Inside the TEDxDirigo conference

By MIKE MILIARD  |  September 14, 2011

Join profit and progress

Eli Stefanski, chief market maker at the Providence-based Business Innovation Factory and former executive director of the Maine Women's Fund, says she's an "epicurean explorer," an "ecosystem engineer," and an "impatient optimist." Calling herself Eli the Chef, she likes to "play with raw ingredients" to change a messy world. Such a transformation requires a "new operating model," she said. Collaboration and experimentation should be central pillars of a new approach to entrepreneurship, with crowd-funding and people-empowered capital injecting life into an increasingly risk-averse and prescriptive US economy. "We should take a user-centric approach," she said. "Empathize with new markets. Understand their motivations. And new opportunities will arise." If her talk was a bit over-laden with jargon at times, Stefanski's message was crystal clear. Too often, she said, she's seen venture investors reject socially conscious business plans out of hand: "This is a cause, not a business." That blinkered binary view — you're either in it to make as much money as you possibly can, or you're not — "is curtailing our ability to transform the country's economy."

Don't settle for copies

Some TED talks, while well-intentioned, can tend toward the platitudinous and the pie-in-the-sky. John Rooks's wasn't one of those. In perhaps the day's best presentation, the founder and president of the Portland-based SOAP group (Sustainable Organization Advocacy Partners) exhorted the audience to look closer: "what is real and what is staged?" So much of what we see in the media these days, he said, is simulacrum: a copy that doesn't have an original. That phoniness is a "roadblock to real sustainability," he said. When corporations try to bill their products as sustainable, for instance, they either "show us a pastoral past when everything was perfect" or the future, where everyone is hale and healthy — from using their products, natch. Neither of those are real. Most green marketing nowadays is tantamount to a wink, Rooks argued. The companies wink at the consumer about being sustainable and the consumers wink back about the righteousness of buying sustainable. But in this "culture of hungry ghosts," where consumption is the "modern manifest destiny," that's not enough. The only path to a truly sustainable future is to identify what's really real in our lives and follow through accordingly. "It's up to all of us to do the math."

Explore diversity

Portland attorney Jeffrey Thaler is the Visiting Professor of Energy Policy, Law and Ethics at the University of Maine, and the associate university counsel there, focusing on the college's environmental and sustainability projects. But he was at TEDxDirigo to talk about his own alma mater — specifically his mentor, legendary Williams College professor Robert Gaudino, and the Williams-at-Home program Gaudino founded. The program, decades ago, sent a young Thaler out to spend home-stays in unglamorous spots across the US — with a black family in Georgia and a coal miner in Appalachia, with an Iowa farm family and a Detroit autoworker. The experience was transformative, said Thaler. And the debt he felt to Gaudino was such that he "physically could not let go" of what he started. So, five years ago Thaler put those notions of "experiential education" and "uncomfortable learning" into practice, founding a Williams winter study project called "Resettling Refugees in Maine," in which students come to Maine for home-stays with resettled East African families. "Students don't have to go abroad to have a cultural experience," he said. The value of exposing American students to a "culture within a culture" — placing them in the homes of Muslim refugees trying to find their way in the US — is the kind of education that's needed "more today than ever before."

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Related: Spreading Maine ideas, The potential of TEDxDirigo, Twelve sweet ideas for Maine in 2012, More more >
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