Renowned for his ability to coax out interesting stories, Arthur Zards, the mind behind TEDx Naperville, is a TED talk personified! (TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design.) He is quirky, immensely curious, and speaks quickly. He is a master cultivator of unique experiences, and his mind sparks with new ideas continuously. Arthur’s life has been driven by an openness to new directions and topics.
Arthur owns LabZ, an innovation agency. He transforms typically dull conferences into engaging experiences by focusing on the participants’ perspectives. For Arthur, everything is about making people FEEL. The energy radiating from him is infectious.
Arthur grew up in a town right outside of Baltimore where lacrosse was the hot sport played in high schools. His dad worked for Amoco Corp and transferred to Illinois during the middle of Arthur’s junior year. It was 1986; the Bears just won the Superbowl. But Arthur didn’t fit in with the football crowd. He cared more about his BBS modem and connecting with his friend’s Amiga system (early computer).
During this time, he also started and ran a bulletin board on free speech “America Speaks Out” to discuss politics. His interest in networking via the modem grew so he decided to go to Northern Illinois University to become a programmer but switched to marketing at Benedictine University when the Cobol language proved infuriating. (We know all the tech-heads are nodding in agreement.)
One day in 1992, his friend came by and said he wanted to sell connections to the “world wide web,” which was made available to the public in February 1991. Arthur and his friend-turned-business partner used their networking knowledge to start a business selling internet access at night while he worked a traditional job during the day. The company had an ethernet cable installed that cost $980 per month! In 1999, they sold the company for stock to a group that went bankrupt shortly after the sale and found themselves left with nothing.
Simultaneous to running the company, Arthur also started and led a networking group called Silicon Prairie Social. The group was for technologists in the Chicagoland area to gather, discuss ideas, and aggregate news; there were several technologists in the area that were looking for such a group. It was extremely successful for Arthur. This new networking group furthered his experience with moderating and connecting people.
Richard Saul Wurman and Harry Marks conceived the TED now ubiquitous conference in February 1984; it has been held annually since 1990. Arthur attended a few in the early 2000s and saw it as a great opportunity for speakers to share their ideas and a way for attendees to discuss thought-provoking and authentic ideas more so than what he observed at traditional conferences.
Being an annual and much touted event, TED talks became exclusive and limited by their design. They had only so much time to provide a format for speakers and audiences. In 2009, TED decided to offer an application process to be granted a license to hold an extension of the talks – “x.” Arthur submitted his application the day it opened fearing that other people in Naperville would also jump on the opportunity. He laughed when he told us that he was the only one!
Anyone can apply to get a license. Each host must follow the TED landscape specification. The first year, TED had 100 organizers. The next year, it grew to 300, and 800 after that. TED embraced the movement and the growth of its presence!
Today, Arthur leverages his years of hosting, his curiosity, and his drive for total experiences to bring TEDx Naperville to life. He develops speakers, carves out the sessions, and contracts with the vendors. The TEDx license stipulates that Arthur cannot pay speakers nor himself, so everything is volunteer based.
The annual event has 12 to 15 speakers that Arthur spends upwards of 40 hours directly training. (We provided a checklist for you to consider if you have what it takes to be a speaker or know someone who does!) He looks for juxtapositions or things that have a closeness but evoke a curiosity.
Daryl Davis spoke at TEDx Naperville in 2017. Daryl is a black man who received a certificate of friendship from the KKK. He talked about why, he as a black man, attended KKK rallies. His talk has 12 million views. Ideas transcend themselves. Arthur asks, “What is the story behind the idea versus the idea itself?” The conference gives a permission slip for people to talk about their everyday and spark conversations and ideas within the audience. He shares that the best speakers are usually those who someone refers as a better speaker than themselves.
In down time of the full day, participants do not walk around, they experience sensory delights. Arthur focuses on human-centered designs. One year, he had a virtual reality demo, a lunar landing experience, and media installation for participants to create their own art. It is meant to be immersive and create conversation among the people at the event. “Bump into people and start relationships and friendships,” he says, “When you keep telling people to think creatively and give them permission to do something, ideas worth sharing come out!”
Looking for sponsors and partners.
8am to 8pm, depending on participation level.
Yellow Box Theater 2nd week of November
Tickets: Usually around $85, includes lunch and snacks
TEDx Naperville is solely organized and run by volunteers. All ticket sales go directly into building the most engaging and inspiring event for attendees.