Is TED Elite?

I see a lot of interesting myths perpetuated about TED, and while I risk being seen as a TED-promoter, I want to take them head-on and — perhaps — help address them more directly with a few facts.

(Some context about me. I am only a four-time TED conference attendee; pay my own way, etc. I’m not a trained journalist and am speaking for no one else but my experience. That’s me in a picture from Session One of TED2011. Duncan Davidson took this shot.)

Six common myths of TED and my take on them:

1. It’s Snobby.
To get into TED Long Beach, you have been picked because you are at the top of your game, in business, politics, education, social media, or whatever. So yes something with an application has a certain snottiness to it. I got rejected the first time I applied. So what I learned, is that you just need to apply and wait your turn, it’s not a closed club. And, I’ve already shared that being with this crowd has allowed me to stop playing small. Because most people are already established, the energy that many take into impressing each other is (largely) gone. That let’s us have more real conversations.

The conference looks like no other. You’d be surprised if you looked around at the demographics to see that there’s a vast range of economics, age, sex, and geographies represented at the TED Long Beach conference itself.That tells me TED is being intentional about the mix of who they bring together.

It has about 25% of the stage full of women, the highest I know of, besides an all-women’s conference. And, about 30% of the participants are women, which represents a pretty good mix. Not great – I’d love to see more gender parity, and this is a place of improvement that SheTalksTED as well as others advocate.

2. It’s pretentious.

What I do see is a lot of people who come to TED for the first time, tweet comments from it to show their friends’ back home that they are at TED and their friend’s are not. I can see the temptation of tweeting that you are, say, sitting next to @ev, or Cameron Diaz, or Jeff Bezos or Tony Hsieh. But I think that’s the behavior that happens when first-timers are just a wee-bit impressed that they are “in” the club. Most people, thankfully, do not do this.  And perhaps if the new-bie understood the cultural norms of TED better, they would be more self-managing.

#TED organizers are not pretentious. Selecting great ideas is necessary and that’s what they do.

Curators of TED see what they do as a huge responsibility. One curator works in a sort of 24×7 way and is currently helping curate and support the folks in Cairo, and other Middle Eastern cities have neutral (non-political, non-sectarian) conversations that could truly change the world. He won’t get credit, or money, and neither is his goal. TED has come to represent the best ideas to change the world. His goal is truly to help change the world by the possibility of great ideas, being told well, and then discussed amongst that community. I don’t know about you, but I am so seriously hoping for what might happen. (I don’t have permission to share his story but I’m hoping he’ll forgive me.)

3. There is no action out of it.

A good friend of mine, Michael Dila, said something a few years ago that has stuck with me: conversations are truly the only way in the world is changed, not technology. Conversation drives a new way of thinking, therefore new states of being, and the results that follow from that. The purpose of having loads of white spaces into the conference is to talk about ideas. I got into an interesting conversation with the head of WPP, one of the largest advertising organizations in the world about the situation in Nigeria, which was a deeply thoughtful idea about how to change an entire country known best for corruption. I don’t underestimate this discussion or what could happen if the head of WPP thinks about how to change the world with any of the ideas presented but without this venue, there is little likelihood most of us would spend 18 minutes thinking about Nigeria and corruption and how to influence the situation. Action follows from a shift in mindset. So I think TED creates context, the rest is up to us. And there’s plenty of action actually going on from the stage, within the community, flowing out of these discussions.

Second thing related to action. Bill Gates curated a session where he highlighted the Khan Academy. I didn’t know of this organization, founded by a former hedge fund guy creating YouTube videos, to help his cousins in NO learn. those videos are now live to anybody….and quite interesting. This was where I wanted people to tweet and many did. Education could be changed dramatically if this idea that Jennifer Pahlka captured: reverse homework and classwork, let them watch the videos at home and work on problems in class. So while no action was done right at that very moment, the 1000 or so conversations people had when they called home might just bring that idea into the system so that 100, 1000, or 10,000 educational institutions try something new in the next few years.

Of course, many other good efforts that flow from the TEDPrize to help create the change we wish to see in the world.  I applaud the work done on the Compassion Charter with Karen Armstrong as the TEDPrize winner. Architecture for Humanity, an amazing organization creating a more sustainable future, through the power of architectural design. They got hyper-boosters on their mission, by TED and the TED community.

