In late 2012, local entrepreneur Steve Sommers was reading “Wired Magazine” when he stumbled across an article about TEDx, a spinoff program of TED that encourages residents to launch branches in their own city. An acronym for technology, entertainment, and design, TED hosts brief talks by globally-renowned experts that cover a range of subjects, from bioengineering to feminism. Recent speakers have included: a neuroscientist who sustained brain damage after a massive stroke, a man overcoming an addiction to pornography, and a marine biologist who captured the first footage of a giant squid. For decades, TED flew under the radar, known only to a handful of devotees. “It was almost like an inside joke … now it’s cool. Being a nerd is cool,” says Sommers.
TED conferences can cost thousands of dollars to attend, and while visiting one had long been on Sommers’ bucket list, he had contented himself with watching talks online. The TEDx program, he realized, would give him a chance to bring the organization to St. Louis. Since graduating from college in 1983, Sommers has launched a number of entrepreneurial ventures: a travel agency, rental property management, a short-lived tech startup. His main source of income, however, comes from a packaging business he formed shortly after college called InProducts LLC, where he acts as a middleman between companies and manufacturers. “It’s not terribly interesting,” he says wryly. “I enjoy the design, but the design doesn’t pay the bills.”
Reading “Wired,” he remembered a Venn diagram he had recently drawn, tracing his dream jobs in intersecting circles and looking for common ground. In one diagram, director, teacher, and learner overlapped. While hosting a TED event, he could do all three at once. In early 2013, Sommers officially formed TEDxGatewayArch, and the organization hosted its first conference almost a year later in January 2014, called Confluence. One of Sommers’ favorite talks was about the Zombie Squad, a tongue-in-cheek disaster preparedness group formed in St. Louis 10 years ago after a group of friends watched the film “28 Days Later.” “Best zombie movie ever,” says Sommers.
On February 21 of this year, TEDxGateway Arch will host its second event, Confluence II, at The Sheldon Concert Hall. The one-day event will feature speakers on a variety of topics, from how tech start-ups can embrace African-Americans to the lessons entrepreneurs can learn from birds. “A good TEDx is like a carnival,” Sommers says. “If you get a group of people coming out and you ask them what their favorite thing was, everybody is going to answer something different.” On their way to the main stage in The Sheldon’s auditorium, visitors will pass through a collection of exhibitors demonstrating a curated selection of new projects, like 3-D printing. “It’s a matter of embracing your inner nerd.”
In conversation, Sommers brims with trivia about science and history–when he heard about the recent Nobel Prize-winning discovery of a particle called the Higgs boson, he was legitimately excited. At dinner parties, he feels more comfortable making small talk about famous historical battles than the latest football game. “Someone will come up to me and go, ‘Did you see that game last night?’ And the first thing I have to think is, ‘What sport are we even talking about?’” he says. “I don’t fit in at most dinner parties.”
By his own estimation, Sommers is a “dweeb.” “Dweebs know all sorts of random information, but are more social,” he says, a personality he contrasts with “nerds,” who are “more highly focused and detail-oriented.” Sommers has always been fascinated by science, and enrolled in a civil engineering program as an undergraduate, but quickly had doubts about the field. “[Civil engineers] design the hell out of the smallest detail, and that’s not my personality,” he says. In his advanced classes, problems like calculating the flow of water in a pipe had a maddening number of possible answers. “Once you get to the higher levels of engineering, it’s not like there’s one way to solve a problem. And that’s what started throwing me.” He switched to a management program before graduation, and founded his packaging company, InProducts, a few years later. The company is now almost 30 years old. “Once you solve the problem, theoretically, you’re their guy–so they keep buying your solved problem,” he explains, although he has rarely been content with just one project. “I get distracted.”
Founding a chapter of TEDx has prompted a new set of challenges: crafting social media messages to promote Confluence II, finding a local artist to help design the event stage, and more. “We do production on a shoestring budget,” he says. The staff of TEDxGatewayArch is composed almost entirely of volunteers–Sommers estimates upwards of 95 percent. Although many share his interest in science and entrepreneurship, many others are eagerly awaiting upcoming Confluence talks by musicians and dancers as well. “As a salesman, I’m dealing with engineers and buyers … it’s nice to be around artists,” Sommers says. “It refreshes the soul.” He is adamant that the success of any TEDx event relies on bringing together a variety of viewpoints, both onstage and off. “We work really hard to create a diverse tribe. Because without effort, my tribe looks like me,” he says. “Our organization wants to create a community–and it’s not just a once-a-year event.”
To learn more about Steve Sommers or TedxGatewayArch, visit here.
Confluence II will be held on February 21st. To purchase tickets to the event, visit here.