A file photo of Bill Clinton talking at a TED conference. TEDx events are spin-offs of the main brand, to give ‘a TED-like experience’, planned and coordinated independently and at a local level by organizers who would be advised by TEDx ‘ambassadors’. Photo: Wikimedia Commons (Wikimedia Commons)
A file photo of Bill Clinton talking at a TED conference. TEDx events are spin-offs of the main brand, to give ‘a TED-like experience’, planned and coordinated independently and at a local

level by organizers who would be advised by TEDx ‘ambassadors’. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

(Wikimedia Commons)

TEDx revokes Chennai licences

The TEDx team says a Chennai event violated its norms and disregarded the very ‘DNA’ of the organization

When TED, the non-profit organization that hosts talks for the public on “ideas worth spreading", was preparing its entrance into India in 2008, to host a one-off event the following year, the organizers had no idea of the impact it would have.

“Hardly anyone knew TED at that time," said Lakshmi Pratury, a co-host of TED India 2009. That was about to change.

Concurrently, the TEDx events were launched, spin-offs of the main brand, to give “a TED-like experience", planned and coordinated independently and at a local level by organizers who would be advised by TEDx “ambassadors".

The idea that anyone could organize their own TEDx event, after registering with the organization, “spread like wildfire" in India, Pratury said, especially among young people aspiring to link themselves with the brand.

“For a student to be associated with a name like TED is a big deal and it’s a free licence," she said.

Since then, 265 TEDx events have been held in India, according to the TEDx website, and the number is rising fast. Seven different TEDx events were held in the first two days of December: in Bhubhaneswar, Chennai, Pune, Mumbai, Delhi and two in Hyderabad. Fifty six more are already scheduled between now and 7 April, of which only 21 have any space available.

With that many events, it’s no wonder that it seems as though anyone who has achieved anything of note has spoken at or is about to speak at a TEDx event, but the fervour has not come without its problems. On Monday, a letter sent from the TEDx headquarters to its India licensees around six weeks ago surfaced on the website Pastebin.

“In India, unlike elsewhere in the world, there have been repeated violations of the TEDx rules," said the letter, signed by the TEDx team. The TEDx team could not be reached for official responses.

TEDx stipulates to its organizers that there must be no sponsor logos displayed on stage, that sponsors may not give TEDx talks, that a TEDx event must not be combined with another event that uses the same funding or speakers. It also enforces a 100 attendee limit, if the main organizer has not himself attended TED, and asks that TEDx must be clearly distinguished from its parent organization.

In particular, the team complained about an event in Chennai, which, it said, had held a press conference with sponsors, allowed the venue sponsor to speak on stage and shared speakers with another conference. As a result, the Chennai licence would be cancelled, the team said, and the primary organizer of the event, Kiruba Shankar, had resigned his position as TEDx ambassador in India.

Shankar, who confirmed that he stepped down three weeks ago, was one of four TEDx ambassadors in India. He said that the TEDx Chennai event has been “put on hold" until a suitable replacement licensee could be found. “There was no intention of violating the rules of TEDx in Chennai," he said. “But you must understand that organizing the events is a big task. There were some 50 volunteers involved for over six months."

According to Shankar, a hotelier came forward to offer his space for the event. “The sponsorship was immaterial," he maintained. “There was no money involved, as it was in kind. The person offered to give us space and had a great story to tell, which we thought would be great for our audience to hear. So he spoke at the event as well." Shankar added that his team had turned down the monetary sponsorship.

That reasoning might not hold much water with TEDx, however, which was adamant in its letter that the very “DNA" of the organization had been disregarded.

“TEDx is about giving back to your community in an honest, sincere, selfless and non ego-driven way," the letter said. “If you are hosting a TEDx event because it will look good on your resume, because you are a motivation speaker and it gives you a platform or because it is the ‘in thing’ to do, you are not in this for the right reason!"

The last comment seems to have struck a nerve in India. Twitter users pounced on the idea that the ethics of TEDx had been corrupted by Indian organizers and speakers hungry for limelight and keen to monetize what should be a free forum. “We have (a) habit of overdoing good things and making it a commodity," wrote @beingpractical. “Is there ANY institution that we have not denigrated?" asked @SachinKalbag.

According to Pratury, this reaction is unfair. “TEDx is a voluntary activity and there is a lot of trust built into the system," she said. “It doesn’t have 50 employees who are running around the event, so if someone breaks a certain rule you just have to keep correcting it and moving on. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. In India we take anything a little negative very seriously as if it’s a problem with the whole system."

Pratury, who has been producing the INK talks in association with TED in India since 2010, added that when an idea grows in popularity so quickly, it can be hard to keep true to its foundations. “The whole point of open source systems is that things grow very quickly," she said. “In India, it’s a young population and a young country—two youngs—and overnight we’ve achieved this development, this economic success, but the rigour that goes with it hasn’t happened yet."

Shankar agreed that the popularity of the events poses problems. “There has been no blatant breaking of rules," he said. “TEDx events are usually quite popular, so it becomes difficult to restrict the number of people who attend the event."

Swapan Seth, an advertising executive who has been an adviser to TEDx Delhi and was one of the organizers at the recently concluded TEDxYouth in Chanakyapuri, said that such rapid growth poses problems for TED’s reputation.

“Many of the organizers are not torchbearers of the TED philosophy," he said. “TED is a superlative platform that encourages the idea and the idealist. It is a platform that encourages the road less travelled, a body that must have very well-manicured guidelines that demand to be respected. Chapters must respect that."

In its letter, the TEDx team suggested it would be looking at introducing “additional steps" in allocating TEDx licensees in India. Part of that, according to Pratury, might be about clarification rules. “Here it might be as simple as young organizers not knowing why they should follow the rules," she said. “If I don’t understand it, I won’t follow it but once they understand then they are amazing about it."

TED stands for technology, entertainment and design, the observed convergence of which inspired the conferences, which began in 1984.

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