By Helen Walters and Kate Torgovnick
TED Fellow Meklit Hadero kicks off the second session of TEDWomen 2013. Her sultry singing, backed by a trumpet, bass and drums, is just the right way to get the room back, focused and in gear for a packed session.
It’s (sadly, still) rare enough to find a female CEO. It’s rarer still to find two sisters who both occupy the C-suite at major companies. Maggie Wilderotter is the chair and CEO of Frontier Communications, a company with an 88-year track record; her older sister Denise Morrison just happens to be the CEO of Campbell’s Soup. A coincidence? They think not. They believe it all started with the job jar, where their parents would write down tasks for them to complete every week in order to receive their allowance. Through the job jar, these two sisters learned what they call the “art of responsibility.” The two give their father a lot of credit for teaching them important lessons in business, As he once said, “I believe that someday the world is going to open up to women, and I want you to be prepared for that.” The two women share how lessons from childhood propelled them through major acquisitions — and what they’re doing to boost the careers of other women within their companies.
“We wouldn’t dream of fitting a little girl with the prosthetic limb of a grown man. Why would we give her the same prosthetic voice?” Rupal Patel directs the communication analysis and design laboratory at Northeastern University, and she’s here to tell us about her work on VocaliD, an organization working to help the millions of people who use computerized devices to communicate. Patel’s technique to move beyond the usual generic male voices (think Stephen Hawking, who really should not have an American accent): She samples the tones of those with severe speech disorders and matches them with a surrogate talker. By blending the two, the team can “mix colors to paint voices,” a lovely, lyrical description of an amazing process. She plays us some recordings, including that of a girl called Samantha who says, “This voice is only for me. I can’t wait to use my new voice with my friends.” The audience loves it; lots of delighted applause.
Hunter Lee Soik admits that, for the majority of his adult life, he didn’t get a lot of sleep. He was working long days in the fashion industry and sleeping only a handful of hours a night. And so on his first vacation in 12 years, all he could do was stay in bed. In the course of 22 days of epic sleeps, he was having exceptionally vivid dreams — and instantly forgetting them. This launched an idea: to build an app to help people remember their dreams. Now, working with a team of sleep scientists, the resulting app — Shadow — is so much more than that. It gently wakes users up so that they can remember their dreams (rather than ripping them out of sleep via an alarm clock). Shadow is also an enormous dream database, to allow people to locate themselves within our greater dreaming unconscious. “You can find out that you were one of 7,000 people who had a dream about a white horse last night,” says Soik. “You can form a community and find out what that means.” As Soik points out, 95% of dreams are forgotten within five minutes. Could Shadow change that?
Spoken-word poet Sarah Kay is here to make a bold confession at a woman-focused conference: She’s not entirely sure what it is to be a woman. She elaborates. Too often, she says, women are defined on the basis of their relationship to others. Well, she’s not up for that at all: “I value these roles immensely, but I am trying to define myself without these roles, without being a reflection of others.” She quotes the poet Richard Siken: “Everyone needs a place. It shouldn’t be inside of someone else.” And then she performs her poem “The Type,” full of useful reminders including, “You are a woman. Skin and bones. Veins and nerves. Hair and sweat. / You are not made of metaphors. Not apologies. Not excuses.”
Boyd Varty starts his talk with a much-needed tribute. “I wanted to tell you, as a South African, that one of the men who has inspired me the most passed away a few hours ago,” he says. “Nelson Mandela has ended his long walk to freedom.” When Varty was 9 years old, he actually met Mandela. Upon his release from prison, Mandela headed to the Londolozi Reserve, the place that Varty’s father and uncle transformed from a hunting ground to a game reserve in 1973. “The thought was that, in the bush, [Mandela] would have time to rest and recuperate,” he says. “Plus, lions tend to be a good deterrent for paparazzi.” For Varty and for many other South Africans, he says, Mandela was the embodiment of a concept of Ubuntu, which means “I am; because of you.” With stunning images of Londolozi in the background, Varty shows how this idea of interconnectedness applies not just to people but the wildlife around us — as one elephant helps a wounded friend climb a hill. “In the cathedral of the wild,” says Varty, “we get to see the best parts of ourselves reflected back to us.”