4. Money goes to line their pockets.

One big myth is that Chris Anderson and the folks at TED must be doing this to be rich.  TED is owned by the Sapling Foundation, a 501(c)3 foundation and all the profits are reinvested in things like the TED Prize and distributing the talks free online. Chris Anderson doesn’t even take a salary (he made his money when he founded Business2.0) and he took over the TED conference and a short 7 years later he (and his team) opened it up with TEDEd, TEDFellows,, TEDx and so on.  I don’t know about you but I get pretty tired when I just think of all they have done…

Add to this mix, the 40 or so TEDFellows, a group of innovators, artists and change agents,  curated by Tom Reilly, from around the world,  to amplify the work of people who are working to change the world. All those Fellows need funding and support and the Sapling Foundation does that.  So if my measly thousands of dollars can help fuel access to ideas globally, I gladly give.

One important thing that Todd Lombardo helped me remember is the Sapling Foundation may not be transparent enough to ward off the critiques. How much money does it cost to run these events? Are all the amenities necessary? Palotta Teamworks who ran the AIDS Rides were registered as a for-profit company and weren’t transparent about the flow of capital through their organization… This ultimately ruined that company. I suspect the TED braintrust is working on this.

5. You limit access to great ideas by limiting who gets to see it live.

While I love the immersive experience of TED Long Beach, I recognize there are many ways to experience it. Did you know there’s the simulcast at $500 where people can organizer a crowd of people in one’s own living room (and split the costs to $50/head)? That means most people who really wants to see it live, can. [Earlier version of this post had a different set of math; i didn’t realize there was a cap to 10 people per simulcast. thanks to @SmithMillCreek for helping me improve this.]

Add to that, TEDActive and TEDx audiences and you can’t possibly say “it’s limited” cause “it” is now available to “us”. Laura Stein has set the TEDx licensee policy so that one **cannot** charge for attendance. Anybody could organize a TEDx, curate the best TED talks or local TEDxtalks and create something themselves. So, definitely not limited if you consider how accessible TED can be, if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves.

TED talks (…run by the amazing June Cohen) are translated, for free, by people from around the world, allowing 400 million people to view the well-produced talks online. That flows out of the conference work, and distributed — worth saying again — for FREE. You could argue that, by editing well, instead of streaming live, it creates a library of high-production content that will let it be seen by more people than the streaming version would allow.

6. Aren’t they Hypocritial?

Consider the Sarah Silverman episode of 2010. She did what she was asked to do, Her brand of humor, her story. But because some (Steve Case was notable visible around this) felt uncomfortable with what she did, she was viewed as banished by Chris and some of the TED community.

I was there when this happened, and frankly I thought Chris was very genuine when he posted he hated it, but then he retreated. I think he could have said he hated it, others liked it and that’s what TED is all about — many ideas being discussed. A slightly awkward moment on twitter got caught into a huff but I am hopeful it was a learning moment… I don’t know.

In Summary

While I do think TED is full of elite people of many disciplines, ages and economics, it is not, in my opinion, Elitist. Elitist would suggest that once people are in, they work on closing the door behind them. Elite, says, says we want more good people to participate in this conversation. Whether at TEDLong Beach or TEDx or or whatever.

This I will vouch for: I have never seen a more open, curious, respectful group of people who truly want to understand the world better and to apply their skills and talents to contribute their part to make the world a better place. I tweeted yesterday that a great audience allows a speaker to step up his/her game and deliver the best idea that could change the world, well. So having TED the conference is important in the mission.But it is only 1 part. (Perhaps the only elite part.)

I notice that most of the people who “hate” on TED are people who have never been, as demonstrated by Sarah Lacey, Umair Haque, and Jeff Jarvis. Sarah posted a one-sided argument from someone this week that could have benefitted from a little more journalism. Umair posted something years ago that could have been much tighter given a simple Google search. And Jeff Jarvis, whom I respect, was definitely taking jabs from afar calling it a cult. To all 3, can I ask you to come? [actually to all readers, please do come if you are feel moved to do so…] Or at least attend a simulcast. Taking shots at TED while on twitter seems a disservice to all of your talents of perception, and problem solving. We can change things from the inside out. Robert Scoble, who once “hated” on TED, did a very thoughtful critique of TED, called Elephants in the Room, after coming and I respect him for what he shared. Robert did not “go cult” but simply saw a fuller picture. I hope this post helps others to see more of the full picture.

It is easy to form an impression of a thing having never seen it or experienced it. However, I would suggest that would be like someone outside your family, having never even seen its dynamics upclose, explaining your own family back to you. Not quite possible, is it? At least, not without some serious research …

It is Up to Us.

