I told my co-founders and our interim board members to f*&k off (a big deal for an entrepreneur who poured everything into his startup for the past year), P. quit her job (a secure and well paying job), A. and M. risked being fired by spending work hours doing something else other than their work, Z. stacked up a phone bill of around a $1,000, and W. shifted the entire focus of his consultancy towards a non profitable project. These stories span the entire group of VOLUNTEERS that come from varied backgrounds (including different countries) who worked around the clock for days on end to bring to Lebanon an event of a different caliber.
TEDxBeirut, unlike other events, wasn’t about the speakers and the big names featured on the program. The theme for TEDxBeirut 2011 was “From Limitation to Inspiration.” What people outside of the TEDxBeirut organizing team didn’t realize is that the theme wasn’t as much a theme for the talks, as much as it was a theme for the journey the team went through. TEDx events (x = independently organized TED event) are special no matter where they are held in the world but in a country like Lebanon, organizing such an event comes with its own set of difficulties. Unless you are a well known group or company backed by some good contacts, getting past the paperwork alone is an overreaching goal. When Patsy thought out loud about organizing a TEDx event in Beirut, she was merely expressing a wish (maybe some event company would make it happen). Little did she know that she was going to be the one spearheading the effort to see her dream go from idea to reality. And this is why I say it was an event of a different caliber. It wasn’t the major players and usual suspects who were behind the event, but it was, according to many attendee testimonials, one of the best organized and professional events that people in Beirut have ever experienced.
Now why am I talking about an event that’s more than 3 months old? I promise you it will all come together at the end of this post. Bare with me as I take you through parts of the journey that will explain to you why if we ever talk about Lebanon I might say something along the lines of “I live in a different Lebanon than you do!”
What I experienced during the days leading up to TEDxBeirut was only a fraction of what some people went through before I had joined. But I got the opportunity on many occasions to sit back and take a distant view of the behavior of the team members. It’s important to mention the HUGE differences on all levels between the people involved. The interests, skills, personalities, backgrounds, education, all of it was different. A typical Lebanese blend, “makhlouta” as we say in Arabic (or mixed nuts would be the direct translation). But the situation was atypical. There was a common goal. No really, there was. The entire team was working on a single goal, with no personal interest at all. We were all volunteers. None of us was gaining anything from participating in this effort on a personal level. I saw people work their ass off, to put together a one day event in Lebanon, knowing that with the Lebanese mentality all they were going to get in return were complaints and criticism because the Lebanese are never pleased. It didn’t matter, we were doing something that we cared about, that we wanted to see happen and if others wanted to be part of it that would be great. Keep in mind, when Patsy started organizing the event, she meant it to be for about a hundred or so people, then bumped it up to 300, and bumped it up again to 800 to eventually get an 800 seated audience and about 200 other people sitting on the stairs in the theater or watching the stream in a different room (not to mention those who tuned in for the live stream on the web)!! Exposure, recognition, TV spots or seats in the parliament were never the objective.
I urge you to take a moment and let that last paragraph sink in. It might not impress you at first, you might think it’s weak, your reaction might be #meh. But take a moment to put it in perspective. We are talking about a “do it yourself” mentality coupled with a “do it FOR yourself, f*&k everyone else” attitude. I am an entrepreneur, I don’t mean to keep mentioning it just for the sake of rubbing it in, there’s a mindset at the root of it that’s important to understand. So much goes into planning an event to this caliber. It takes certain personality traits but also education and culture to foster such a mentality, which is not the case for most people in the world (especially Lebanese people). And not only is it not part of our upbringing, it’s also discouraged in favor of ‘secure’ jobs as most times we are taught that those who do such things are different, geniuses, basically not us. With TEDxBeirut, the group of individuals who participated broke that mold. They showed that ideas belong to everyone and the execution is as possible for the common person as it is for the likes of Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
But it doesn’t stop just there and just for the TEDxBeirut team members. The event created a platform and an opportunity for other members of the community to follow suit. Donner Sang Compter (Give Blood/Without Counting, a play on words) is an initiative to promote blood donations in Lebanon in an organized and continuous manner and raise awareness about the importance of contributing. The story behind DSC is a very moving and inspirational one, and TEDxBeirut gave its founder Yorgui Teyrouz the opportunity to spread the word but also access to a network of people who are doers.
