Lara Stein — Founder of TEDx and Believer in the Open Source Movement

We’re not only looking behind the X, we’re looking at the very base of TEDx in this story about Lara Stein, the person who helped give birth to the TEDx movement worldwide and coordinated the effort for it’s first five years.

Lara Stein addressing more than 200 TEDx curators at a workshop in February 2012

“I had just finished coordinating Pangea Day,” noted Stein, “a day when people from throughout the world gathered to view a four-hour block of films, and the light bulb went off in my mind. I realized that there was power in having a community gather and think about things differently.” Pangea Day happened in May of 2008. On that day, public events were hosted around the world in more than 100 countries, to view a collection of films, listen to inspirational talks and enjoy a wide variety of music. Click to check it out.

Stein joined the TED team in New York City to help organize and run Pangea Day, an idea TED Prize winner Jehane Noujaim presented on the stage of TED 2006. The name Pangea comes from Ancient Greek meaning the whole earth. The TED Prize was a program run by the TED organization over a 12-year period beginning in 2005. Read about it.

“I’d been attending TED conferences for a number of years,” Stein added. “Following Pangea Day, Chris Anderson came to me and asked how we could take a block of programming and do something bigger. I spent the summer of 2008 working on a framework,” she added. Stein, a native of South Africa, had been in the United States for a number of years and worked for a variety of companies including Microsoft, Marvel, iXL and WGBH Boston and she’d become interested in the open source movement. “During that summer, I hid out in the TED office in New York and worked on a set of rules and guidelines to open up TED in a different way.” The result, launched in 2009, was TEDx, a way to allow people to obtain a free and open license to run a locally organized TED event. The x indicates independently organized TED event.

Stein went on to note, “I worked closely with directors on the TED team to develop rules which would allow us to share the concept throughout the world.” She added, “There was concern within the TED organization because opening the TED brand to strangers might have a negative impact on the TED brand. How much of the TED DNA do we give away and how much control should the TED organization have.” Keep in mind Stein’s interest in the open source movement.

Concurrently, a number of people had been asking about producing or hosting a TED conference in their city or on their university campus. “I’d been in touch with people at the University of California,” Stein said. “They asked about doing a TED conference on their campus.”

The first TEDx at USC

In 2009, USC was the first trial of the TEDx concept. “I was personally blown away. I thought this is interesting that people want to attend something like this,” she added. “I was surprised how much volunteers would do to coordinate an event.”

The success of TEDxUSC resulted in more licenses awarded and events produced. Stein noted, “There is so much innovation on the edges. Plus, part of the environment that we wanted to create was an environment that was collaborative and not competitive. We wanted people to learn from each other.”

As TEDx events began to happen around the world, Stein focused on collaboration. “In the beginning, we had Google docs where TEDx curators could share what they learned and how they did things,” said Stein. The collaboration was very open and information was readily available to anyone. Indeed, TEDx was becoming an open source operation with licensing handled in the main TED office but idea sharing was open and available to anyone.

More and more ideas were shared among TEDx curators and others interested in the concept. “I remember Anthony Willoughby suggesting that we do a TEDx at the Great Wall of China,” commented Stein. “He urged us to do an event and invite others who were interested in hosting TEDx events to come and talk.” That small gathering in China was called “World Without Walls.”

The concept of gathering TEDx licensees together eventually led to a world-wide gathering of licensees in Doha, Qatar. In 2012, hundreds of TEDx folks gathered in the desert and participated in a 3-day workshop. “Getting funding was a challenge, but when it was finally put together, we had an amazing gathering of TEDx curators and those interested in hosting a TEDx.”

Lara Stein certainly had a major role in founding and growing TEDx. In the first five years, under her guidance, TEDx grew from that very first event at USC into a global phenomenon with more than 8,000 events in 1,200 communities in 133 countries. She helped expand the concept to include TEDxWomen, TEDxYouth, and TEDx in a Box.

Two things she shared during the interview that I found especially insightful. The first was her observation that there’s so much innovation on the edges. That concept tied to the growing open source movement greatly contributed to the development and success of TEDx. And, closely related is Lara’s desire to allow people to be inspired and self motivated. “I never pitched the concept of TEDx,” she said as we concluded the interview. “I don’t like to push things. There wasn’t a moment when I was pitching things. We allowed for experimentation to push the boundaries.”

Since leaving the TED organization Stein has spent time as Managing Director at Singularity University to help with the University’s global expansion. She was Executive Director of Women’s March Global, the global sister organization of the Women’s March in the United States in 2017. And more recently, she’s helped start a new global network and serves as the co-founder and CEO of Boma. This organization brings together leaders and change makers to help them be more intentional and intelligent about the future.

Lara Stein talking with Randy Bretz (upper left) and Mark Sylvester (upper center) during the interview for “Hacking the Red Circle.”

