Before walking into board meetings and interviews, Kaushik Nagaraj steps into a bathroom and takes a moment to himself. He’s not there to do a frantic last-minute review of his notes, nor is he there to check his E-mail. Rather, he strikes a power pose: standing with legs spread out, arms planted firmly at the hips.
This is a concept that he learned from watching a 2012 TED talk by Amy Cuddy, a social psychologist at the Harvard Business School. Cuddy explained how striking power poses — for example, standing legs hip-width apart with arms at the hips, or standing behind a table, leaning forward and planting your hands on the table top — for just two minutes can lead to hormonal changes that then translates to being more assertive, confident, and comfortable. Our bodies change our minds, Cuddy said.
Cuddy’s talk is Nagaraj’s favorite, and for good reason. To date, it has close to 25 million views, and is the second-most viewed TED talk of all time. “I try that concept in some of the meetings I do, with some of the presentations I have to do at work,” Nagaraj said.
Many TED talk videos later, Nagaraj is now ready to host his own TEDx conference in Princeton. TED, which stands for technology, entertainment and design, is a nonprofit organizer of conferences that bring speakers together to share their ideas. TEDx is its independently organized counterpart. Anyone can apply for a TEDx license and organize a conference.
TEDxCarnegie Lake will be held at the Princeton Public Library on Saturday, April 25, from noon to 4 p.m. Cost: $25, students and seniors $13. For more information, visit www.tedxcarnegielake.com
TEDx has become so popular that there are almost always multiple conferences held around the world on the same day. Thirty other TEDx conferences are scheduled for the same day as TEDxCarnegieLake, with conferences to be held both across the U.S. and in countries like Brazil, Morocco, Lebanon and China.
Nagaraj grew up in Bangalore, India, where his father, now retired, worked in the government. His mother is a homemaker. He came to the United States in 2009 to study for a master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, passing up his initial plan to move to the Bay Area for a more rigorous course of study at Carnegie Mellon. After graduating, he started working at the Bank of America as a business analyst. Now, he works at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in the technology and operations department, specifically focusing on program and product management. He also has a younger sister, who lives in Dallas and works in analytics consulting.
“I’m passionate about TED and its mission to share unique and worthy ideas,” Nagaraj said. And yet when he was looking for TEDx conferences to attend, he found that there were not many close by. Of course, he said, there was a TEDx event organized for Princeton University students that was not well advertised, and a small-scale TEDx "salon" event at the Princeton Public Library, but he envisioned something more accessible to the general public. One year, he only found out about TEDxPrincetonU on the day of the event, by which time tickets had already been sold out. Even if he had managed to get tickets, Nagaraj said, he wouldn’t have been able to change his schedule on such short notice to attend the event.
“So I thought, why not initiate?” Nagaraj said. “I’m already passionate about TED, so let’s go ahead and initiate something that did not exist before. We can provide a platform for local leaders, local successes to share their ideas with the world. That was the primary motivation in applying for a license.”
Four years after he attended his very first TED event — a TEDx conference held at Carnegie Mellon University — Nagaraj applied for his own license in March, 2014. He had to fill out a simple form, answering a series of questions about his motivations for organizing the conference, the target audience, theme, and speech ideas.
“TED goes through a very rigorous screening process,” Nagaraj said. He thinks it has become much more stringent recently. “Previously, they used to say that you get licenses approved within 15 days of applying. In my case, it took six months to get approved.”
The license application was just the easy part of it, Nagaraj said. As a first-time TEDx organizer, a lot of things were new to him. He made use of resources provided by TED, and also reached out to other TEDx organizers in the Princeton area as well as the organizer of TEDx ColumbiaCollege for help and advice. He started putting together a team of volunteers, searching for and messaging potential team members through the TED website. It was not an easy task to find people who were committed enough to work on organizing the conference over a period of six months on a totally voluntary basis, Nagaraj said.
Finding speakers was a long process. First, they picked the theme. “Together, we arrived at the theme Revive, which is broad enough to encompass speech topics that would appeal to the community at large. Then, we identified a diverse set of categories — from climate change to art to business. We then began finding speakers in each of these areas, speakers who may have an unique idea to share, in line with our theme Revive,” Nagaraj said.
“Our curation workstream, chaired by Renee Hlozek, further researched these speakers (read articles they have written, viewed speeches they have given, etc.) and picked the most relevant individuals for each category. We then reached out to each shortlisted speaker to explain our event objective, explore different ideas, and coordinate availability.”
Speakers do not pay to appear, and all of the ticket revenue goes to running the event. But if the entire event is non-profit, and no one receives any monetary compensation for the time and effort that they put into the conference, then what is Nagaraj in it for? What is he getting out of it? This was a question that a potential sponsor had also asked Nagaraj. His answer: the opportunity to interact with speakers, and to work with highly motivated and smart individuals.
Teaming up with Hlozek, a senior TED fellow and a postdoctoral research fellow in the department of astrophysics in Princeton, the two worked together to develop the conference’s theme and to curate a roster of speakers.
“We went through different speech ideas and topics, and then we found speakers to fit those ideas,” Nagaraj said. Nagaraj’s team has been in frequent contact with speakers to offer editorial guidance and schedule rehearsals in the run up to the conference.
Nagaraj is targeting both students and residents of Princeton, as well as working professionals in the area. “We’ve aligned our marketing campaign keeping these three segments in mind,” he said. Early bird tickets have already been sold out. Revenue will go towards covering some of the costs, with sponsors covering the rest. With the Princeton Public Library offering up its venue for free, the biggest cost is hiring a production company to record all the speeches, and to edit the videos for uploading online.
One of the biggest challenges Nagaraj faced while putting the conference together was balancing the different interdependent components of the event. Coming up with a venue in the early stages of the planning process was “like a chicken and egg problem,” he said. “You can’t begin conversations with speakers without a fixed date and venue, but you can’t get a venue without speakers.” They encountered a similar issue with the website: they couldn’t begin marketing the event before launching a website, but they also couldn’t launch the website before all the speakers were confirmed.
Nagaraj likened this balancing act to solving a Rubik’s cube — you have to align all the cells properly, and you get a new, unsolved cube every week.