“The impact that TEDxBeirut had on this idea was inspirational! Straight after the talk, a queue of imaginers wanted to help bring the idea to life. At home my inbox was already loaded with signups, and the twitter and Facebook accounts with mentions and messages.”
The Lebanese community is a very capable group of people who unfortunately have been dormant and passive for many years. But all it takes is one person to get the ball rolling and action starts happening: “Together, we moved from one idea – Imagination Studio – to 22 brilliant ideas that can be actioned right now, right here, with the support of voluntary teams!”
Imagination Studio happened, and that wasn’t the end of things. An open call for volunteers took place for people to contribute in their own way and using their own expertise to solving a problem. After the call for ‘imaginers’ Joanna compiled a list of people interested in contributing along with the actionable ideas that need to be implemented. The effort is still in its beginnings. I am sure many of the skeptics out there who are used to bringing down others who are pushing for change will say that nothing will come out of Imagination Studio. There might be plenty of obstacles and many discouraging days, but what TEDxBeirut has shown a group of us is that the only obstacle between us and change is ourselves and our own doubt. Everything else can and will be overcome.
The TEDx movement is hard to explain, and hard to explain in terms of impact, or for the business people out there in therms of ROI. But it does have the IT factor that you do experience once you take part. No wonder there’s a book being written about it by an author who’s traveled to a dozen or so countries in 2011 and attended about 30 TEDx events and will attend double that number in 2012.
At the moment, the efforts might be on a small scale. But we have a blueprint for social change that can be the example and inspiration for others. One pretty well kept secret, which I’m sharing with you right now, is TEDxSKE. TEDxSKE is a weekly gathering where a bunch of us (not just TEDxBeirut team members) get together to watch TED and TED like talks (TEDxSKE is run by Patsy who is licensed by TED which is a requirement to run TEDx events, but any group can get together and do the same without using the TED name although the license is not hard to get). TEDxSKE was the precursor to TEDxBeirut and has grown since then. The activity changes from one week to the other, usually around a certain theme. It is not limited to TED talks alone, it could be any idea worth sharing. Of course, the evening doesn’t stop at the video/talk level. The highlight of these gatherings is usually the discussions or activities (games) that we participate in, in between talks. And the result varies from one person to the other. I can not claim to know the effect that TEDxSKE has on each and every one of us, not even on myself. As this is an on going thing, a process of growth for all of us. But I can tell you that I see the change in the others and they see it in themselves as well. Some of us are trying to find out who we are, why we are on this planet and what we are supposed to be doing. Others are looking to affect change. And some are, for the first time ever, getting exposed to alternate points of view. SKEers are discovering aspects of their own personalities that they did not know about themselves, broadening their horizon and challenging their beliefs. And trust me, this is not poetry or empty talk. This is paraphrased directly from the participants themselves. TEDxSKE is a collective of passionate and motivated people who are a support system for each other. Many of whom are or will be important pillars in the social entrepreneurship change in Lebanon in the coming years.
It might be a tad bit early to talk about results and accomplishments, but it is not too late nor too early to talk about inspiration or even a different kind of movement in a country that has not adopted the Tunisian or Egyptian model of the Arab Spring. So when you drive around Beirut (or walk like me) and you think about the potholes, the traffic and the corruption that Lebanon represents to you, remember that there is a Lebanon, which you are more than welcomed to be part of, where DSC and Imagination Studio are not just ideas and where Thursdays are for the spoken poetry and arts club (yes, such a thing exists, stay tuned for more details). It’s another kind of Lebanon which promotes action over wishful thinking, local change over change of country of residency. Just remember, be the change you want to see in the world.