How did TEDxUniversityofEssex start? an interview with the founder

This interview was conducted before the 2021 event.

Petra: Hi Mary! First, I think it's important people know who you are, so what should they know about you? (:

Mary: Okay, what should people know about me? I studied at the University of Essex between 2015 and 2019, so four years. Colchester was my home. I took part in many groups, activities, I worked many jobs. I was passionate about the things I got myself involved in, including the formation of TEDxUniversityofEssex/the society. I like trying and creating new things and opportunities for others. I enjoyed... being a student to an extent as well!

Petra: How did you even come to think about starting the society?

Mary: Through my experience during study abroad, which I did from the end of summer/autumn 2017 to summer 2018 at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Whilst there, I had the opportunity to give a TEDx Talk, you know? There were many situations happening on campus, and one of these incidents that struck me quite strongly was the death of one of the students.
The student committed suicide after we received our first term results and it was a student from my college and the building they „fell from“ is not somewhere people would normally have access to, so it was clear that it was a suicide.
It struck me quite deeply and I spoke to the local students about it. They told me about the cold approach of the government towards this societal issue. I thought the least I can do is actually talk about it. Initially, I wanted to do a project with a flash mob, involving some stakeholders, but unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do that.
I was given the opportunity, quite unconventionally, to be a speaker at TEDxCUHK 2018 event and so from my experience there, I thought that students at the University of Essex should have this opportunity because I knew they have great stories and ideas that they want to share not just to fellow students but also the world.
I knew there were other people with the same sentiment and I knew the University has hosted a TEDx event way back, but it was the staff who hosted it and had the reins and I thought why not give the students the autonomy, the voice, why not have it run by students for students and anyone because our speakers are not just students but anyone with a story/idea to share. I thought it’d be great to give them this opportunity and platform. I had a couple of friends who thought the same and we thought: let’s make this happen!

Petra: I think all unis should have a TEDx nearby! Ah, so you know something about the event that happened in 2014?

Mary: Yeah, I don’t know much about that event, but I know a member of staff held the licence, I know that it wasn’t student run, so it was top-down approach. I wanted to make sure it was bottom-up. Essex is known for being rebels with a cause and I thought we can have a voice by having the license, by being the ones who run it, who organize it, who lead it, who get the exp from being part of it.

Petra: haha, for us, the 2014 event was a mysterious event that we knew nothing about! Yes, it definitely makes sense to involve students! You've hinted at your friends, so I'm going to guess they were part of your team. What was that like?

Mary: So, definitely I agree, the 2014 was a mysterious event! And my friends… Most of us were in a final year. I had Diana, the VP, Marcus, Jacob, Javan. The exec team Javan wasn’t in final year. It wasn’t easy to balance it with exams and most of us worked and did extracurricular stuff. The nice thing was we could have meetings at each other’s house, sometimes stay late to sort out stuff, it was a lot of hard work, the grassroot effort to launch the society, but it was nice because since we were friends, even when things were difficult, we understood each other because we were going through the same struggles. We were trying to start something new and successful, so it was a great experience.

Petra: I definitely know much about the friend work, me and Timea have put in a lot of time on the bus, midnight talks... People wouldn't believe how much time there is in it! You keep mentioning change, do you think this is why the event was called Metamorphosis? Or was there another reason?

Mary: With Metamorphosis, I remember discussing ideas with my friends on the exec team, we discussed a couple of things but agreed on this as it encapsulates a lot of different things and shows the beautiful transition from the caterpillar to the butterfly. With inspiring TEDx Talks it’s that enlightening process and we agreed it’s a beautiful metaphor that can be used as a theme for wide range of topics.
I can only imagine the number of hours you’ve put in but you’ve done an amazing job running it 2 years post inception, so well done to you, guys!

Petra: thank you! What do you think was your main struggle when creating the event?

Mary: Well, I think one of them was regarding the logistics, not the running, that was okay, but the preparation towards that, so many things happened unexpectedly, but one of the things we could’ve done better would’ve been to just have more organization about media on the day, with better funding, we could’ve invested in that, small things like that, I can’t even mention them all! (she laughs)
So many things we could’ve done differently. Also, people who applied late, amazing people, professionals who reached out and we wanted to be democratic, so we gave up this opportunity. I wanted, we all wanted, a mutual agreement and not me taking all the decisions.
Looking back, maybe I would’ve done differently, because unfortunately because of that, one of the best speakers of that day had her video not come out so well and we had to have it taken down. The quality was bad and there were some comments regarding that which took away from her speech, so I would’ve done that differently as it’d benefit more people in the long run.

Petra: I think you shouldn't be too hard on yourself, the events improve from year to year! And many of these we only see after the event and not before...

My last question would be if you have somehow stayed in touch with TEDx after leaving Essex?

Mary: I can relate! I have stayed in touch with TEDx after leaving the university, I’m still on the mailing list and I watch TED talks and there are so many opportunities that I still engage with and who knows, maybe I will set up another TEDx at a different place.
In any case, TED will stay in my life. In terms of the University one, I see the updates on your social media and I think I watched some talks. I engage from afar and it’s nice to see it’s still running and doing well, which makes me so happy!
I hope to have more engagement in the future, I’d love to go to the US TED Conference, which isn’t possible to do during the pandemic. It’d help with hosting larger events of over 100 guests. Definitely there’s more coming in my life relating to TEDx, but it is what it is right now!

Petra: Alright, thank you so much, we actually have a TEDx meetup right now, so I've got to go!

Mary: No worries, it was a pleasure speaking with you!

Petra: You too! Take care!

Mary: All the best for this year's event! Stay safe!


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