Brainstorm At Mica

High-tech Conference Brings Entrepreneurs, Entertainers, Designers Together And Is Sold Out

November 04, 2009|By Gus G. Sentementes | Gus G. Sentementes,gus.sentementes@baltsun.com

Dave Troy has been on a mission the past two years or so to jump-start the Baltimore region's entrepreneurial and creative spirits. He's helped coordinate and organize several innovative, techie-related conferences during that time, but the most ambitious one yet will kick off Thursday.

Wanting to prove that the Mid-Atlantic region can be a haven for ideas, Troy and a group of 110 or so volunteers have put together one of the area's largest free conferences of the year. It's called TEDxMidAtlantic, and it will be held at the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore.

"The thing you find at these TED [technology, entertainment and design] conferences is that people tend to be interested in a wide variety of topics," said Troy, a local technology entrepreneur and investor in startup companies. "People are encouraged to talk to each other. When you have a diversity of views, and people who are able to hold a lot of different ideas in their head at the same time, it gets all your neurons fired up and you become irrationally convinced that anything is possible."

In the past year or so, there has been a proliferation of free conferences and networking events organized by and for Baltimore's budding technology, arts and entrepreneurial movers and shakers. Ignite Baltimore challenged speakers to give thoughtful presentations in five-minute slideshows. Barcamp Baltimore empowered attendees to democratically set the agenda for the topics they want to discuss. WordCamp Baltimore brought together the region's bloggers who use the popular WordPress blogging software.

And now there's TEDx MidAtlantic, which has maxed out with 550 attendees, though 250 more people had to be turned away. It's the first time a TED-related event has come to the Baltimore region and one Troy says is unlike the other events that have been organized.

TED is a global series of conferences featuring thought-provoking talks by technologists, artists, scientists and entrepreneurs. Fans of the format can seek a license to put on their own event in the spirit of TED, which is what Troy did to organize TEDxMidAtlantic.

"They give you the skeleton of it, and it's up to you to make it something," said Daniel Waldman, a volunteer who worked on marketing the event.

Without a formal organization behind him, Troy turned to a broad network of volunteers for help in bringing the conference to life. Soon after Troy made it known, three months ago, that he had a license to organize a TEDx event, more than 100 volunteers rallied to help him start planning.

What steadily unfolded for Troy and others involved was a mostly positive lesson in using the energy and wisdom of crowds, and free Web-based tools, to organize a large-scale event. The group broke down into committees and used Google Groups and Groupsite, two free Web sites offering collaboration tools, to stay connected.

They used Twitter and Facebook to promote the event and pull in attendees and volunteers. They published a 20-page event program. They tapped their networks of contacts to invite the speakers, though in many cases, they cold-called people to invite them to speak. They lined up sponsors, who donated more than $27,000 to help cover food (lunch is free), two parties and some hotel and video production costs.

When too many committee members were contacting MICA with questions, Mike Subelsky, another volunteer, became the conduit between the conference organizers and the school administration.

"The lesson there: We can use all these awesome tools to assemble a lot of volunteers," Subelsky said. "But there's a new challenge. There's a lot of people doing a lot of little things. ... How do we keep the collective feeling that makes people feel they're a part of it, and still maintain some leadership and direction?"

Subelsky pointed to Troy as someone the volunteers considered the final arbiter on questions and challenges, though Troy played down his leadership role. Instead, he focused on how the idea of bringing a TED event to Baltimore motivated more than 100 people to volunteer to help bring it to life. Of those volunteers, about 25 to 30 people became highly active in the organization process, he said.

The all-day conference will feature 20 speakers from all walks of life, including President Barack Obama's chief technology officer, a National Public Radio correspondent and one of the youngest virtuoso guitarists in the world.

One of the more unusual features of the event was the application process that attendees went through. The event is free to attend, but the organizers wanted to ensure a high turnout.

So each attendee had to fill out an application, which created a "time cost," Troy said. That meant that if a person spent the 20 minutes or so to complete the application, they would likely show up, even if the weather was lousy, he said.

"Some people were thinking the application was elitist," Troy said. "But at the end of the day, this conference isn't just a feel-good event for people to hang out. It's to connect people who have a track record for doing things in the world, so they can connect and continue to effect change."

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