At 4:55 pm, on September 30th. We will never forget that moment. Romeo, the last speaker at TEDxChennai finishes his electric talk. As he lights up the candle, the lights at the huge Lady Andal Auditorium fade out. In the dim candle light, one could see the entire audience give a standing ovation…a very long one.
17 speakers on the day at TEDxChennai. 14 standing ovations. Yes, Fourteen. Never have we seen so many in any single event.
All of us hug each other. High fives galore. With a heady feeling, we were happy that four months of hard work had paid off.
A month later, came a sobering mail about certain violations and the news that TEDxLicense has been cancelled. I figured I owe an explanation of what happened. I’ll do it in a simple Q&A style.
How many TEDxChennai events have you conducted?
Three. In 2009, 2010 at IIT Madras. The 2012 edition was held at the Lady Andal Auditorium.
Let’s start with the allegations. You had a Press Conference for TEDxChennai?
Yes, we did. We had a press conference a week before the event. A prominent 5 Star Hotel, Park Sheraton, was kind enough to come forward to host the press conference as an in-kind sponsor. We felt it would be good to spread the word about TEDxChennai. It was also aimed at boosting the registrations. We had a much larger auditorium with 1200 capacity to fill. A big jump from our earlier editions with 230 people capacity at IIT Madras.
Is there a rule against having Press Conferences?
No, there is no rule. However, it is a TED tradition not to go overboard on press. Even for the main TED events, TED only invites a small handful. For TEDxChennai, we had a unique problem. We booked a 1200 seater auditorium. A week before the event, we only sold about half the tickets. We did not have the budgets to advertise and felt spreading the word through media would be effective. And it worked. There was good buzz created and we had a houseful attendance on the day of the event. It was done with good intentions.
Did you get a Sponsor as a Speaker?
My quick answer: No. A resounding NO.
We never got any sponsor as a speaker. Let me explain where the confusion arose.
Prabhakar Murugiah, an entrepreneur, offered to help sponsor the venue. The idea was that he would pay the auditorium directly.
We were also simultaneously contemplating inviting him as a speaker. We clearly knew the cardinal rule of not mixing sponsors with stage.
He has a fascinating background story… a small time village kid from a middle income family goes through lots of struggles and make it big as an entrepreneur in the US. He chose to have his company’s entire operations in Tirunelveli, his home town even though it would make sense to have it in Chennai or Bangalore.
He had a compelling story to tell. As a team, we took the decision of taking him as a speaker. We turned down his offer to pay for the venue. I repeat. He is not a sponsor. Every member of the organizing team and the speaker himself will vouch for this. Sadly though, this was misunderstood.
Interestingly, our decision to invite him as a speaker turned out to be a good one. It was a great decision because his talk was considered among the best ones. He had a standing ovation and the loudest applause from the audience.
Did the TEDxChennai speakers speak at other events?
Yes, they did. They spoke at a school and a college a few days before the event.
We had 17 speakers from 10 different countries. They came in a 3 days prior to the event. When they were here, Sishya school and Saveetha University invited the speakers to address their students. The speakers were eager to interact with the students too. It was done in the right spirit. Not meant to violate any rule. These were not professional events. No one got paid. It was meant to be an inspiring session for the students.
Was the 100 people rule broken?
No. TED has given permission to us to organize a bigger event. TED has a rule that if the licensee holder has attended a main TED event, he has the permission to organize an event more than 100 people. I’ve been fortunate to attend TEDindia in Mysore, TED at Palm Springs, California and TEDEurope in Oxford.
So, what is your final take on this?
I feel relieved to open up and explain. Personally, me and the entire team of organizers gave our heart and soul to organize a great event. Among the three editions we conducted, the 2012 edition was the best.
The organizing and volunteering team have been fabulous. Amazingly high spirited and enthusiastic. Over 50 people worked hard for over 4 months to pull off this event. In the frenzy of the activity, some boundaries were crossed inadvertently and unintentionally. As the curator, the buck stops with me. I should have been more careful and I own up the responsibility.