What is TEDxGrandRapids? A Q&A with Steve Frazee

Technology, Entertainment, Design. That's what TED stands for, and those ideas are the three platforms TEDTalks seek to build upon. Originating in 1984, TED conferences focus on 'Ideas Worth Spreading,' in intense sessions of learning, networking and being wholly enthralled. Two annual conferences occur in the United States -- one in Long Beach and the other in Palm Springs -- and TEDGlobal takes place in the UK. TEDx events (independently organized conferences) have been popping up everywhere. Grand Rapids is on the precipice of its first.

Rapid Growth Media is delighted and honored to announce the date as May 12, 2011 and the venue as The Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. In a chat with one of TEDxGrandRapids' organizers, the eloquent entrepreneur Steve Frazee, we were able to learn about the event, Steve and innovation as more than just a buzzword.

RGM: Let's jump right in. Explain TED to someone who's never heard of it before.

SF: TED is a nonprofit organization devoted to "Ideas Worth Spreading." It started out as a four-day conference in California 25 years ago. Since then, TED has grown to support world-changing ideas with multiple initiatives. The annual TED Conference invites the world's leading thinkers and doers to speak -- each one gets 18 minutes. Their talks are then made available, free, at TED.com.

At a TEDx event, TEDTalks and live speakers combine to spark deep discussion and connection. These events are branded TEDx, where the x signifies an independently organized TED event. The TED Conference provides general guidance for the TEDx program, but individual TEDx events are self-organized. TEDxGrandRapids will feature internationally recognized speakers, as well as Michiganders with "ideas worth spreading."

RGM: Tell us a little about yourself. I know you aren't from here, so where are you from and how did you end up in Grand Rapids? Then tell us why you stay here.

I'm originally from Texas, Austin and Dallas, and I have the boots to prove it. My background is in business strategy and technology, specifically electronic payment systems like those used for credit and gift cards. In 1993, I founded Frazee Systems, a software development company that was later purchased by my executive team as part of a management buyout. The company was renamed Atrana Solutoins and I took the role of Chief Strategist. I spent the majority of my time speaking at conferences and consulting to companies like Microsoft, AT&T, MasterCard, Costco, and our other key clients. In May of 2005, Alliance Data Systems purchased our company.

I'm curious about the world's people and its places, so when a friend invited me to move to Grand Haven in 2009 and start an online company, I accepted. That company never took off, but my wife and I liked the vibe and natural beauty of West Michigan, so we decided to stay for a while.  There is a gentle kindness to the people here that I haven't experienced in other areas of the country.  It feels… nice here. 

RGM: Why have you decided to be a part of bringing a TEDx event to Grand Rapids?

SF: I am passionate about the idea that business holds the key to making the world a better place. Not government, not non-profits, but business. The systems of business and commerce touch everything. When those systems are managed with the intention to create wellbeing, our world can improve very quickly.

Being new in town, I thought getting connected to the local TED community and the TEDxGrandRapids project would be a good way to make some new friends. Originally, I just intended to pitch in and help, but when I contacted Nick Pickrel who held the license for TEDxGrandRapids, he told me planning was just getting started. Nick asked if I'd hold the license and help him make TEDxGrandRapids an event on the scale of TEDx events in other major cities. Of course I said yes, so we are co-hosting the event. 

RGM: What are some of your personal experiences with TED?

I attend the TEDGlobal conference in the UK and my first event was in 2009. I applied to TED after meeting several notable TEDsters on my travels and many at the inaugural Conscious Capitalism Conference in 2008. 

RGM: What is the Ted Global conference like?

SF: It is four solid days of mind-stretching TEDtalks and four evenings of great conversation and elegant receptions. The attendees at the TED events are as interesting as the speakers themselves. I've talked spirituality with Karen Armstrong and motivation with Dan Pink. I even shared lunch with the then-pregnant supermodel Karolina Kurkova and her finance as we watched Jeff Bezos (Amazon.com founder) punt on the Thames.  