Editor’s Note: This story grew out of a suggestion by Dave Lim, a TEDx Ambassador and pioneer in Singapore that we interview Lara Stein as part of the celebration on the 10th anniversary of TEDx in March, 2019. I contacted Lara and she agreed. That led to emails to a number of TEDx friends around the world asking for suggested questions for the interview and comments about how Lara had impacted their lives. One of those TEDx friends was Mark Sylvester, host of the podcast series “Hacking The Red Circle.” In the end, Mark and I scheduled a time with Lara during which she reflected on her effort to develop TEDx and the success of that global movement. You can hear the entire interview at https://hackingtheredcircle.com/lara-stein-founder-of-tedx/

Some of the comments on how Lara impacted TEDx curators around the world include:

Mark Sylvester, Santa Barbara, California — Well, as a 25 year TEDster, having the opportunity to bring one of the best things in my year to my home town was a game changer in 2009. I never went to TEDactive, so I didn’t get to hang with the TEDx crew until my first TEDfest. I did send our co-organizers though loved how Lara created a vibe there (when Active was a companion to the ‘big’ TED in Long Beach, then at Whistler).

I think that I met Lara in person the first time in Long Beach at a TEDx Organizers dinner that was held, and sponsored by the Gates Foundation. Melinda Gates was our guest celeb — and I think that there were only 50 of us in the room, so it was intimate and I got to meet so many other organizers. Little did I know I’d still be doing this 10 years later.

Phil Klein, Seattle Washington — I learned I can relax and work myself into being courageous, brave, generous, patient, insanely productive, caring, bridge building, passionate, reflective, generous, engaged, at ease with myself, honest, creative, innovative, critical, and loving, all at the same time — and also while putting her way of being towards serving others and worthy causes. And matter of factly so. Avoid pretense and idolization at all times. I learned to watch out for my sharp edges. In my experience, insight, energy, media savvy, generosity, creativity, these radiate from her like a projecting profound active listening. joy, rigor, laughter, justice, truth to power in a nudging, encouraging, relentless way that doesn’t shy from hard problems or succumb to frustration. I learned what a Leader-Convener is, a deep community builder aligned with who one can learn to better be for oneself, one’s people, our world. Excellence has nothing to do with hubris or self-aggrandizement. I learned how to be less perfect while doing better work, and to listen more eagerly, and to claim my place in a group while encouraging others to do so as well. I learned to see how the local connects to the global, and the global to the local, through acts of generous gifts of attention, listening, and the power of compassionate amplification.

Herb Reininger, State College, Pennsylvania — Absorbing Lara’s confidence whenever I had a chance to interact with her was inspiring and very encouraging.

Arthur Zards, Naperville, Illinois — Lara /TEDx changed my life just like most of you, changing my entire career, outlook on life, purpose and meaning.

In all seriousness I’ve always been afraid of Lara, not in a bad way, but I remember when I would have to send an email or respond to a request, and I would REALLY think about how to write a response, or ask a question. I’d sit and stare at the email, re-reread it, re-write it, and nervously hit “send”. I didn’t want to screw anything up.

Back then I felt like I was the child who’s parents gave me wayyyy too much responsibility, and you knew that If you screwed up, you’d never get this chance again. So Lara commanded a lot of respect from me.

Kat Haber, Homer, Alaska and beyond — Lara was the visionary mom of TEDx Globally. We were her young’ns trying to figure out how we put all the pieces together to make TED-like events happen in our communities. We met each other at TEDActive in Palm Springs, then La Quinta, followed by Whistler, and now in Brooklyn. We mutually supported each other as we fashioned our original events around the world with our own curiosity for what we might be doing to and in our communities. In 2012, Lara invited us (750 global TEDx organizers) to Doha, Qatar, where for the first time we got a sense that this “we” was a thing and that we were a nascent global social movement. From that event forward the natural flow of what we organizers are up to takes my breath away. Thanks, Lara, for breathing life into the worthy ideas, connected communities, and curious stories we are rippling out into Earth! I really appreciate the significance of our Xness together. How might have you done this past decade differently for optimizing global impact?

Steve Garguilo, Formerly with Johnson & Johnson — People throw around the word “community” all the time, but real, thriving, dynamic communities are precious and rare and are quite difficult to start. Lara’s expert work in instigating and shaping the global TEDx movement was masterful, and is now one of the best examples of how new power can manifest itself in our modern society. I am proud to have been part of the community she started, and am excited to continue to get to learn from Lara’s wisdom in her new undertakings.

Ana Goelzer, TEDxLaçador, Porto Alegra, Brazil — I first met Lara in the middle of the jungle! Can you imagine that? Was the end of the year 2010 and I was chosen to go to TEDxAmazonia. Before that, I only talked to her online.

For sure what she did with Chris changed my life in so many ways that I can write a book.

Randy Bretz

Founding licensee of TEDxLincoln, TEDxYouth@Lincoln, TEDxLincolnWomen, TEDxLincolnSalon in Lincoln, Nebraska.