The story of the first TEDx: Q&A with Krisztina “Z” Holly

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Krisztina “Z” Holly was the first person to ever be called a TEDx organizer. Her event, TEDxUSC, took place on March 23, 2009, and had 1,200 attendees. Last year there were 6,000 applicants for those same 1,200 spots. We caught up with her at TEDxSummit.

How did you get involved with TEDx (before it even existed)?

One of my team members, Elisa Schreiber, and I reached out to Chris Anderson in November 2007. We had lunch in New York and talked about how we could bring the experience of TED to our community: our students and faculty as well as our alumni and the business community around USC. We proposed the idea of doing an independently organized TED event; if we were successful, we could create a model for others to do the same. I don’t think we can take credit for being the first to suggest organizing a TEDx event. The difference was our vision of making it a broader opportunity, of scaling it.

I’m so honored that Chris took a chance on us and let us take the TED brand and run with it. We really thought he was going to say yes. We were aiming for the event to be in May 2008, and in January he called us and said it wasn’t possible, that he didn’t have the right person on the team to lead the initiative. I was crushed. But then again, why would he have let us do this, anyway? It was too good to be true. I thought that was it.

But then several months later, I got another call from Chris. He said he had found the right person: Lara Stein. We started planning for the following March.

How was planning for that first TEDxUSC? What were some difficulties you faced?

Beyond the usual difficulties of organizing a huge event, there was no precedent for TEDx, so we were having a lot of conversations for the first time. For example, Chris thought that there was no way we should charge for tickets, but we had it in mind from the start that we should. First, very simply for budgetary reasons, but also because we found that people value what they pay for. Chris also thought the event should have more TED content, that half the talks should be videos from TED. But because there was much less content on TED.com back then, most of our audience (who were TED fans) had already seen the best talks. That was a bit tough. But it was a growing process, we weren’t at all upset. And by the end Chris understood. At the event he even came to us and said, “You don’t have to play them all!”

I’m sure you didn’t expect things to come this far. Being here at the first-ever TEDxSummit, what strikes you about how much the community has grown?

In the very beginning, we talked with Lara about what the branding should be. The tag line of our event, like the tag line of our institution, was “ideas empowered.” X represents the unknown, and it also implied TED to the power of x. It’s funny, we thought maybe the community would grow … to about a dozen events in the first year, and maybe hundreds after!

At Summit, I’m most struck by the organizers. They’re so diverse and so passionate, yet somehow so like-minded and in tune.