TEDxUofM held its ninth annual conference, Black Box: Into the Unknown, on Friday with a sold-out crowd at the Power Center. Eight speakers from the University of Michigan and Ann Arbor community presented, focusing on how their experiences and choices have shaped their lives. The event was livestreamed on TEDxUofM’s website.

Kinesiology senior Jacqueline Katz served as the co-director for TedxUofM this year.

“We look for diversity in our speakers … so that our students and community members who come can be interested in multiple talks,” Katz said.

Engineering sophomore Matthew Askar appreciated how different the speakers were, emphasizing the significance of the content of their talks.

“I used to watch Ted talk videos on Youtube, and usually I’d watch them related to science or engineering, but I’ve never been to ones that are a little more creative in a way,” Askar said. “I wanted to see how those felt.”

John Pollack –– Consultant

John Pollack, an author and Ann Arbor native, began the presentations by speaking about the role of analogies in government, innovation and daily lives. Pollack served as a speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton and now works as a consultant for Fortune 500 companies, philanthropies and non-profit organizations.

In an interview with The Daily, Pollock described the importance of analogies in seeing problems from a new perspective.

“We’re in a world of hurt: we need new solutions and new ideas, and new ways of bridging divides,” Pollack said.

Piotr Westwalewicz –– Professor

Piotr Westwalewicz, Slavic Languages and Literature professor, spoke about his experiences growing up in Soviet Poland during a time of censorship and strict curfews, which reinforced his belief in the connections between protest and fun. Westwalewicz focused on his involvement in the Orange Alternative  — a form of peaceful protest through absurd and nonsensical elements — and redefining what is traditionally considered rebellion.

"Competitive success doesn't depend on clenched fists and grim faces," Westwalewicz said.

Keiana Cave –– Student and Inventor

Engineering sophomore Keiana Cavé spoke about how she stopped setting long-term goals, as they curbed her spontaneity and could potentially prevent her from following her dreams. Cave’s journey began with her research on the 2010 BP oil spill, and has since has published two research papers and been honored in the Forbes 30 Under 30 "Energy and Cleantech" category.

“Maybe it’s a good thing when people laugh –– if your idea is so crazy and out of this world, maybe it’ll revolutionize an industry,” Cave said.

Joe Holberg –– Businessman

University alum Joe Holberg then went on to speak about the disparities among Americans regarding financial knowledge. Holberg owns Holberg Financial, a company that helps people improve their financial health and wellness.

During his presentation, Holberg explained many Americans do not have a basic understanding of personal finance and wonder if they are handling their finances correctly.

“It doesn’t matter where you’re at on the socioeconomic spectrum…everyone wants to know, ‘am I doing it right?’” Holberg said.

Marcus Collins –– Lecturer

Business lecturer Marcus Collins discussed his experience being Black in his career and in American society, using a black sheep metaphor to promote “unity of humanity.” Collins explained growing up in the Detroit public-school system, where he swam competitively and attended band camps. He said he felt he did not live up to the image society portrayed him to be.

“When I’m among white people, I was too Black, couldn’t be any Blacker,” Collins said. “Among my own people, I wasn’t Black enough.”

In an interview with The Daily, Collins said he hopes the audience learned how to become more accepting of differences in the world.

“If everyone was just 1 percent better to each other, if everyone was just 1 percent more inclusive than they were exclusive, imagine what that would be in aggregate,” Collins said.

Huda Essa –– Author

Alum and author Huda Essa then presented on the importance of learning the history and correct pronunciation of names. Essa now works as a cultural competency consultant.

During her presentation, Essa addressed the development of bias and how it can limit relationships among different groups of people.

“Regardless of our backgrounds, from a very young age, we begin and continue to form unconscious biases based upon what we’ve been exposed to,” Essa said. “When it comes to various groups of people, we will find that what we’ve been exposed to is usually limited and often biased.”

Sava Farah –– Restaurateur

Sava Lelcaj, Ann Arbor resident and restaurant owner, spoke about her family’s escape from communist Albania, and how Albanian hospitality and hustle influenced her to open her restaurant Sava’s.

“These values have underpinned my life story that I’ve written for myself, with the belief – the insane belief – that each and every one of us has the power to write our own story,” Lelcaj said.

Chris Gatti –– Gymnast

University alum Chris Gatti talked about overcoming societal pressures and personal struggles throughout his life. Gatti was drawn to gymnastics at a young age to detract attention from his stutter, which he said often made himself and those around him uncomfortable.

Gatti studied Industrial and Systems Engineering while serving as captain of the University men’s gymnastics team and signed a contract with Cirque du Soleil just weeks after defending his thesis.  He has since found a way to combine his talent in engineering with his passion for performing, to find both success and happiness.

“I felt pulled down this path where I should be doing something that was good at rather than something I loved,” Gatti said.

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