By Camilla Webster

“It’s like the Gutenberg Bible.” That’s how I described TEDx the other day. After all, TEDxNewWallStreet changed my life and the lives so many others. It stretched my brain and renewed my soul, all in twenty-four hours, over topics as unlikely as banking, accounting and small business loans. It took me beyond what I thought was possible in my New York mindscape. TEDx really is like the dawn of movable type in our day; an innovative, deeply impactful platform for the spreading of critical, sacred, worthy ideas.

One January morning as I was finishing edits on The Seven Pearls of Financial Wisdom, a Facebook message appeared in my inbox. It was from TEDxNewWallStreet’s organizer Bruce Cahan inviting me to get involved in reimagining banking for the Information Age. Bruce, a social entrepreneur and a design pioneer, is creating a new bank paradigm through his high-transparency, impacts-aware bank project known as GoodBank™(IO).

After covering banking for ten years, I agreed to be TEDxNewWallStreet’s MC and onstage host for a solution-based, idea generating, out-of-the-box conversation, offering a different path for the finance industry.

I was part of a TEDx when the banking system had already collapsed in New York. Much like corporate offsite events and the peace talks of war-ridden strategic powers, TEDxNewWallStreet, a purely volunteer endeavor, had to take place outside the hot zone, in this case outside New York.

Now, I was joining the trek to Silicon Valley set by financial technology designers and innovators to breathe fresh air into the broken system that had become “Wall Street.”  To have a purer, more creative conversation, we needed to sit far away from Wall Street, Battery Park City, The Hudson River, The East River, the bulls and bears, and the big guys in Midtown. As I boarded my Virgin America plane with Bruce in New York City, I had the sense something special was happening. Taking off for California with this Ashoka Fellow and Stanford University Civil & Environmental Engineering Visiting Scholar, I was doing what I love the most as a journalist: I was living history.

TEDx revived my belief in American ingenuity, all while standing on a stage in a pair of red Toms shoes that Bruce had sent. He wanted to get me in a California headspace. I planned away booking environmental advocate hedge fund managers, walking around my Manhattan apartment in a socially-conscious pair of espadrilles. Every few days, Bruce and I would Skype about a new Wall Street rooted and growing in Silicon Valley, contrasting sharply with the Industrial Age model in Manhattan. Later that month, back in New York City I would attend TEDxWallStreet at the New York Stock Exchange. While it was certainly full of value and innovation, I found the bold steps taken in California signaled an exciting new chapter for a banking system in an Information Age.

On March 11th, the hour had come for me to take the stage, guiding a discussion on how all this relates to our present and future. Theater lights boring into my eyes, an attentive audience below, I felt a special sense of community.

The stage was my own. I was to become part of those perfect TEDx productions of human expression, bathed in simplicity and light.

Each speaker (not all who I can talk about here) brought common sense and passion for changing the banking system, to make it fairer, safer, cheaper and more accountable. Hour after hour I introduced another visionary. Sean Gourley founder of Quid, unwrapped the secrets of black box trading to show how augmenting machine intelligence with human intelligence could create safer, saner markets. Bill Harris of Personal Capital and the former CEO of Intuit touted the value of a new digital signature. Joe Lonsdale of Addepar and Rose Hill of Palantir explained how Big Data technology could find financial solutions for homeowners, banks, GSE/investors (like Fannie Mae), and the nation.

As TED events must include technology, entertainment and design elements, speakers used everything from humor, charts, storytelling, Flemish art, French and Italian royal accounting, a Twinkie and pop music to bring the audience to where banking and financial systems became accessible, and even fun.

I talked about the new “keep moving” reality, untimely home sales and the value of investment property. I was flocked by audience members at the break, including a guy who was on his twelfth move after getting funding for his new business from VC’s on Silicon Valley’s famed Sandhill Road.

Shivani Siroya’s showcased a mobile app, Insight, for developing countries. Now small businesses could use SMS messaging to see their basic financial health in real time and to qualify for cheaper micro-investments and loans.

Nature itself was presented as a resiliency bank model when our curator Bruce wrapped up the day’s talks, using biomimicry as a principle for self-organizing and healing.

TEDxNewWallStreet ended with a smashing cocktail event in another wing of the Computer History Museum. I left inspired and empowered. Ready for the next TEDx.

After some heady days at Stanford, my last meeting with Bruce took place at the Palo Alto Creamery. We reviewed the future of the free world and ideas worth spreading over pie at the local diner. How very New York. Bruce clearly already had me in training for my return to life in Manhattan.

There is something deeply moving about giving a talk at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA, a five minute walk from Google’s headquarters. I could almost feel the energy of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates and their machines, their software, their genius in the rooms all around us. The space gives visitors the audacity to dream big, aligning perfectly with a TEDx to explore a new way of looking at the world, of being. I was glad I took part in it all.


Featured image courtesy of Camilla Webster

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