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TEDxUNC celebrates 'the joy in trying'

What if — these words defined Saturday’s TEDxUNC conference.

What if we could use manufacturing processes from the computer industry to build better vaccines?

What if we could understand why people act irrationally and could create the right incentives for self-control and healthier lives?

What if we could create business ventures that offer financial independence to women across the developing world?

For those who missed the social media hullabaloo, UNC hosted a TED-style conference Saturday in the FedEx Global Education Center.

The talk was organized by students and featured a pretty shiny lineup of speakers and performers, from nonprofit pharmaceutical company founder Victoria Hale to campus band Mipso Trio. And it was a resounding success.

I’m not quite sure what I expected going in. I spoke with organizers Rachel Myrick and Mackenzie Thomas at length beforehand, but honestly, I was prepared to be underwhelmed.

Sure, the videos at are informative and inspirational. But the TED conference is a multi-million dollar affair, with a select attendance and its pick of the world’s best speakers.

What could we reasonably expect on campus? And even with a good lineup, the question remained whether that day’s conversations would actually translate to impact on campus.

Add that to concerns about the conference’s limited audience, and I was ready for an event that was perfectly decent but didn’t quite justify the hype.

To some extent at least, the concern about the audience was borne out. The crowd’s diversity consisted primarily in the range of academic fields represented.

But while Joseph DeSimone spoke about the value of diverse teams, not all were in attendance. The only African-American face I remember seeing at the conference was on-screen. Admittedly, those watching ReeseNews’ livestream might have represented a wider demographic.

But on most other counts, the event gave what it promised. We got a carefully stage-managed, feel-good extravaganza, with enough breadth in the information presented that there should have been something to interest everyone.

The course of the afternoon felt variously like a classroom lecture (UNC professor John McGowan), a spiritual awakening (Victoria Hale) and a rally to action (Shamila Kohestani, Afghan women’s soccer pioneer).

And I’m sure I’m not the only one who came away wanting to learn the hammer dulcimer or hang drum, which are worth YouTubing if you missed out.

But we were encouraged to dream, risk failure and try something new.

And the speakers were there to show what could happen if we did so dream, including the “what if” scenarios I listed above.

Greg Van Kirk was bluntest: his goal was that “when you walk out of here today, you feel a little less intimidated and a little more empowered.”

What impact this empowerment will have, no one knows. But TEDxUNC wasn’t a blueprint for a creative or innovative Carolina — it was a celebration of the joy in trying.

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