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Ignite Charlotte Inspires Individuals, Community

by Parul Joshi

July 26, 2012

It didn't take Charlotte resident Toni South long to realize she was wrong about Ignite Charlotte 4. Listening to people talk about their passions for a few hours couldn’t be anything more than a typical – though possibly productive - networking event, she thought. But she quickly realized the gathering of diverse professionals was anything but typical.

Held in the spring, the event drew 300 people to Neighborhood Theater in NoDa. Business professionals, engineers, entrepreneurs, a professor, and a student, spoke about topics that mattered to them professionally or personally.

Some call Ignite a modern “toastmasters” where everyday people embrace their “inner geek.” Its founders were two employees of O'Reilly Media - Brady Forrest and Bre Pettis - who created Ignite in 2006 as an event where people could share their ideas, according to Sara Winge, Vice President of O'Reilly Radar group. Winge said the aim behind Ignite Seattle was to “get more going on” in the technology world, but six years later, it has grown into so much more. “It has always been more about community than technology,” Winge said.

Today, Ignite events are organized worldwide, encouraging people to share a wide range of thoughts and concepts, most of which focus on technology. Similar programs, like TedX and Pecha Kucha, are gaining momentum as well.

“Each event targets different markets and were devised at different times,” Ignite Charlotte executive producer and co-founder Bridget B. Sullivan said. Pecha Kucha, which started in 2003, was born within the architectural community, Sullivan explained.

TedX was derived from TED in 2009. TED conferences bring people together from technology, entertainment and design industries to share ideas.

A group of volunteers, managed and led by Sullivan, spent five months planning and organizing the program. “I get the pleasure of seeing others grow while creating a foundation that helps people get where they want to go,” Sullivan said.

Sullivan, who organized Ignite in New Orleans, launched the first Ignite Charlotte in 2010 with the help of co-founder Sam Fagan. “I saw an opportunity to create a platform for others who might not often be heard while getting to know people throughout the city,” Sullivan said.

Ignite Charlotte 4 boasted a diverse set of presentations. Talks ranged from Phillip Zannini's “How to Speak to Your Geek” and Richard Byrd's “Lessons from My Grandfather” to “If you hate Justin Bieber, Patriarchy Wins,” by Robin James. Without any notes, they shared their message in five minutes, staying consistent with Ignite's slogan: “Enlighten us, but make it quick.” Twenty Power Point presentation slides auto-advanced every 15 seconds on a screen behind the speakers to help the audience follow their presentations visually.

Broadening horizons

Toni South, the Charlotte woman at a career crossroads attended the event because she wanted to open herself up to events she wouldn't usually attend, she said. In her journey to finding a new job, she thought meeting local entrepreneurs would be a critical stop.

“I just thought it may be a good place to get some ideas or just see what's out there...I think it's more of a search in my life right now to find not just a job I'm passionate about, but [a career] I'm in control of,” South explained. “It just reminds me of some of the networking events that I've gone to in my old life, but much less uptight and a much more diverse crowd, with cooler people.”

Jim Van Fleet knows a little something about Ignite broadening horizons. The CTO of Other Screen credits landing his current job to his participation in Ignite Charlotte 1.

“My current co-worker, Andrew Gertig, was involved with the organization of the first Ignite Charlotte...my talk, content, got his attention.” The two connected and when the startup was looking for a chief technologist, they thought of Van Fleet. “The team evaluated me, we evaluated each other and that's how I got hired. Ignite is about a celebration of the community of interesting people doing interesting things...It's a chance to touch base with a lot of different groups and people that you may not otherwise have a chance to interact with in a format that's very palatable and it gives you a broad array of exposures that you might not get otherwise.

A passion pitch

Antoine “RJ” Wright of Mobile Ministry Magazine, was still feeling the adrenaline rush after he finished his talk “The Big Wheel Effect of Digital Finger Painting.” Wright was so excited he was able to get over his butterflies and deliver an effective talk.

“I saw the tweets afterwards. People were inspired, asking for a big wheel. I thought, 'Alright. I did good,’” he laughed.

Wright, who enjoys capturing life's moments by drawing them on his iPad, talked about using technology as more than just a social networking tool. More specifically, he suggested using computers or internet applications like Instagram as a “catalyst to see our world differently.”

“If we can use the technology to see those things we may become a better participant in the world around us...It's easy to see the black and white, right and wrong, death, life, somebody [is] born and somebody died. It's really easy to see those black and white events. It's another thing when you filter it through color,” Wright said.

Filling a void and making a change

Wright said there's a need for events like Ignite Charlotte because to some degree, this type of discussion - the sharing of insights and passions - doesn't take place in our society. “I think it's not allowed in such a wide and diverse setting as Ignite Charlotte. You have your smaller groups, maybe subject-centric groups, and they may not be as diverse in terms of topic area...and constrained to a neighborhood or perspective or economic class,” Wright explained.

For some, Ignite Charlotte fills an even bigger void.

“One thing in Charlotte [I have seen] that's very different from having lived in San Francisco for 11 years is it's judgmental,” Business and Innovation Growth Council CEO Terry Cox said. “It's going to size you up from first impression on and interestingly enough the Bay Area just doesn't do that. Ignite Charlotte gives people the permission to speak freely and, on a small scale, helps people get the conversation started in the community naturally. At least it's a safe event versus out in the open public. I think it'll perpetuate and eventually get legs outside the event and the community will just start being able to talk more freely.”

Van Fleet said when he spoke at the first Ignite Charlotte it was not easy to find an ecosystem around entrepreneurship or the startup culture in Charlotte. But, now, he said, that's changing.

“Ignite itself, as well as the people I met as a result of that talk and the larger community, they've all kind of melded together since then and now we're starting to see some meaningful engagement on behalf of entrepreneurs in the city,” he said.

A new start

Over the last few years, Ignite Charlotte may have connected people and started an important dialogue within the community. But, for Toni South, the woman in search of meaningful change in her life, Ignite Charlotte 4 helped her start an important conversation with herself.

“I was literally brought to tears at a couple of points throughout the speeches,” South shared. South said she was blown away with the diversity and enthusiasm of the participants. Plus, attending Ignite Charlotte 4 gave her some new business ideas to pursue in the near future.

But, for South, it seemed the evening was about much more than moving speeches and career goals. What she saw unfold on stage represented what she is experiencing herself: stepping outside comfort zones and overcoming obstacles in an unfamiliar world.

“I loved the people who were obviously scared to death of speaking on stage, but got through it so well. Overall the event was just a perfect fit for me and my current journey.”

Ignite Charlotte 5 is scheduled to take place in September.

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