I’m not saying TED is without it’s flaws. The Long Beach event is a bit elite, but the TED brand is not at all about elitism. By belonging, I hope to roll up my sleeves within that community to shape it also.

I hope to improve the women-speaker thing by continuing to nominate great folks. I invite any of you who want to come to TED to work with me on your applications. 1 of the top 20 speakers on the site is someone I nominated (I suspect others did too, so am not taking full credit) with the speakers’ help and her ideas are truly changing the world. I’m glad I could contribute that. Being on the inside surely helped a little.

I critiqued Indra Nooyi’s talk, and such …. but I would be just as willing to work with her to help her understand what happened and how to learn from it since I understand how to reinvent cultures and companies, and I know a bit of TED, and perhaps have a point of view given the intersection point.

I am willing to raise my hand to give feedback to people within the community – and would love to talk with TED-sters about how our sometimes inane tweets we send out as a signal of our “coolness”, is really not so cool.

I welcome, as always, your thoughts as I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch of points of view. As always, make it about how we make something better not what is wrong. It takes a special person to move beyond being descriptive, and attacking, to be prescriptive and problem-solving.

21 Replies

  1. Nilofer, thank you for this post, for your bravery in sharing it with us, and for your honesty of opinion. I do not know much about the background of TED, but am a huge fan of all the TED videos I have seen. I did not know that attendees must first be approved in order to attend, but I don’t feel any problems with that. I imagine that keeps the energy and intention very focused. I myself have experienced this: attending a vendor’s user conference vs. a more open industry show. The more open-to-all show felt more diluted, whereas the passion, interest and ideas brought by the customers to the user conference was palpable. As a TED fan, I appreciate your insights!

  2. You revealed your point in the first two paragraphs, where you outline just how hard it is to get into TED, that you failed your first time applying, and you used ‘us’ when speaking of fellow TED attendees and speakers.It is elitist. No question. And you feel great to be a pat of it.It will continue to be elitist, and even worse when as world worries more about getting into TED than accomplishing something that makes them interesting and qualified to be a part of the chosen few in the first place.

  3. Jeff -You catch a very interesting language choice….So I use we to say this. Creating change can happen from the inside. I am a product of immigration by my parent, I grew up part of mymlife in the slums, I have had more people come to my child hood home under the auspices of child protective services than I care to remember. I worked by way through college, first going to community college, then many many years to go to school. To say that this brown, woman from the slums of india is elitist is…. Well unfair. I include people. A few years ago, I worked to get a woman on stage and it took 10 hours of writing and rewriting to do it. Lastmonth, I invited a fellow HBR writer to let me do same for him. He won’t write back to me, or even follow me on Twitter. I want to include multiple voices, perpsexitves, because to me that is how we shape the world…. We not I. My point in the post and on Twitter was to invite Jarvis to come. Am trying (but clearly not well) to include new voices….

  4. Thanks for comments back. I am sorry if I dis respected your place and accomplishments, I didn’t mean to. All I really am saying, is that it seems with the rise of TED, and conferences like SXSW, that it has become cooler to be in or at the events than actually accomplishing something that would put those people on the stage or heading panels, etc.The invite, or the entry credentials has become the badge of honor, as you definitely talked about in your article. So to me, the allure of TED and other well regarded events is to identify with and be part of the inside crowd as opposed to going out, creating or doing some amazing, to get to be a bigger part of these events.I applaud your rise and continued success, and I hope as you wrote that TED remains about changing the world, and not about status, who you know and cool 15 min speeches.So

  5. I’ll admit to being jealous of the folks who get to attend TED, which is part of why I don’t generally talk about TED. It would be too easy to label any criticism of mine as simply “sour grapes”.That said, Nilofer, I think you need to decouple the TED content, which as you point out is free and widely available in a number of ways, from the experience of attending TED, which is neither free nor easy to get into. The former is not elitist. The latter most definitely is, which is why so many people get upset or annoyed about TED.None of this is, or should be, surprising. Nobody likes to be told they’re not good enough – whether it’s in business, sports, or TED attendance. And the TED acceptance criteria (at least to an outsider) seem highly subjective, which only inflames the situation.

