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Previous Speakers

TEDxMidwest speakers are highly accomplished with remarkable ideas, insights and stories.  Most of our speakers are former TED speakers, MacArthur or Pulitzer prize winners, National Geographic photographers and writers, bestselling authors, entrepreneurs, renowned scientists, designers, technologists, architects, activists, and musicians.

Here are the recent speakers – for the adult and youth events.


Joi Ito

Runs the MIT Media Lab

Director of the renowned MIT Media Lab, 
Joi runs one of the most advanced tech labs in the world and was named one of the 25 most influential people on the web by Business Week.


Lawrence Lessig

Harvard Professor and Activist

Larry is getting citizens into the corruption fight – Also one of the top speakers at a previous event. He is averaging 100,000 views of his TED Talk per week.


Paul Salopek

2-Time Pulitzer Winning Writer Walking Across the World

Paul is tracing the journey of man out of Africa 70,000 years ago through Asia to North America all the way to Patagonia. Over the next 7 years, he will go through 100 pairs of shoes and update these site:




Ron Finley

Guerilla Gardener from South Central LA
 - TED 2013 Speaker

Ron’s vision for a healthy, accessible “food forest” started with the curbside veggie garden he planted in the strip of dirt in front of his own house. When the city tried to shut it down, Finley’s fight gave voice to a larger movement that provides nourishment, empowerment, education – and healthy, hopeful futures – one urban garden at a time. He is averaging 100,000 views of his TED Talk per week.

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Julia Sweeney

SNL Comedienne, Author & 4-Time TED speaker

Julia Sweeney may be best known for her four-year run on Saturday Night Live. And with her powerful solo shows, she has carved out her own territory in entertainment, one that moves between the personal and the political, the controversial and the comical. She is also a very accomplished playwright and a bestselling author. Her latest book, “If It’s Not One Thing, It’s Your Mother” was published by Simon & Schuster in April 2013. Julia was one of the top speakers at TED 2013 and has been one of the all-time favorite TED performers in her many appearances.


Baratunde Thurston

Comedian, Best-Selling Author and CEO

Baratunde Thurston is the CEO, co-founder, and hashtagger-in-chief of Cultivated Wit He wrote the New York Times bestseller How To Be Black and served for five years as director of digital for the satirical news outlet, The Onion. When he’s not delivering keynote talks at gatherings such as SXSW Interactive, LeWeb, and Personal Democracy Forum, he writes the monthly back page column for Fast Company and contributes to the MIT Media Lab as a director’s fellow.


Carol Marin

2-Time Peabody Award-Winning Journalist

Carol is a top investigative journalist whose deep reporting has earned her dozens of industry awards. She currently works with WMAQ News, Chicago Tonight and the Chicago Sun-Times. She has reported for 60 Minutes, 60 Minutes II and CBS Evening News with Dan Rather.


Jenn Lim

CEO and Chief Happiness Officer at DH - Zappos.com Consultant

Delivering Happiness (DH) is a company that Jenn and Tony Hsieh (CEO of Zappos) co-created in 2010 to inspire happiness in work, community and everyday life. Jenn collaborated on the bestseller Delivering Happiness on the exceptional Zappos customer process and culture. The company was sold to Amazon in 2009 in a deal valued at $1.2B.


Joel Sartore

A Top National Geographic Nature Photographer

Joel is one of the top photographers in the world and has shot 20 assignments for National Geographic  – and he is poignant, insightful and “standup-comedian funny”.


Shaka Senghor

Former Detroit Felon Turned Peacemaker/Author

An amazing story of redemption from a man who served 19 years in prison and is now a leader in the national urban peace movement.


Bill Strickland

MacArthur Prize Winning Training Hero - Former TED Speaker

As Pittsburgh’s steel economy crumbled, Bill trained thousands through the power of fountains, art and dreams – “An incredible speaker”.


Frank Heidt

One of the World’s Top Computer Security Experts

Frank has worked for the Department of Defense and is an expert at information warfare. He is a fascinating and unique speaker and will demonstrate several techniques live and discuss recent events in China.


Jeanne Gang

MacArthur Prize Winning Architect

Jeanne is one of the top architects in the world and known for the amazing Aqua building in Chicago
. She is visionary and multidisciplinary architect who has created some of the hardest working, most beautiful and sensual buildings.


Dave Gallo

Underwater Explorer and Oceanographer - Former TED Speaker

Dave is a pioneer in ocean exploration with amazing underwater video and has the fifth most popular TED Talk.