Honestly, it was all a little intimidating, which only serves to propel me forward in my own work. Being surrounded by hundreds of successful people that are taking meaningful action in the world is inspiring. Our intention for TEDxGrandRapids is to create a similar experience locally with a one-day event.

RGM: What elements are absolutely necessary for this to be a success in Grand Rapids -- from logistics to the mindset?

SF: What is absolutely necessary is that the people who can get things done in Grand Rapids, the philanthropic community and the "doing" community, join together to make this event something the city can be proud of.  The good news is that is exactly what is happening.

I'm providing organizational leadership, but it is people like Grant Carmichael and Eric Kuhn, who are fresh off the SiteLab project, along with Wayne Schuurman from AudioAdvisor.com, Todd Ernst from ACTIVESITE and Amy Murphy at Williams Group that are making this event a reality. Kurt Nahikian, a board member of the Civic Theatre, was instrumental in making that venue available and the people at Clear Channel, including Tim Feagan, Eric O'Brian and Nick Dionne are providing helping hands and connections. A great group of people have come together to take active roles managing volunteers, handling the website and technical issues, and running our social media outlets. Bill Holsinger-Robinson is generously providing some direction and introductions and Steel Case, who has a long standing TED relationship, has graciously offered to assist the project. 

Things are trending in the right direction but we still need skilled help with video production, speaker coordination, and hospitality.  And, of course, we need sponsors to cover our costs.

Probably the most logistically complex task is speaker acquisition. Our theme is Innovate X, so our goal is to bring to Grand Rapids thought leaders that can speak to innovation across a wide range of disciplines in a clear and compelling performance all in under 18 minutes.  It's been said that one of the most intense experiences a professional speaker can have is to prepare for a TEDTalk.  Additionally all speakers at all TED and TEDx events offer their presentations pro bono. 

RGM: The theme of TEDxGrandRapids will be "Innovate X." Why and how did you choose this theme?

SF: Originally we used a democratic process to come up with six potential themes and were planning to use social media to have community vote on the final choice. In the mean time, I was meeting new people and having conversation about how things get done in Grand Rapids. In October, I attended a panel discussion called "Fostering Innovation in West Michigan," where I received a healthy education on the economic realities of West Michigan.

I heard stories about how easy it is to raise money for a building, but that it is nearly impossible to fund an Internet start-up. Grand Rapids, I was told, has a culture of making physical products people can touch, but has little experience with nurturing ideas that don't require manufacturing or distribution. I was shown data detailing that spirited young people are drawn to find excitement outside the state, while those that stay, or later return, plug into the existing economy and start families instead of taking risks or advancing new ideas.

It seemed to me that I was hearing a call for cross discipline innovation in Grand Rapids -- not just innovation in technology, but cultural, economic, and communication innovation. I told my story to the team and we agreed that Innovate X would be our theme.

TEDxGrandRapids is the perfect opportunity for Grand Rapids and West Michigan to take a very visible stand in favor of innovation and new ideas. There are over a thousand TEDx events hosted in major cities. TEDx events emerge in communities that value world-changing ideas. TEDxGrandGrapids will become a tangible symbol, like ArtPrize, of the city's commitment to embrace innovation. I expect that TEDxGrandRapids will become the premier annual exposition for innovation in West Michigan.

TEDxGrandRapids is confirmed for May 12, 2011 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with after parties beginning at 6:30 p.m. The Grand Rapids Civic Theatre is now TEDxGrandRapids' confirmed venue. You can find more specific information about the event, applications to receive an invitation and updates at their website. Speaker suggestions are encouraged. Potential sponsors may contact Nick Pickrel at [email protected]

J. Bennett Rylah is the Managing Editor of Rapid Growth Media.


Steve Frazee (2)

Civic Theatre (3)

Photographs by Tina Derusha -All Rights Reserved