Back Story

TEDx Kalamazoo Organizers

It takes a team to bring "so many cool people" to stage
encore-magazine-back-story-TEDx-kalamazoo-organizers-september-2018
From left: Lem Montero, executive organizer of TEDx Kalamazoo, with fellow organizers Alicia Stegnitz and Kelly Short.

© 2018 Encore Publications/Brian Powers

There’s a lot of people with something to talk about in the greater Kalamazoo area, and, thanks to a small army of volunteers, an audience will be able to hear some of them do so this month at TEDx Kalamazoo.

The event is set for Sept. 13 at the Judy Jolliffe Theatre in the Epic Centre, 359 S. Kalamazoo Mall. A TEDx event presents live speakers from the community who give presentations fashioned after TED Talks, events developed by a nonprofit organization devoted to spreading ideas in the form of short, powerful talks. Millions of people regularly view TED Talks online or listen to a weekly TED Talks show on National Public Radio.

TEDx Kalamazoo organizers have put together an eclectic slate of speakers for this month’s event, and we sat down with Lem Montero, the event’s executive organizer, to learn more about the program.

What is TEDx Kalamazoo?

TEDx Kalamazoo is basically the stage version of Encore. (Montero laughs.) Kalamazoo has such a rich history and rich tapestry of intelligence, musicians, artists, makers and thinkers. There are so many people here with such great ideas like you report on in the magazine, and we're doing the same thing, but on stage.

How is it connected to the TED programs?

All TEDx events are independently organized and licensed by the national TEDx organization. I applied for the license in December of 2017 and got it late January. Since this is our group's first time doing the event, we have to follow TEDx rules about fundraising and tickets, such as we are limited to selling 99 tickets in the space for the first year and giving other tickets away to those who might not be able to access it otherwise.

How did you choose the speakers?

The most exciting part about this has been seeing all the potential people we could share the stage with. We had almost 100 names that were suggested to us. Parsing it down to 12 was very difficult. We could have had a three-day event, based on all the talent in Kalamazoo County.

The theme of this TEDx Kalamazoo is “The Old Made New,” and each one of our speakers is tailoring their particular area to that topic. For example, Loreen Niewenhuis will talk about how she emerged a new person after her experience of walking around the Great Lakes. Troy Thrash, of the Air Zoo, is going to talk about using old airplanes to bring out a new excitement in kids for science. Jonathan Kline, from Tillers International, is going to talk about how the Amish farming technology they use is helping people farm now, while Sue Ellen Christian will speak about journalism and what can be learned from it.

Our speakers are so diverse, but at the same time they are so the same. They're all doing or have done something remarkable.

How did the TEDx team come together?

I started asking people, and some people stepped up and offered their skills, and it was like, “You'd be perfect here!” Then those people made recommendations of other people to connect with. We have a core group of about 10 or 12 people organizing it, and there'll be between 50 and 60 volunteers behind the scenes, and that number may be higher still. For example, with the stagehands, lighting crew and people running the soundboard, the director, Kelly Short, may have 20 people, so it does get kind of big pretty fast.

But knowing the way I'm wired — I have to outsource logical thinking to somebody — I was most worried about finding a project manager. But Alicia Segnitz, who is a production planner and coordinator at Heritage Guitar, stepped forward and became our project director. We couldn’t do it without her.

Why does it take such a small army to do this?

We want to make sure that everyone who sees it just feels like it was really good. That means working with the best people we can. We are honoring the speakers by giving them whatever we can to make them a success, because our success depends on their success. Our No.1 thing is to make sure that the speakers feel great. We told them that we want this to be a great experience for everyone involved and for everyone to want to do it again later. And we can't pay anyone, so the only way we can pay people back is by having a kick-ass event.

Why is the “kick-ass-ness” important?

I'm keeping an eye on 2019. The better 2018’s event is, the more people will want to be involved in 2019. Next year we won’t be constrained to selling only 99 tickets, (and) we can have a bigger venue. So next year we're going to crank it up. In preparation for the next year and the year after, with the hope that it becomes a community event, because there's so many cool people in this area that we want TEDx Kalamazoo to be sustainable long-term.

— Interview by Marie Lee

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See a livestream of TEDx Kalamazoo

6-10 p.m. Sept. 13

Only 99 tickets were available and the show is sold out, but you can still see a livestream of the event, which includes 12 local speakers.

Visit tedxkalamazoo2018.com for info, venues and cost.