  6. Rachel,As always, you make a great point.So Ted long beach event just gives venue for speakers to create some of that great content that goes out into the world., tedFellows, teded, tedx are all open, free, and changing the world…opposite of elitism. Both are about the creation and proliferation of ideas…

  7. Thanks for speaking the truth. Always welcome; never easy. My knowledge of TED is the incredible videos that I watch after the conferences. They are like brain food with hot chili peppers,finely chopped, seeds included. You want to stop eating them because they make you unsettled and a bit uncomfortable, but you can’t stop eating. It makes you want to take action, reach out to others, learn more, and change things. As to elite or snobbish or ex-clusive, who really cares. Because you went, and tweeted, along with TEDchris, et al, I benefited and learned and get to look forward to eating the delightful chili once again. I never knew about the ability to stream locally to a group–I will definitely do that in the future with business and alumni groups. The issue becomes something like Rachel Luxemburg, in her comments above, so cleanly lays out: tell me TED is this amazing, out-of-body experience that I can’t attend, and my ego takes a hit.Long ago I learned to accept that life is not fair, kind, or necessarily forgiving. I was fortunate enough to grow up with parents who worked tirelessly to send their four sons to college–something they never did because neither finished school. I ended up getting an elite education at an amazing, highly-selective university. My ethical responsibility is to now work to share that knowledge with others through my work. It is a matter of social obligation and being a member of a community which is larger than my own comfortable life. Thus, for TEDsters and anyone who has been gifted with the knowledge of a larger, greater good, there is an imperative to share and do good works with the bounty of knowledge we gained. I don’t wear kitten heels (more of a preppy, bow-tie guy), but how I say and teach and lead, and who I include in that circle of knowledge is critical to how the message or assistance or guidance is received. The seeds and tools could come from Walmart or Smith Hawken–it doesn’t matter–with the right intention and care, each plant can grow and nourish.

  8. I first started watching TED talks online about five years ago. It was love at first watch <3>I attended my first TEDx event in Dubai 2009, and became an associate shortly afterward. I watched TED 2010 livestream online, which was no mean feat as it meant staying up all night because of the 12-hour time difference.I attended TED Global 2010 in Oxford. It was an absolutely magical experience. I have never met so many interesting, eclectic, friendly and engaging people in one place at one time in my entire life. Everything about the experience was awesome from beginning to end, and the people were the highlight. EVERYONE did more than one thing, ALL were change agents in one way or another, EVERYBODY was both interested and interesting.Within weeks of TED Global 2010, I had applied to go to TED Global 2011, which will be held in Edinburgh in July.I would certainly consider myself an ordinary (albeit amazing!), woman, and my experience of TED so far is that it is not elitist, although I can also see how some might judge it as such.All of that said, TED, like everything else, is not without flaws. I am an advocate for more women speakers on world stages, including TED stages, and have blogged and tweeted about it for almost two years. I will continue to do so until gender parity is achieved. My most recent post is here:…I’m not perfect. TED isn’t either. That doesn’t mean we both aren’t amazing.

  9. It’s easy to label TED as elitist. It’s also kind of a cheap shot. TED is definitely exclusive. To begin with, there aren’t a lot of people who will put down that kind of money for a conference badge, a few luggage tags, and the experience of getting your mind turned inside out. But, those who do, have a lot to gain. If you can turn those individual gains into positive cultural change, then you’ve done some good in the world. Elitism comes in when people go to the conference for the social status in confers rather than the experience. You can’t pin that on the conference organizers. I went to my first SXSW in 2010. I get a certain amount of status from having gone, but the real benefit and the reason I’m going back is that I get my mind rattled, Maytagged, wrung out, filled with amazing ideas, plus getting introduced to the people who go with them. That just gets me stoked. Podcasts are good, but you can’t ask them questions afterward. You can’t talk with the person next to you. You can’t see the entire room nod in appreciation of something profound. Those are the reasons to be present and not just watch later. Oddly enough, we don’t really have a vocabulary for this. So, those who’ve never been, will react to TED differently than someone who’s been to something like TED or SXSW. Sadly, that is probably a little elitist, but not intentionally so.

  10. … and the experience of getting your mind turned inside out… I’m going back is that I get my mind rattled, Maytagged, wrung out, filled with amazing ideas, plus getting introduced to the people who go with them. That just gets me stoked.

  11. Good grief, what sort of world is it when a perfectly sensible article like this attracts a comment which says “thank you for this post, for your bravery in sharing it with us”. Or this one: “Thanks for speaking the truth. Always welcome; never easy”. Bravery?! Not easy?! These sorts of nervous comments fly in the face of the TED spirit itself. I have attended only one TEDx event in Krakow. Hundreds of sassy young Poles took part. It struck me as a pretty good format for enlightening and entertaining people. Yes it’s ‘elitist’ in the sense that to enjoy it you’ll have to be smart and interested in ideas and the art of presenting them. And it’s so much the better for it – TED would die if it wasn’t elitist. Oh, and if someone is peeved at not getting admitted, too bad. Space is always going to be limited at smart events like this. Keep trying. Or set up a rival format. It’s a free country.

