A common refrain emerged after the three-day convening of TEDWomen in Atlanta from Oct. 11 to 13 when 1,200 people came for the first ever gathering of the group in the city.
“I would love for this to be the permanent location TEDWomen,” said Saadia Madsbjerg, president of the Coca-Cola Foundation: “We will have to figure out what it will take to have Atlanta be the permanent location.”
As it is, TEDWomen is committed to return to the Woodruff Arts Center in 2024 and 2025. The three-year run is more than any other city has enjoyed hosting TEDWomen, which was the brainchild of Pat Mitchell, an Atlanta legend who has been a leader in the fields of news, film, environment and women.
Hala Moddelmog, president and CEO of the Woodruff Arts Center, also said her goal is to have Atlanta become the home of TEDWomen.
“I’m feeling terrific, happy, proud and so grateful to Pat Mitchell and TED,” Moddelmog said at the end of the last session of speakers on Oct. 13. “I think it’s great for the Woodruff Arts Center and for Atlanta. It’s a gift.”
She also gave full credit to Mitchell.
“I couldn’t admire her more,” Moddlemog said. “She’s 80 years old. She’s inspiring. She inspires everything.”
During the conference, Mitchell referred to herself as the “hometown girl.”
Back in 2009, she told TED founder Chris Anderson that not enough women were given a voice at the traditional TED talks. That led to the first TEDWomen conference in 2010 when 800 women convened in Washington, D.C. That’s when Maya Penn – an entrepreneur – made her first (of three) TED talk at the ripe age of 13.
During the 2023 conference, Penn (also from the Atlanta area) was now a co-host along with Mitchell and Helen Walters.
“It’s been a dream for it to come to Atlanta,” Penn said in a brief interview. “Atlanta is such an epicenter for technology, culture, activism, art and entrepreneurship. Atlanta has so much to share. It was a perfect choice. It would be amazing for Atlanta to be the permanent home for TEDWomen. It would really send a powerful message if TED were to make Atlanta the home for TEDWomen.”
The number of attendees to the Atlanta conference was by far the largest ever for TEDWomen. In all, there were delegates from 49 countries and almost every state in the country. The three days featured mostly women speakers, even though a handful of men shared their messages.
Nearly 100 students were given scholarships to attend thanks to philanthropist Liz Blake and other entities, such as the Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation.
Blake alone provided 20 scholarships to students from Spelman College and Morehouse College.
“It was more diverse and younger than ever before,” Blake said of the people who attended. “It needs to become part of our identity. Companies need to incorporate TedWomen into their corporate giving to make sure TEDWomen remains in Atlanta.”
It’s hard describe the TED experience when speakers give 10-minute talks on subjects ranging from democracy, climate change, refugees, business, equity, international relations, the role of women mixed in with art and cultural offerings.
Even TED founder Anderson was impressed. Anderson had not attended a TEDWomen conference in several years, but this year he asked Mitchell if he could give a talk. Anderson spoke about his book: “Infectious Generosity.,” which explains his philosophy that being generous leads to happiness. TED actually provides all its content free to the world. It also “gave away our brand” by allowing hundreds of TEDx gatherings to sprout around the world.
Anderson, however, shared his most generous compliment with Mitchell. “Pat, you have changed the world,” he said at the end of his talk.
Atlanta was prominently featured among the speakers at this year’s TEDWomen, largely because of the quality of leaders in the community.
Valerie Montgomery Rice, president of the Morehouse School of Medicine, spoke of her journey from being a girl at her grandmother’s little pink house near Wrens, Ga. to becoming a college president.
Congresswoman Lucy McBath, who participated via video conferencing from Washington, D.C., spoke of how she became advocate for safer gun laws following the murder of her son.
Jay Bailey, president and CEO of Russell Innovation Center for Entrepreneurs, spoke about his leadership of the largest nonprofit in the world aimed at growing Black businesses.
Paige Alexander, president and CEO of the Carter Center, show a photo that First Lady Rosalynn Carter has in her office of a protest outside the White House of women against the Equal Rights Amendment in 1977.
“She told me she kept it on her desk to remind her of all the work she had left to do,” Alexander said. She also said President Jimmy Carter spoke at a TEDWomen conference 10 years ago when he was 89 about his book on human rights and women’s rights.
Charles Blow, a New York Times columnist who now lives in Atlanta, spoke about the Black migration out of the South and why Black people should return to the South as a way of shoring up Black political influence in Southern states.
“I think Atlanta showed up really well,” Moddelmog said.
Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, agreed. “Atlanta is a place where you can have diverse voices, and they can feel comfortable and supported,” she said.
Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens welcomed attendees, saying “Atlanta is the perfect city to host TEDWomen.”
But as walked off stage, there were a few hecklers who yelled “Stop Cop City,” referring to the controversial public safety training center under construction on land that used to house the city’s prison farm in DeKalb County.
Rohit Malhotra, founder and executive director of the Center for Civic Innovation, said he was asked repeatedly about the facility.
“We put on this show for the world about what Atlanta can be, but we are afraid to talk about what we are today,” said Malhotra, adding it was ironic to hear so many speakers talk about value of democracy. “I genuinely believe in democracy. How can we claim to be the bedrock of the civil rights movement but actively be blocking a democratic process that allows people to vote?”
Ruha Benjamin, a professor at Princeton University, brought up “Cop City” in her talk, saying protesters were defending a forest. “They understand that protecting people and the planet go hand-in-hand,” she said.
But at least one Atlanta observer said her presentation inaccurately described the site as a native forest.
For Mitchell, TEDWomen is an opportunity for people to share ideas and stimulate thought. In a conversation Mitchell had with actress Glenn Close, the topic was mental health and the need to provide more supportive services in our schools.
Other amazing speakers included Oleksandra Matviichuk, a human rights defender from Kiev, Ukraine who said the world faces a war between two systems — authoritarianism or democracy. She called for the establishment of a new international tribunal that would hold Russia accountable for its war crimes.
Dasha Navalnaya, daughter of Alexi Navalny — the Russian opposition leader who was poisoned and has been imprisoned for nearly three years — spoke of how she could not understand how her father could be so optimistic about the future.
Tracie Revis, director of advocacy for the Ocmulgee National Park in Macon, reminded delegates that “you are all on my ancestral land.” The sacred grounds of Ocmulgee Park were once slated to become industrial land. “If my journey has taught me anything, if you take care of this land, it will take care of you,” she said.
For me, TEDWomen was overwhelming. It was mentally exhausting to hear 44 speakers touching on so many diverse topics.
“We call it TED-ache,” Mitchell laughingly said in a phone interview two days after the conference ended. And then she took a serious tone. “It’s been a fabulous privilege to have this platform. I’m proud of Atlanta for stepping up.”