“There’s no advice. It’s not about having a good idea; you just start. People overthink a little bit. People may think it to death and never begin,” he said. Szaky is the co-founder and chief executive of Terracycle, a company dedicated to reusing what people throw away by, for example, turning used Capri-Sun wrappers into tote bags.
Szaky was one of the featured speakers at the University’s first TEDx conference, dubbed TEDxPrincetonU, held Friday in two separate sessions at the Frist Film/Performance Theatre. The event was an independently organized version of the larger annual TED conference, which invites leading innovators worldwide to speak about their ideas. TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, is a nonprofit organization committed to what it calls “ideas worth spreading.”
The conference, conceptualized by Eden Full ’13 and organized by a group of 17 students over a month and a half, brought to campus several prominent figures in the world of social entrepreneurship, several of them Princeton alumni.
“We wanted to make clear that social entrepreneurship is happening at Princeton University,” Full said after the conference. “We wanted to bring awareness [to the fact] that we are students interested in entrepreneurship and we need help.”
“Social entrepreneurship is really missing from the Princeton experience,” Raleigh Allison ’11, one of the lead organizers, said before the conference. “Social entrepreneurship is a fashionable new movement that is interesting and intellectually stimulating.”
The organizers could only accept 200 attendees based on TED rules for conferences, but received applications from 275 students, faculty and staff members, Allison said.
During the conference, speakers delivered quick lectures, each less than 25 minutes long, about their journeys in bringing about social change through entrepreneurship and how audience members could find and execute their big projects.
The event was divided into a morning session on innovation and an afternoon session on sustainability and social entrepreneurship. The lineup of speakers included President Shirley Tilghman; Breanden Beneschott ’11, founder of smsPREP, which offers standardized test preparation through mobile phones; Nicholas Negroponte, who spearheads the One Laptop Per Child initiative to develop low-cost laptops; and Lauren Bush ’06, the niece of President George W. Bush and chief executive of FEED Projects, which sells bags and clothing and donates a portion of the profits to feeding children around the world.
“We anticipated that there would be a lot of interest because we were differentiating this from the one-talk [events] that Princeton students are very used to,” Allison said. “We wanted to make sure that the people who came had a real interest.”
Tilghman, speaking during the talk on innovation, discussed the importance of thinking on a large scale.
“You must begin with a big idea if you are going to make a difference in the world. You cannot think small,” Tilghman said. She also stressed being “willing and able to take risks,” as well being willing “to inspire others.”
The presentations continued with microfinance analyst Mark Pickens speaking on the rapid growth of mobile banking in parts of Africa, where Vodafone-affiliate M-PESA, a mobile-phone money-transfer service, handles more than 2 million transactions per day in Kenya alone. Beneschott detailed the time-management regime he developed to enable him to be both a student and a businessman. Charles Tsai, founder of Global Youth Fund, an organization aimed at fostering youth leadership and engagement, described the “Six Habits of Highly Effective Social Entrepreneurs.”
While Tsai’s advice was applicable to anyone in the audience, Humera Fasihuddin directed her remarks toward undergraduates. Fasihuddin is the program manager for outreach of the National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, the primary sponsor of the event.
“Take advantage of the time you have now,” Fasihuddin said, urging students to get more involved in entrepreneurial ventures. “You have no student loans, no families to provide for, and plenty of resources on campus and beyond campus to tap into. Make the most of your time.”
After a networking session at the Fields Center, the second session began with architecture professor and PITCH:AFRICA founder Jane Harrison. Harrison described her novel approach to water conservation in Africa: She created million-liter water storage tanks under soccer fields. Bush then told her story of college-life philanthropy and humanitarian efforts with the United Nations World Food Programme.
“It’s important to identify what you care about and what you’re good at and how to get there. Not, ‘How is this going to make me millions of dollars?’ but ‘How is this going to affect the world?’” Bush said.
The afternoon ended with a talk by Szaky, who was named Inc. Magazine’s No. 1 CEO under 30 in 2006, ahead of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.
“What’s cool about TEDx [conferences] is that they allow you to take a deep dive into something you may not talk about or never experience, in a 20-minute window,” Szaky said after the conference. “Hopefully [the students] get inspired.”
Full, who invented a cheap solar panel technology and founded a company, Roseicollis Technologies, to bring it to developing countries, urged those still searching for advice to look locally for ideas.
“Ideas come from the most random places, when you least expect it,” said Full, who hopes to turn TEDxPrincetonU into an annual conference. “The harder you try to find a great idea, the more it’s not going to come to you. You just have to be open to it.”
Geosciences professor Gregory van der Vink GS ’83, president and chief executive of Terrametrics, a consulting company that seeks to promote sustainable economic development and reduce poverty, has already seen that inspiration in his students.
“I love the confidence, the enthusiasm, the excitement, the commitment to making a difference,” he said after the conference. “If I can inspire students to go out there and do something that makes a difference, then that has a greater effect than what I’m doing myself.”