I have a confession to make: I have an addiction — to TED conferences and particularly TEDWomen. While it is not a cheap habit, it is a healthy one as TEDWomen continues to be a nourishing and enriching experience that keeps me coming back year after year. If you have not attended a TED event (which is different from the TEDx events which are independently organized) this conference is much more than listening to talks. Yes, there are 40 talks and performances (nicely curated in a group of five or six around a theme), but there are at least as many conversations with interesting women (and a few men). There are many who come from different backgrounds and from all over the world — attendees that I would be unlikely to meet anywhere else. In three days, I met a philanthropist from Columbia, a High School TEDx organizer, a College professor who is offering a sex-ed class, a serial entrepreneur now working for a university, a successful banker, an insurance CEO and many more. What is unique about TED Women is that conversations go deep fast and that there is mostly an absence of egos, nobody trying to show off how smart they are or trying to sell something. And TED does it right by giving the opportunity for conversations during long breaks between talks, shared activities or simply waiting in line to get into the theater where the live talks are given.

And, of course, there are many ideas worth sharing, but here are my five takeaways from the amazing line up of speakers around the “Bold+Brilliant” theme for this year.

The power of simple yet brilliant ideas and creativity

Four diverse talks came to mind with ideas about helping the elephants to ways to avoiding food waste, dealing with the lack of medical resources in Rwanda to using creativity during the current events in Hong Kong

  • Lucy King, a zoologist, researched scared elephants and learned that they are afraid of bees. She used that knowledge to create a system where beehives are hanging on cables around villages so that if the elephants try to come in, they will move the cable, releasing the bees and scaring the elephants away from the communities. In addition, the beehives provide sugar and a new source of income for the communities. You can check her work at elephantsandbees.com.
  • Jasmine Crowe, who calls herself a hunger hero, created Goodr to help with the frustrating issue of major food waste (72 billion pounds a year in the U.S.) while many people (47 millions) suffer from hunger. In her talk, she explained the importance of providing meals or the ability to make meals rather than random food (as some of the food banks may do when distributing bags of food) by either allowing the people in need to shop at a free or pay-what-you-can supermarket like in Toronto, forcing supermarkets to donate the food that they would otherwise throw away (now mandatory in France and Italy) or finding ways for organizations with surplus food or meal to deliver to the people who need it. She believes that “hunger Is not about scarcity but logistics” so her platform helps connect givers and receivers, providing the transportation (using the share economy to transport the food) as well as using blockchains to create an accurate record of donations that are approved by the IRS and allow the organization to claim as deductions. You can find her talk here.
  • Agnes Binagwaho, ex-Minister of Health in Rwanda, told her story of returning to Rwanda after the genocide and how having more women in power (61% in Parliament) helped rebuild the country and make changes necessary to transform the country. And today she is helping to create even more change by leading a new university UGHE which is focused on healthcare careers. It uses a unique model by providing a location in the northern rural area of Rwanda so that the students do not have to go to the capital for training (as students who move may never want to go back to the rural area). In addition, the university is free for those willing to serve the community for six to nine years after graduation and there is a minimum enrollment of 50% of women.
  • Denise Ho, a singer in Hong Kong, described how creativity has helped the protesters stay ahead of the authorities by finding new ways to protest (like using umbrellas to block cameras or tennis rackets to send back tear gas bombs). “The machines take time to reach and when they do we have moved on to the next ideas”. The strong conclusion of her talk was about the power of creativity: “Creativity is what the tyrants cannot control or repress”.

Women are transforming Africa

Three African leaders Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former President of Liberia; Yvonne Aki-Sawyer, the major of Freetown; and Agnes Binagwaho shared  their unique stories of the need to take the lead to create the changes required for their countries and how including more women was transformational and helped their countries deal with major crisis like war or Ebola epidemic. As President Sirleaf concluded “we must change the stereotypes and ensure that structural barriers (to women leadership) are removed; we need to work with men so that full gender equality will ensure stronger economy and a more developed and successful nation”.

