High school senior flexes his business acumen by organizing TEDx Talk

High school senior flexes his business acumen by organizing TEDx Talk

September 11th, 2017 by Lisa Denton in Life Entertainment

Liam Zhang

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

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Baylor School senior Liam Zhang admits sleep and homework might have suffered while he's been planning his latest extracurricular activity, but the TEDx Talk he has organized for Saturday has made those temporary deficits worthwhile.

Among the speakers he's lined up are the creator of a robot lawyer, a basketball performance coach and the author of a business manual titled "The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur."

"This is something I've wanted to do for three years," says the 18-year-old boarding student from Shanghai, China, who came to the U.S. to attend high school at the private prep school.

"In China, it was a really big hit with people who watched TED Talks. It really teaches a lot of cool lessons."

Speakers & topics

› Alan Stein: basketball performance coach, corporate speaker, podcast host, social-media influencer; “Respecting Time and Living Present.”

› Christian J. Collier: artist and educator; “Mama Said” (poem).

› Derelle Roshell: founder and CEO of Lingua Cocoa; “Escaping the Impoverished Mindset.”

› Elijah Anderson Barrera: world languages department chair at Baylor School; “Join the World Language Party.”

› Felicia Jackson: chief executive officer of CPR LifeWrap; “Three Dynamics to Life-Saving Success.”

› John Sterling: professor of criminal justice at Bryan College; “Learning Problem-Solving Skills With Old Cars.”

› Joshua Browder: founder of DoNotPay and one of Forbes’ 30 Under 30; “How Lawyers Are Going To Be Replaced With Artificial Intelligence.”

› Justin Lewis-Weber: chief executive officer of Empower Earth Inc.; “Doublethink, Nondisprovables and the Scientific Method.”

› Liz Kislik: president of Liz Kislik Associates; “Why There’s So Much Conflict at Work and How To Fix It.”

› Mike Michalowicz: author of “Surge,” “Profit First,” “The Pumpkin Plan” and “The Toilet Paper Entrepreneur”; “Protect the Queen: The Simple System To Make Any Business Permanently More Efficient.”

› Myke Kelly: president of Tennessee Valley Pride; “LGBTQ Alphabet Soup.”

› Rob Headrick: chief of thoracic surgery, co-director of Rees Skillern Cancer Institute at CHI Memorial Hospital; “A New Approach To Reducing Cancer Mortality: Machine Learning and Natural Language Processing.”

› Robin Fazio: farmer and world language instructor at Baylor School; “Why You Want To Be a Farmer.”

› Sam Feinburg: executive director of Helena; “How To Avoid High-Altitude Electronic Magnetic Pulse Threats and Save the Nation.”

› Stuart Friedman: chief executive officer of Global Context; “Cracking the Truth Codes: How Culture Impacts the Way People Tell the Truth … or Why They Don’t.”

› Elizabeth Hayslett: junior at Baylor

› Cannon Hunt: singer/songwriter and sophomore at Baylor

TED — short for technology, entertainment, design — is a nonprofit media organization devoted to "ideas worth spreading." The movement began in California in 1984 as a four-day conference devoted to its three founding ideals. Since then, the talks have evolved to cover almost all topics, from science to business to global issues, and have gained pop-culture status.

Now presented twice a year in Vancouver, British Columbia, the TED Conferences feature the world's leading thinkers and doers, each charged with presenting short, powerful talks of 18 minutes or less. Speakers have ranged from Bill Gates to Madeleine Albright to Bono.

Zhang's event is a TEDx Talk — note the "x," which designates it as an independent event.

And quite possibly the first student-led one.

"It was quite challenging for me," Zhang says.

He credits networking with finding the slate of speakers. But for a teenager, even that had its challenges.

"All the time I'm thinking, 'How can I get random people to come to a high school to speak? How can I make them trust me?'" he says.

The first get was Sam Feinburg, an instructor he met at a summer camp at Yale. With Feinburg, an expert in electronic magnetic pulses, on board, other speakers fell into place.

Such as Liz Kislik, a management consultant and business coach who has helped organizations from Fortune 500 companies to national nonprofits to family-run businesses. And Mike Michalowicz, an author and entrepreneur who created the Profit First Formula, a way for businesses to ensure profitability from their first deposit forward.

"I sent tons of emails to numerous people and got rejected a lot," Zhang says. "I had a lot of speakers who were interested who could not make it [on that date]. Eventually, I got plenty of speakers who were interested and who could make it."

He has enlisted the help of classmate Nick Perlaky, who is serving as website designer, webmaster and stage manager. The rest of the team includes juniors Dillan Desai, Kristopher Kennedy, Vera Jin, Ryker von Klar, Lily Zabel and Charlie Zhang (no relation to Liam). He lined up sponsors to help with expenses, including the out-of-town speakers' airfare and hotel accommodations.

Even with help, Zhang is the driving force.

"His first priority was getting really out-of-the-box, creative, forward thinkers," says Julie King, director of the Hedges Library at Baylor and faculty sponsor of the event. "He wanted to bring that type of speaker to Baylor to inspire his fellow students, [to show them] here's what the world could look like we're stepping into."

The theme, "Fast Forward: Past, Present and Future," aims "to showcase how the different aspects of our world are changed and developed over time," Zhang says.

A story in the school's newspaper credits Zhang with demonstrating "an entrepreneurial spirit" since arriving on campus.

And the school's marketing director, Barbara Kennedy, laughingly predicts, "We are all going to be working for him one day."

As a ninth-grader, Zhang created the Baylor Accelerator Club for students interested in pursuing their own business ventures. Last fall, he organized a panel of local entrepreneurs. He says neither idea really took off with his young classmates as well as he had hoped.

"It was too much of a leap," he says. "I realized I should actually start with small steps to spark the interest among the student body."

That led to TED.

"After struggling with my first projects, I told myself I had to do this," Zhang says. "I've been thinking about this for three years. It's been in the back of my head the whole time."

He has spent "every single day after school, probably four to five hours planning," he says. "It's been like this at least four months, and the whole project I have been [actively] planning for more than half a year."

Linda Frost, who helped coordinate two previous TEDx events for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, remembers both talks sold out.

"There was and is a lot of excitement here in Chattanooga about what a TED event can be," she says. "Still, I think the strongest part of any TED event ... is the conversation that happens in the lobby and back and off stage. TED provides an energized space and place where real transformation, both personal and communal, can't help but happen."

Contact Lisa Denton at ldenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6281.