A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege to attend TED Women in Palm Springs. While I am a veteran of this conference,— my fifth time — this time was truly special. Being able to attend in person after two years felt both exhilarating and strange, as if we all lost some of our social skills. The experience included amazing and inspiring women (mostly) speakers from all over the world and interesting and deep random conversations. There are few places I know where you can go and introduce yourself to a stranger (be waiting in line, at dinner or in the amphitheater watching) and in a couple of minutes get involved in a deep meaningful conversation and possibly make a life-long friend.

The theme this year was “What Now?” and included sections about what’s next for women in the world, health and happiness, work and play, planet earth, ingenuity and invention, and the future.

My biggest take away is the interconnection between many of the challenges we are facing the world related to social justice, health, technology and IT biases, reproductive rights, poverty and lack of education, self-care and mental health. We live in systems built on colonialism that continue to have impact all over the world, and mostly on women, minorities and those who look or behave in a different way and do not fit inside the traditional models.

While it is hard to choose, here are few talks that I personally found inspiring or brought amazing new ideas to the forefront.

I was amazed by the courage of Shabana Basij-Rasikh who created the first boarding school for girls in Afghanistan and had been planning for years on how to keep her students safe should the Taliban came back. Which unfortunately she had to put into action. She relocated the whole school to Rhwanda just before the fall of Kahbul last August to be sure her students could safely continue their education. She is already working on ways to bring the school back to Afghanistan.  You can check out her talk here.

In a fascinating talk, Emma Heart, an English computer scientist, explained how they are developing robots that can be self-made, reproduce and evolve as required to go into unpredictable environments and therefore the exact function and form of the robot cannot be anticipated (think nuclear accident, remote planet….).

Kathryn Kolbert was one of the closing talks. She painted a picture of the new world without the protection of  Roe vs. Wade. She was straight forward in explaining that this is the end of abortion as a right for women in this country and that we are moving to a state-by-state system where only women in the blue (and purple) state will have access to abortion and women in the other areas would either have to find a way to travel out of state (which is particularly challenging for minorities, low income and underprivileged women) or keep their pregnancy while having no or limited support from the state. And she believes that access to contraceptive may be the next battle.

As far as hope, she believes this is likely to be a long journey and that only a change in the Constitution will allow women to be in control of their body and their ability to choose how and when to parent. Full talk here.

Throughout the conferences we had women (and two men) challenging us on changing the status quo by:

Acknowledging the impact of the traditional colonial type model and the need to find new community-based solutions

  • Ozawa Bineshi Albert, the co-executive director for the Climate Justice Alliance is working with indigenous leaders on the environment front. This movement is aimed at transforming how to think about environmental justice, embracing the indigenous rights perspective and working towards resilient, regenerative and equitable economies.
  • Resson Kantai is a deputy director of Ewaso Lions, an organization dedicated to promoting the co-existence between people and lions. She explained why involving the local tribes in the solutions was key to successfully identifying approaches to conserve lions and other large carnivores and promoted coexistence between people and wildlife in Kenya. Organization website.
  • Aarathy Krishnan discussed the ethics of humanitarian technology and how it is being used — often without the users consent — and its potentially devastating consequences for the population it is supposed to help. For example, the data collected in refugees camps could end up in the hands of the wrong people, like in Rwanga.
  • Srishti Bakshi encourages women mobility in India so women can be safer and gain autonomy in a country. You can check out her documentary of walking 3800 km through India to meet women and understand the obstacles to their mobility.
  • Charles Daniels explained how he wants to support men who have been unavailable for their children (like his own dad was growing up) by creating peer support and counseling so these fathers can address their own emotions like shame, guilt and embarrassment in the hope that they and their children can heal and rebuilt a relationship.

Acknowledging and hopefully removing our biases

  • Maja Bosnic promoted the idea of gender responsible budget, where the impact of the budget is measured on its impact on diverse groups, and explained how Bosnia is embracing this approach.
  • Jimmie Briggs suggested that it is time for men in general and men of color to acknowledge male toxicity and its impact on violence against women and non-binary people and be held accountable.
  • Emily Pilloton-Lam, in a highly entertaining talk (she was building a tool box on stage while speaking), shared how she inspires young girls to become trade persons as it will both bring a chance for women to have an impact in the physical world and provide more good paying job options for women in an industry which only have 4% of women in the front line of construction jobs. You may want to check out her non-profit Girlsgarage.org
  • A delightful talk from Christina Tosi, the famous pastry chef and owner of Milk Bar, shared about the magic of cooking when you break the rules and go for memories rather than fancy plating.

Of course, Ted Women during COVID time had to include discussions around the COVID 19 pandemic. All presenters agreed that we were not prepared and that we need to do better now to prepare for future epidemics.

Maria Van Kerkhove from the WHO explained that the questions about COVID-19 is not if, but when it will end (she thinks it will) and the fact that we were not prepared because we did not have to deal with this before (while Asia and Africa had learned from previous pandemics like Ebola, and Sars). She also explained how scientists did not fully anticipated the key role of politics and leadership in this crisis. She ended with a note of hope discussing the Pandemic Treaty that is starting to be discussed and that may provide a protocol and contract around better ways to share information and collaborate.

Jennifer Nuzzo used the analogy of the 1904 Philadelphia fire which created new fire prevention approach and recommended three steps:

  1. Use data with new national standard to collect information in a systematic way instead of inconsistent data from many sources;
  2. Drill by creating a new culture of safety that would include home testing, teaching protection and use flu season as a drill for future pandemic; and
  3. Have a better defense system with highly-skilled professionals, better building codes for ventilation and ways to support people should they have to stay home.

Throughout the conference,  I saw myself oscillating between fears and hope, being amazed by the power of imagination and how women are creating new and innovative solutions for so many complex issues. It reminded me of our shared humanity and the power of our minds and our hearts to keep trying the make the world a better place.