A Unique Opportunity for Global Relevance – My Experience at TED@IBM

As we gear up for this year’s TED@IBM slated for November 15th, we look back at the experience of one of last year’s guest speakers. Eric Mibuari, leader of the Financial Services Innovation group at IBM Research in Africa. Eric shares how the opportunity to speak at the TED@IBM 2015 conference has made a mark in his career.

When I was first nominated to submit an application to speak at TED@IBM, it was very exciting, but my initial thought was, surely there’s no way I’ll qualify from among the thousands of amazing people who work at IBM. However, after my manager pointed out the reasons that I had been nominated – the fact that I was working on a problem that no one else at IBM was tackling (creating algorithms to power mobile lending), the fact that I was creating innovations in the process, and the potential impact of my work around the world – I was encouraged and decided to apply.


About two months after submitting my application I got word that I had been selected. It was a big honor and I immediately started preparing my speech. However, it was not until a month to the speech that thorough preparation started. Frequent coaching sessions with a writing coach as well as a speech coach became the order of things. Finally the time came for me to fly from Nairobi to San Francisco. It was a blessing in many ways to be in that city – I had attended graduate school nearby and two days before my talk I did a big run on campus. My run took me to the peak of one of the highest hills of the Peninsula, and with the breeze in my face – I felt I could do it. The day before the run I had finally mastered my talk and I felt ready to tell the story to the world.

On the day of the talk, as hundreds of people streamed into the Yerba Buena auditorium in downtown San Francisco, all I could think about was how I would do, and how the speech would be received. I felt confident – about my preparedness, about the flow. But a few hours before the talk, I still joined a few of my fellow speakers as we rehearsed, one last time, in the beautiful gardens of the Yerba Buena, next to a few dozen seniors completely absorbed in yoga. Back in the auditorium I was the fifth person to talk and when I went on stage a huge applause went up and it helped me ignore the giant light in my face. I found my spot on the “TED-red” carpet, noticed a few familiar faces in the audience – friends and coaches – and and started talking.


It was flowing, I was in control, and I could hear myself saying everything I had planned to say. But it all went by so fast that, before I knew it, I had arrived at the conclusion. I thought the ending had come so fast that I actually added an extra phrase that I had not planned on. I challenge anybody who watches the talk to identify the phrase. Then it was over. Another long applause, a scream here, and a shout there told me I had done a good job. Throughout the speech, I had seen the attentive nodding, the sparkle in the eyes of several members of the audience, the encouraging smiles of my friends and coaches, and even random members of the audience, and I knew it was resonating. All the preparation had paid off. It had been a grueling schedule preparing for the speech – with coaches eleven time zones away and dozens of edits, but it had all been worth it. The audience loved it and soon after Twitter and Facebook were ablaze with references to the talk.

Looking back now, talking at TED@IBM was one of the highlights of my experiences at IBM. I had the amazing opportunity to meet with super-star IBMers from all over world and other very interesting speakers from outside IBM. The talk has also spurred global awareness about my work both internally at IBM and externally with potential clients and partners. Because of this talk, I have received numerous invitations to speak about the work I do, and it has opened many doors to client engagements. Now, whenever I’m called upon to talk about my work, I reflect on the TED experience – how I had to craft my message for a global audience, how I had to strip the talk to the core essential message, and how I had to carefully choose my phrases, every word, every sentence. It has forever changed how I communicate in and outside work, and I am tremendously grateful for the opportunity.

70% of African households own cellphones but less than 35% have access to credit. Mining non-traditional forms of credit using available technologies, Eric Mibuari asks if this “mobile continent” can use cellphones to access what they need most – loans.

#TEDatIBM 2016 is coming up on November 15. Check out this year’s speaker lineup and find out how to register for the live stream at  http://ibm.biz/TEDatIBM16

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