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Jeff Sturges

MIT Media Lab Fellow - Maker & Connector

Jeff Sturges enjoys making things and connecting people. Inspired by his experience with the MIT Fab Lab GreenFab program and the NYCResistor hackerspace, he moved to Detroit to build community workshops such as the Mt. Elliott Makerspace and OmniCorpDetroit. Sturges believes that collaborative making and learning can be much more than just STEM and STEAM education–they can be a way to strengthen our communities and ourselves. By cultivating a DIY/DIO mindset and increasing access to tools and knowledge, We the People will be better equipped to make things better.


Stephen Petranek

Provocative Futurist - Former TED Speaker

Stephen is the former editor of Discover magazine and will do an updated version of popular and provocative TED talk called, “Ten Ways the World Could Suddenly End”.


Rick Smolan

Publisher of Big Data Photography Book - Former TED Speaker

Rick is a former National Geographic photographer who has published the top selling photo books in history. He just completed an aamazing photo book on big data.


Mellody Hobson

President of Ariel Investments

Mellody manages one of the largest investment firms and has over $3B in assets. She will be speaking on financial literacy.


Benjamin Harrison

Wake Forest Baptist Professor Who Grows Human Organs in the Lab

Ben works at the Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine, where the goal is to grow replacement tissues and organs for patients. One strategy uses modified ink jet printers to print tissues. The institute’s work fascinated a previous TED audience when a patient with a lab-grown bladder walked on stage.


Linda Stone

Expert on Attention - Former TED Speaker

Former Apple and Microsoft senior executive now known for her research and writing on attention, play, and the future of attention. Coined the phrase: continuous partial attention.


Tierney Thys

Marine Biologist & Passionate Advocate for the Sea - Former TED Speaker

National Geographic Explorer, filmmaker, giant fish researcher and science educator with crazy creative ways to spark ocean conservation.


Dr. Jimmy Lin

Doctor Solving Undiagnosable Children’s Diseases & TED Fellow

Jimmy is the heroic doctor that helps families solve undiagnosable diseases using gene mapping and crowdfunding to pay for the research.


Brian Knappenberger

Filmmaker on Hacktivist Group Anonymous

Brian created “We are Legion”, a film about the infamous hactivist group that has broken into hundreds of systems in protest.


Erin McKean

Dictionary Editor, TEDxMidwest Emcee - Former TED Speaker

Erin is a funny and witty host, and was the editor of the Oxford American Dictionary. She now runs Wordnik, an advanced online dictionary.


Brian Babylon

Comedian and TEDxMidwest Youth Event Emcee

Brian is the very funny NPR / WBEZ radio personality and standup comedian that got the 550 TEDxMidwest Youth attendees rocking at our last event.


Jullien Gordon

Urban Youth Advisor & TEDx Youth Favorite

Jullien is the hip young advisor to urban youth and was a huge hit at the last event – and is back this year with a new talk.


Zoe Damacela

Formerly Homeless, Young Fashion Designer

Chicago entrepreneur and NFTE graduate who was featured on cover of 17 magazine after she won national contest.


Emerson Spartz

Very Successful Young Chicago Entrepreneur

At the age of 12, Emerson founded the #1 Harry Potter website in the world, which attracted 50 million page views per month. Today he is a leading expert on internet virality and has been featured in major media including the Wall Street Journal, CBS Evening News, CNN, MSNBC, and Fox News. As the CEO of Spartz Inc, he runs one of the fastest-growing digital media publishers with 160 million page views per month.


People’s Music School Youth Orchestra

Music - 60 Child Orchestra that Follows TED Prize Winning Musical Approach

Composer Albert Oppenheimer leads The YOURS Project, an award-winning, young Chicago student orchestral initiative that follows the TED Prize winner Jose Abreu’s El Sistema music inspiration.  The members range in age from 9-13 years old and most had never played music previously.

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Reginald Robinson

Music - MacArthur Prize Winning Ragtime Pianist

Reginald grew up in the Henry Horner housing projects on the south side of Chicago learning to play piano at an early age.  In 2004 he won  a MacArthur “genius grant”,  which is given to “talented individuals who have shown extraordinary originality and dedication in their creative pursuits and a marked capacity for self-direction.” In 2010, he released a collection of 60 original ragtime piano compositions.


Chris Pierce

Music - Great Musician with Hearing Disorder

Chris Pierce is a lyrical and soulful musician who believes in the “healing powers of music” even though he was struck with a rare hearing disorder. He has shared stages with Seal, BB King, Al Green, Aaron Neville, Toots and the Maytals.



TEDxMidwest is known for its world class speakers, including inventor Dean Kamen, psychologist Phil Zimbardo, hacker Pablos Holman and National Geographic photographer Paul Nicklen.
See the TEDx Speakers



There will be over 600 amazing attendees including 400 CEOs and Presidents, 150 artists and performance professionals, heads of major cultural institutions, 50 top high school students, and dozens of MacArthur, Pulitzer, Polk, Peabody, and Nobel prize winners.
More on Attendees



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