We need to reconsider the concept of ownership and associated rights as corporations are benefiting from what is not theirs

Two very different talks emphasized this topic

  • The first one was from native American and water activist Kelsey Leonard. In her talk, she argued that if corporations have the right of the personhood and the benefits associated with it, water should as well. Access to clean water is still limited. In the U.S., race is the strongest predictor of access to water and sanitation with indigenous people most affected. For example, 40% of people in the Navajo nation do not have running water. This new approach suggests giving water “the right to flourish” and be “protected from harm”. This would allow law suits to protect the water that benefits everybody in a community when private companies use it to their own benefits (and potentially environmental detriment) and are not fully made accountable for the impact of their use (with chemicals released in the water for example). She concluded by suggesting that we should ask “who is water?” rather than “what is water?” and protect it like we would protect our families from harm. You can check out her talk here.
  • The second talk was about how our personal data are used by companies for their own benefit without our ability to control it or benefit from it. In her talk, Jennifer Zhu explained that “whoever owns the data, owns the future” and the fact that our highly valuable data is own by organizations without us getting compensation is a “new form of collective poverty”. She recommends the concept of “private data ownership” where each of us would “own” our data and can decide to use, destroy or trade it. In the meantime, while we do not own our data, her recommendation was to at least limit ownership by others by using browsers like Duck Duck Go (that allow data privacy) and being aware of what you are sharing for free.

There are ways to address poverty and inequality without treating the people in a lesser way

  • Priti Kristhtel, a health justice advocate, shared how the current patent system for drugs is not adequate to ensure patients access to medication. While the principle of having a patent to reward research and innovation is still relevant, pharmaceutical companies have found ways to extend their patents with “minimal” innovation and/or without benefiting the patients This has resulted in 34 million Americans losing at least one family member because they could not afford treatment. Her recommendation is to create a modern patent system that better meets the public needs by ensuring that new patents will be issued only if the medication or new version of it has significant benefits for the patients, change the incentive system for the patent office (in the current system issuing more patents is beneficial to the office), have more public participation and provide an opportunity to legally challenge the pharmaceutical companies (which is not possible today for individuals).
  • Angie Murimirwa’s talk was focused on the concept of social interest and the idea that if you educate women who otherwise would not have access to education or property in Africa, they will start their own business and can support others — not with money — but with social support and mentorship. This system allows for a larger impact as it creates a “virtual cycle of prosperity lead by women.”
  • Noeline Kirabo challenged us by asking “is passion only for the rich or the retired?”. Her passion helped create a place where young people can turn their passion into sustainable businesses through learning skills as well as way to create and support these businesses
  • Smurti Jukur, an urban planner who worked in slums, explained that “poverty only changes affordability, not inspirations” and that to build better options it is important to listen and let the people who live there make the choices because they are the ones who know best what may positively affect them. She concluded: “when poor people choose, they choose better”.

Giving women more of a voice can help transform the world

Overall TED Women 2019 was very inspiring and I felt gratitude for all these women transforming the world.

  • Empowering women has proven in many countries to speed the pace of change and make a significant difference. It was inspirational to have a conference with mostly women speakers (there was one man) and to see the impact that these amazing women have on our world.
  • Women are putting their lives on the line to make a difference. Jane Fonda moved to Washington DC and is getting arrested during Fire Drills Friday; Denise Ho, a singer from Hong-Kong is only one of the few in the entertainment business to be involved in the protest knowing that it would impact her career (she is now banned in China); all the women in Africa transformed the political scenes and made unexpected changes in countries previously at war or in the middle of deadly health crisis like the Ebola virus.

I would like to conclude by sharing this thought from Pat Mitchell, an amazing woman who launched TED Women and recently wrote a book Dangerous Woman. “It is time to play the women card, the race card, all the cards, not to play the power game, but for a better outcome”. Hearing all these women I was inspired for action to help make the world a better place. My goal is to use my skills in the social entrepreneurship world to have a bigger impact. I am looking for new ways to collaborate. Let me know if you have ideas, contacts or simply want to talk.

And for you personally, in what ways can you help create a better outcome for all in 2020?