boisterous enthusiasm, with an unnerving habit of whooping whenever one of their number takes the stage.
What's more, their presence gives Rielly, who also raises money for TED, a new story to tell the conference's wealthy benefactors. "They're attracted to the story and to the fellows themselves," Rielly says of such high-profile supporters as Kleiner Perkins' John Doerr and Bezos Foundation heads Mike and Jackie Bezos. "They often made their success through being entrepreneurial and they see themselves in the fellows."
The fellows like to see themselves as the next Mark Zuckerberg. Perry Chen, 33, a former day trader who launched the fundraising Web site Kickstarter.com nine months ago, describes TED as grown-up camp. "It's surreal," he says, of chatting with Jeff Bezos and hanging out with the Web's world luminaries. But, Chen adds: "I'm from New York. As a New Yorker you're trained to have a muted reaction to star power." Erik Hersman, a 34-year-old senior fellow, is the founder of Ushahidi, a Kenyan site that uses crowdsourcing to help activists organize. "Yes, you walk out of the restaurant and there's Sergey Brin. Then you turn around and there's Ev from Twitter. But you don't treat anybody special. At the end of the day we all put our pants on the same way. Some people make well, some people get lucky, some people work harder than others. You take advantage of whatever you can."
Forty-five fellows will not make TED into a more relevant happening. Nor will hip hop, a genre TED discovered this year in the form of LXD, a collective of dancers hailing from all over the U.S., which had 1,500 mostly white dudes doing the Nerd in their seats. Nor will a performance of Bach's Prelude in E Major from Robert Gupta, a fellow who received a standing ovation for his violin technique and his tale of working with Nathaniel Ayers, the schizophrenic musician played by Jamie Foxx in The Soloist. But for TED organizers, an obvious or instant connection to the real world isn't the goal. TED is TED.