  12. Charles – Free country, yes! Totally get the sentiment that we’re all going to own our part; I applied again after getting rejected and so on. We persevere, make it happen, get shit done, etc. And I didn’t think you needed to dis on other’s comments of “bravery or “not easy” to make your point. Respect is a core aspect of this discussion (as it is TED’s) of good ideas spreading. Pointing out that others’ ideas or emotional resonance, are not your own really doesn’t help the dialogue. Any dialogue. Thanks for contributing.

  13. I see that definitions of ‘kick-ass’ seem to vary widely depending on where one and one’s ass and/or kicking equpiment happen to be located!

  14. Charles – I am not quite sure how to interpret your comments. Given my seriously icked-up head with what I’m now labeling a TEDCold, it’s like working through a fogging context. Let me clarify that I think one can be truly kick-ass — owning their opinion, advocating for a point of view, being passionate about their ideas, creating the change they wish to see in the world — without dissing others. If you had edited out the part where you made fun of others (first 2 paragraphs), we would have probably heard you even more clearly — your voice, your idea, your passion. Loved your idea and tone… So often, we belittle others without meaning to, especially to show the difference between your point of view and say, mine. I do it, too, and I might even be doing it now. If so, I already apologize. What does it matter if someone thought the original post was brave? Was it necessary for you to make them feel bad about that interpretation? Whenever any of us make anyone feel small, we say to them: it’s not safe for your idea or perception to exist here. But the beauty of all humans is that we’re all different. I believe their pov and yours can co-exist if we are conscious of HOW we put our ideas into the commons. I’m probably doing a sucky job of explaining this idea so if others want to help me out with their POV, I welcome that. And, I was sincere (usually am; I can’t do humor, only earnest)…. thank you for contributing.

  15. We appear to be straying somewhat off the point of the article, viz whether TED is ‘elitist’ (probably) and if so is that bad (probably not).You’re probably right that my opening point picked up on something said by a couple of fellow commenters in an unnecessarily abrupt and (if you want to put it so) ‘dissing’ way. If so, apologies all round.Does it matter i(as you put it) if Trisha thought the post was brave? I guess not. Yet that observation was what caught my eye – your piece itself was balanced and unobjectionable.What does matter (in my own opinion) is a sign of a nascent cultural tendency to attribute clear-thinking, open speaking and common sense to ‘bravery’. This surely somehow or other suggests that the default state of affairs is expected to be a certain uneasy recoiling from controversy, or at least a willingness not to say too much which might be ‘awkward’ or inadvertently cause offence or ‘hurt someone’s feelings’. I find that really baffling, even creepy, the more so since it seems to appear so naturally as if from nowhere and be unattached to anything which can identify (as here). What actually WAS ‘brave’ about what you wrote? This sort of thing feels to me (as someone who’s lived for most of my life in post-communist countries!) as a pretty firm step towards a wider self-censorship, all the more scary for being unmentioned and unmentionable.Maybe that notion doesn’t bother you, or if it does you’d rather not mention it for fear of ‘belittling’ someone. To which I say, are people in our culture really so fragile and so easily upset? Even if many are, should we all base our breathless interventions in these public spaces on that fact?Don’t suppose that all these smarty-pants points from far away (and probably wildly and wrongly over-interpreting a kindly meant quick compliment) will do your TEDcold much good. But there it is.

  16. Kathryn Schultz, who wrote the book, Being Wrong, said something really interesting the other day. She said that when we first disagree with others, we think they don’t have all the facts. If that continues, we assume they are stupid. And then, we assume they are evil… because they differ from us. We all want to be “right” and not “wrong” and we have all sorts of ways to deal with the unknowingness. Language, context, perception — these are things that matter when creating connection. You certainly have valid points, and you’ve done a nice job here sharing more of your context so we can truly “get” or hear them. I even noticed that I couldn’t hear them because your 1st point was to point out how someone else’s views, were not your own. The tone got in my way. I’m all for diversity of opinion. I just don’t want it to happen that one is “right” and the other is “wrong”. How, instead, can we approach conversations with a kind of curiosity so we can enable other people to hear us, for us to hear them, and for us to step into the middle of something and co-create the future. <by>

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