A Meeting of Great Minds
UP and away: Houston's hometown think-fest sends idea seekers out on a real high
Houston's homegrown think-fest, The UP Experience, went down without a hitch Thursday at the Stafford Centre, where more than 600 eager idea-seekers gathered to listen to 15 speakers offer their thoughts on how to change the world — or at least the next image on their power point.
Founded by Sheryl and Ernie Rapp, The UP Experience attracted all kinds of enthusiasts, from those wanting to hear a specific speaker to those up for a day of being challenged with creative ideas. Jerry Hobby, CEO of Anything Internet, prefers the convenience of UP.
"I'm a fan of TED, but it's expensive and hard to get to," said Hobby, a three-time UPster. "I may not agree with all the speakers, but they always expand my thinking."
Hobby preferred not to study the speaker lineup. "It's better to be surprised; go in with a totally open mind," he said.
Sally Kolenda of Leadership Houston had a different approach. As a volunteer for Community Cloth, Kolenda came specifically to hear Kiva founder Jessica Jackley.
Speakers varied in their approach, from the academic, (Wendy Schiller, Luis von Ahn) to the off-the-wall zany (Bill Nye, David Pogue). Some had that "I've done this speech before" polish (Gracie Cavnar, Michael Eisner), while others took us through their life journey (Steve Thomas, Dennis Littky, Jessica Jackley).
Get more shut eye
Who knew the sleep doc would be such a hit. Since when is snoozing so sexy?
About now, if you were in the room with James Maas, author of Power Sleep and Sleep for Success. Maas combined hard science with humor along with compelling evidence to get more shut eye.
"Stop those early morning exercise sessions," Maas said.
Figure skater Sarah Hughes did and has an Olympic Gold Medal as a result. Maas drew a standing-room-only mob for the Q & A, where he elaborated on his ideas.
"Sleep has been ignored by medical schools and it's the number one complaint in America," Maas insisted. "Sleep is finally getting some attention and is growing into a huge industry."
In another room, 400 high school juniors gathered to hear five speakers hand-picked by Cody Rapp, a neuroscience major at the University of Southern California. Bill Nye, Luis von Ahn and David Pogue made the grade as favorites.
"You could feel the energy in the room," said Cody, who founded The Junior UP Experience. "The kids were so excited. It's so cool to get information on the outside world like this, especially in your junior year of high school."
Lunch, in the form of a sleek black Bento Box with all the beauty of a still life, contained food delights from a collection of Houston's top chefs, including Barbara McKnight of Catering by Culinaire, Randy Evans of Haven, Giancarlo Ferrara of Arcodoro, Ryan Pera of new Revival Meats Grocery & Market, John Sheely of Mockingbird Bistro, and Pastry chef Rebecca Masson. I sampled every single one of Masson's delicacies (for research purposes), and I must admit, I do feel smarter.
Localebrity neuroscientist David Eagleman, on double duty, offered his theory of discounting the future by revealing the two separate brain systems operating under the same hood of our heads, the "I want it now" short term one which led to the housing bubble explosion, and the "save me from my future self" one that led to savings accounts like the Christmas Club.
As soon as he was done with his 20 minutes in the spotlight, he switched to moderator, asking cut-to-the-chase post-talk questions to the speakers.
Divas World added an artful element with several singing introductions, including a pre-Eisner Disney tunes medley.
The speakers who touched my heart and mind possessed a combination of ground breaking work, humor and a gift for 20-minute storytelling. Those less attached to their power point also proved more persuasive.
Carnegie Mellon computer science professor von Ahn had the whole package, an amazing discovery and a need-to-know delivery style. Most known as the developer of CAPTCHA, those wavy semi-drunk looking characters you sometimes need to type to get into your Facebook account or buy tickets online, von Ahn dazzled the crowd with his stunningly original research.
CAPTCHA, which reveals whether you are a human or a computer, is now being put to service to better the world. Be annoyed by the 10 seconds it takes to type into that little box no more. You are helping to digitize books and translate languages.
The kooky Nye reminded the energy biz folks that there's economic opportunity in conservation.
"It's in no one's best interests to deny climate change," said Nye, who pretended to get electrocuted while plugging in his laptop. Nye is particularly proud of his $10-a-month electricity bill. The science guy was in top form. He ranted about getting science education in elementary schools and his ongoing competition to use the least amount of energy in Hollywood.
"I must crush Ed Begley," joked Nye as we visited in the green room.
The New York Times personal technology columnist Pogue threw away the change-the-world script to entertain us with a list of amazing gadgets that may, in fact, change your world. He was a hoot — funny, informative, off the charts nutty and enthused about the gizmos making our lives more connected and well, fun. His 20 minutes went by way too fast.
Wired founder Kevin Kelly took an understated stance, offering a long term view of technology. According to Kelly, the Internet has proved to be one of the most dependable phenomenon in history. It's never broken down on a large scale. Wow. Interesting.
The 12 year-old-going-on-40 child author Adora Svitak reminded us to listen to the wisdom of young people. Sure, sometimes kids can be brutally honest telling you that your nose is too big. When the prodigy launched into some facts on the recent BP oil spill, she suggested the company could use a "Your nose is too big" moment of honesty.
Inspired to make a difference
Lackley's journey from sitting in on a Stanford class in economics to traveling to Africa to interview hundreds of small entrepreneurs proved a moving tale. Today, she's most known as founder of Kiva, a mico-lending social benefit website which facilitates over $1 million in transactions weekly. Her authenticity came through in spades, rousing the only standing ovation of the day. I left wanting to know more about micro-financing and Kiva.
Kolenda wasn't disappointed with her heroine either.
"Jessica Jackley was amazing. People weren't so much applauding her but applauding the idea that we can make a difference. Small grants can change the world, and they are," Kolenda said. "I am still on fire after yesterday."
Afterwards, she rattled off an impressive list of ideas, action plans and inspiration gathered from just about every speaker.
Karen Watassek of Society for the Performing Arts took away a more personal "to do" list. Impressed by Eisner's focus on meaningful partnerships, Maas ideas on getting more sleep, Cavnar's get-back-to-the-garden mantra, Dan Buettner's longevity findings in the blue zones, she was ready to implement a healthier lifestyle.
"I am definitely going to make some changes," Watassek said.
I ran into Hobby again as the day drew to a close. He had taken copious notes, gathering a boatload of shovel ready ideas he could implement in his company.
"I'm going to use Eagleman's concept of future deferment. It applies to marketing and payroll. I will use it in my goals workshop," Hobby said. "Pogue's ideas on augmented reality really made sense. It's real and the future, all at the same time. Now that's visionary."