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  • Writer's pictureLakshmi Pratury

#50over50: Chris Anderson

The 25th Person Behind Personality in my #50over50 list is someone who supported my journey with INK Talks from a very nascent stage! He is the curator at TED who has grown the platform through multiple programs and online channel to enable the ideas to spread far and wide. Please meet Chris Anderson!

Chris was born in Pakistan, went to school in India, and then lived in England. He has experienced the power of spreading ideas through the work of his father who being a preacher, spread Christianity. This perhaps explains the choice of his profession whose sole purpose is to hold a megaphone to every major idea. This also probably explains his natural affinity to an enquiry of all kinds – be it philosophy or science or technology. Chris is an observer at heart and a long-term institution builder. He is an introvert who loves creating impact. The first decade of his journey with TED gives a deep insight into his leadership style.

The first time Chris came to TED, he had just exited out of a media company that he built and sold. He joined the conference as one of the audience. Like most, he was totally touched by the power of the stories that were unveiled on stage as well as the cutting-edge thinking that occupied each seat of the auditorium. But unlike others, he thought of buying the conference and put his thought into action. I am not privy to the conversations between Richard and Chris and I am not even sure if Richard was planning to sell the conference but the end result was that in the following year, it was announced on stage that Chris would be the new owner of TED. And to all of us TEDsters, the difference could not have been more striking: If Richard wears his emotions on his sleeve, Chris covers them up completely; if Richard is an impresario who loves being on stage, Chris is almost uncomfortable speaking in public; if Richard is unabashedly an extrovert, Chris is undoubtedly an introvert.

TED was not a typical conference that served business interests, it was purely powerful because of the community that it brought together. And when the announcement was made, there was a lot of speculation that the audience might not show up the next year. But when Chris took to the stage, he did something that endeared him to his audience. He did not try to be Richard, he did not make promises about the future of TED; he stood on that stage in his complete authenticity as Chris. He told everyone of his fear of living up to the reputation of TED and asked everyone to continue their journey with him and perhaps for everyone else who stayed on. It was his nervousness combined with clear articulation that stood out for me. I bet that he also thought that this conference would be the retirement activity that he would run with a couple of assistants. Little did he know that this idea would become one of the most influential digital destinations for billions. 

When I started going to TED in 1993, there was no concept of online videos. All the talks were recorded and a few days after the conference, a box of DVDs of the talks would arrive at my address and I circulated the set among my friends and family. Chris wanted to do more than that. He wanted to create public access to the talks. In the first five years of his becoming the curator of TED, he grew the conference and tried many new ideas like creating a TV program etc. that did not work. They kept trying other options and putting them online was one such experiment. The first TED talk was launched online in June 2006 and by September, it had over a million views. Just to put things in perspective, YouTube started in 2005 and was sold to Google in November 2006. So, these were the early days of online video. TED made its debut on an online screen armed with over 1,000 talks that were collected over 15 years or so. They could release talks at regular intervals and thus built a great following.

What made TED talks really successful was two-fold – first and foremost, the quality of the content was superb and they had an inventory that allowed them to do a consistent release of videos. Secondly, it resonated with the digital native generation that wanted short videos. And when this seemed like the best fit, TED reinvented itself and the website moved from being a conference website to a content website with talks taking center stage. Chris loves scale and he is not afraid to take risks and try new things, all the while maintaining the quality of outcomes. Be it TED prize, TED X, TED-Ed – they all started as new ideas and grew as major programs. 

So far, I shared about Chris in terms of how he got associated with TED and how he grew TED to be what it is today. And the final aspect I want to bring out is his ability to handle grief on a public stage. His daughter, Zoe, who was in her early 20s, had an accidental death from carbon-monoxide poisoning from a boiler at her apartment in the UK. As a parent, I can not imagine the grief his family must have gone through to deal with the demise. But three months down the line when the annual gathering of TED happened as per schedule, Chris acknowledged the death and assured everyone that he was OK to talk about it and he channeled all the grief into keeping the show going. 

In some ways, Chris’s journey has had a huge impact on my life. When I suggested to Chris that we should co-host TED India in 2009, I thought that it would be a one-off event that I would work on and then return to the US. It is that one year of bringing TED to India and discovering the stories from India that made me move back to the country to start a new chapter in my life with INK Talks. I still remember the dinner that I had with Chris at Taj West End in Bangalore to let him know of my decision to stay in India and start INK. I was hesitant because I was not sure how he would view my decision: if he would see it as me trying to compete with TED. To my utter delight, he understood my need to do something from India and he was very supportive. In addition, he gave us the permission to use 'In Association with TED' for the first three years of our presence in India. Some of the INK Talks have made their way to and I continue to be energized by joining the TED community each year. Chris taught me that there is nothing called competition in this world. There is so much work that needs to get done that we all are best to think of ourselves as fellow travelers and share the space. 

Richard and Chris are two people who together enabled INK’s current journey in India and this two-part series was to celebrate them!

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