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Ashley White will never forget the hours leading up to the first TEDx event at Cal Poly in 2016.

“The first year, it was a sh*t show,” White said, laughing at the event that was known then as TEDxCalPoly. “I was driving from my house, in the bed of a truck with the giant ‘X.’ We were on Kentucky [Street] and Hathway [Avenue] and a cop pulled me over and I got a ticket for sitting in the trunk of the car. So I was late for the event and got a $150 ticket. But the show must go on.”

And it has. It has been three years since that first event and White has stayed with the team. Now the lead organizer, she looks forward to welcoming 10 more speakers to the Christopher Cohan Performing Arts Center’s stage Saturday, Oct. 27 from 3 p.m. to 8 p.m. Speakers include Afghan author Nadia Ghulam Dastgir, olympic boxer Karlos Balderas, pop-up restaurant chef and Cal Poly student Jimmy Wong, along with seven other speakers. Those interested in attending can purchase tickets on the TEDxSanLuisObispo website. Tickets cost $30 for Cal Poly students and $35 for all other attendees.

The conference, themed “Making Waves,” costs more than $50,000 to put on, funded largely by sponsors and profits from the previous year’s event. The event will host more than 1,200 expected attendees. A conference of that magnitude is no simple task. In fact, the TEDxSanLuisObispo team has been hard at work for almost a year and has been building their reputation far longer than that.


TEDx, an independently organized TED event, got its start at Cal Poly in 2016. Despite the hiccups, the inaugural event was a surprising success in many ways.

A team of only 10 students received a license from the national non-profit TED organization and began to build from the ground-up. White, a recreation, parks and tourism administration senior, said the event was intended to be small to start, but quickly grew beyond the team’s expectations.  

“We kept pushing it back and it grew and grew and grew,” White said. “It went off way better than we thought it could. It sold out the first time.”

“Bigger than ourselves”

Since its inaugural year, TEDxCalPoly has been renamed to “TEDxSanLuisObispo” to better encompass its mission of being a community-wide event. According to White, the name change aimed to broaden the event’s influence and “draw a bridge between students and the community.”

For business administration junior Sarah Galicinao, TEDxSanLuisObispo’s executive director of finance, it is all about the community.

“It’s bigger than ourselves,” Galicinao said. “We are here for the community; we want to spark ideas and bring something different to [San Luis Obispo].”

White joined Galicinao in praising TEDxSanLuisObispo for its community efforts. White said she is proud of the team’s ability to put on such a large event. The student team tackles every necessary task from start to finish, a complex undertaking for full-time students.

“We raise all of our own money, we bring in all of our own speakers, we build our own sets, we do literally everything,” White said. “So to say you’ve made something from nothing is pretty incredible.”

2018 Conference

A week ago, with only 10 days left before the event, the team gathered for their weekly meeting in the San Luis Obispo HotHouse, dressed in TEDx “swag” with popsicles in hand. They inspected their 10-day schedule like a well-oiled machine, detailing their duties to prepare. White called this “fire time.”

For the past three years, the TEDxSanLuisObispo team brought dozens of speakers to the PAC’s stage. Previous conferences gathered authors, activists, artificial intelligence experts, and some of Cal Poly’s very own students.

According to biological sciences senior McKensie Hammons, speaker executive of TEDxSanLuisObispo, the team began reaching out to potential speakers early in Spring 2018. Hammons and her team handle all accommodations, including flights, transportation, and hotels. She said the team typically has speakers confirmed by early summer.

With speakers spanning many industries, countries and different areas of expertise, marketing executive and business administration senior Kerstin Steiger said she looks forward to the impact the speakers will have on the audience. The forum dictates that speakers deliver their message in under 20 minutes.

“We have 10 different talks, so any one of those ideas can impact you,” Steiger said. “At least one topic will impact somebody in some way and that’s definitely the coolest part.”

The TEDxSanLuisObispo team changed the letters of the “P” on the hill behind campus to “TEDx” early Sunday morning. Connor Frost | Mustang News
The TEDxSanLuisObispo team changed the letters of the “P” on the hill behind campus to “TEDx” early Sunday morning. Connor Frost | Mustang News

Looking ahead

Although the 2018 TEDxSanLuisObispo Conference will soon come to a close, the team’s work is far from over. In just a few short months, they will begin recruiting new members to start planning for the 2019 conference.

For Steiger and the rest of the team, many of whom will graduate in June, none have regretted their decision to get involved.

“It’s a learning experience. We are hands-on, handling every moving part of this huge conference,” Steiger said. “I think it’s the closest thing we can get as students to the real world experience.”

For those interested in joining the team to help plan the 2019 conference, applications are available on the TEDxSanLuisObispo site.

“If you’re passionate about spreading new ideas, joining the team is a great experience,” Steiger said. “It doesn’t matter what your major is or what your previous experience is, the point of being on the team is to grow your experience.”

As for this year’s conference, the TEDxSanLuisObispo team hopes the event will be another success. And if all goes well, no one will go home with a $150 ticket courtesy of local law enforcement.

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