TEDx Comes to Whitefish

By Beacon Staff

The TED Talks, a global phenomenon of people sharing ideas through conferences and online videos, are about sparking discussion, interests and new trains of thought.

Now, the power of spreading new ideas through TED – which stands for technology, entertainment, design – has come to the Flathead, with the first TEDx event scheduled to take place in Whitefish on Jan. 16. TEDx means the event is local and self-organized, and will feature videos from previous TED conferences, as well as live speakers.

At the TEDx Whitefish event, 100 audience members will hear from Montana entrepreneurs and businesspeople, as well as those who have followed the spark of their own ideas to successful ends.

The theme for the Whitefish event is “Defining the Last Best Place.”

Cassandra Sunell, the founder and curator of TEDx Whitefish, said nearly everyone in the Flathead should be able to relate to the theme, which focuses on why we live here.

Initially, Sunell’s team started looking at what brought settlers to Montana, and saw the telltale signs of western expansion in the railway and the timber industry.

“We started looking into the history of Whitefish and it really led us to thinking these were pioneers who came out here to live this American dream,” Sunell said. “I think why people stayed here was because they had this love and passion for being in the outdoors and all the beauty and glory that’s around here.”

Merely staying for the scenery wasn’t enough, however, and the people who lived here built communities. That idea, the social nature of the tight-knit communities in Northwest Montana, is a big part of the reason Sunell wanted to bring TEDx to Whitefish.
“If you’re not participative in the community in some way, you’re not really part of the community,” she said.

The question to be posed during the event is who are the pioneers today, now that the land has been settled? What are the frontiers left here?

“You start seeing now, with the rise in technology and innovation, that people can stay here,” she said. “You can survive here, you can live here, and you can play here.”

A Kalispell native, Sunell moved away as a young adult, but always felt the Flathead’s pull. In 2011, she was living in Washington, and had become a big fan of the TED Talks. While searching for an event to attend, she saw there was one planned for Bozeman.
“I was ecstatic that there was going to be one in Montana finally,” Sunell said.

It was a revelatory experience, she said, and she got to know the event’s founders. A little while later, Sunell decided it was time to move back to the Flathead, and settled in Whitefish.

She had posted on her Facebook page about the TEDx event in Bozeman, and someone commented that she should start one in the Flathead.

“I thought, ‘You’re right, why don’t I?’” Sunell said. “There was nothing saying I couldn’t.”

Sunell applied for a license through the TED organization, and started building her team. The license came in March 2013, and Sunell went to work pulling together a lineup of speakers.

A TEDx event is organized locally and independently, but through the license, the organization gives strict guidelines for the event that must be followed or the license could be pulled.

Each talk must be under 18 minutes, and can’t have a political, religious or commercial agenda. Twenty-five percent of the presentations will be TED Talk videos.

There were only 100 spots available in this year’s event because TED requires organizers to attend a TED conference before they can expand audience sizes past 100 people. Sunell intends on attending the March 2014 TED conference, so next year’s event should have a much larger seating capacity.

As for this year, the 100 tickets sold out almost immediately. People are well-versed in what TED means, Sunell said; the first six TED Talks were loaded online in 2006, and as of Nov. 13, 2013, TED Talks across various digital platforms have received 1 billion views. Though the tickets are sold out, those interested can watch the event live at www.tedxwhitefish.com.

Sunell said she’s excited for this year’s lineup, and is looking forward to seeing what this program can become once it takes root here. It’s just one more way the Flathead keeps pioneering, she said.

“It really all starts with a single person, a single idea,” Sunell said. “How does that ripple out to your family or your partner, your business or your organization, your community, your state or your world?”