The TEDification of Corporate America

The gabfest, long a Silicon Valley favorite, hosts talks for companies
Illustration by 731

Last November, State Street introduced a new team-building exercise: The financial-services company hosted its own TED event, modeled on the conference series that promises “riveting talks by remarkable people.” While TED speakers have included big names such as Bill Gates and Sheryl Sandberg, State Street drew upon its own pool of about 30,000 employees. “We had people from all geographies and all levels of the company,” says Hannah Grove, State Street’s chief marketing officer, who came up with the idea.

Run by the nonprofit Sapling Foundation, TED started out in 1984 as a one-off event. Its mission: to help spread ideas and bring together experts in technology, entertainment, and design. Today, TED has morphed into a business with $34 million in assets on its books. Tens of thousands of TED Talks have been given—all of them carefully rehearsed, choreographed, and formulated for maximum emotional impact, and all of them shorter than 18 minutes. Talks available online have been viewed more than 1.5 billion times.

Grove, a TED Talks fan, suspected that TEDifying State Street might help the Boston-based company market its brand, as well as promote employee bonding and the cross-pollination of ideas. In 2012 she proposed a partnership to TED, which recently started a professional development arm, the TED Institute. TED last summer launched pilot programs to curate corporate TED events with State Street, Boston Consulting Group, and Intel. “It really is an exercise in brand storytelling,” says Ronda Carnegie, TED’s head of global partnerships. “It makes you realize that corporations are made up of people.”

Seeking speakers, each company asked, “Do you have a TED Talk in you? If you do, send us your ideas,” Carnegie says. State Street held an open call; Intel and BCG asked only certain individuals to submit proposals. From each group, TED experts culled one to two dozen people who were then paired with TED coaches for an intense six-week training program. Topics ran the gamut from the personal to the professional. A senior partner at BCG was chosen to speak about what doctors can learn from one another. An Intel manager addressed the challenge of being agile in an “un-agile” workplace. Joe Kowan, a graphic designer at State Street, told the story of how he overcame stage fright by making up a silly song. Kowan’s TED coach helped him draft and revise his talk, which Kowan says he rehearsed at least 100 times.

On the day of the TED@StateStreet event, about 350 employees met at Boston’s Revere Hotel, where the stage had been set to look like a real TED conference. The company’s chief executive officer, Jay Hooley, sat in the front row. “I felt this overwhelming support from everyone,” Kowan recalls. “It leveled the playing field in a way I wasn’t expecting.”

In 2014, TED will offer its services to more businesses. “We ask [companies] to make an investment of $1.5 million in everything that we do,” Carnegie says, referring to TED initiatives such as TEDGlobal, a conference abroad, and TED-Ed, its open online education platform. In exchange, she says, TED offers the “most special thing we do—which is the value of teaching you how to give a TED talk.”

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