Remembering Rich Bowers: On Life, Legacy and Trust


This blog post shares reflections on a recent TEDx milestone and a tribute to one of TEDxColumbus’ most loyal collaborators.

Ten years ago last week, the first TEDx event in the world happened at USC. The founding genius behind TEDx, Lara Stein, reminded us on Facebook of this milestone and how beautifully the global community had responded. And might I add, exceeded all expectations. The numbers could never be projected: something like 20,000 events, 100,000 talks, 1,500 cities, 150 languages. And counting. It’s stunning. In response to her post, we reminded her it wouldn’t have happened without her, her vision, her idea to brazenly give away the TED brand. Hard to measure that return on investment.

Last week was also the week that we said goodbye to a dear friend I had made through TEDx, Rich Bowers.

Diagnosed with cancer sometime in January, he called me on Feb. 18 to let me know he wasn’t able to participate as our lead communications partner for our 10th event. We both knew it would be our last conversation without saying so. Indeed, a month later, he died.

Rich attended the third TED, known at the time as TED3. A few years ago, when downsizing, he gifted me the cassette tapes that were distributed after the conference as a lasting memory of those talks and ideas worth spreading. He was a true believer in provocative thinking, incessant learning, and showcasing NEW ideas. He did not care for recycled ones, at least never for our stage.

As a result of his involvement in so many years of TED and TEDx, his family decided to designate his memorial contributions to be directed to the TEDxColumbus Fund at the Columbus Foundation. Rich had been involved in many other initiatives and causes so this was both surprising and deeply touching.

All three of these separate events – a celebration of a milestone, tragic health news and the gesture of a gift – hit me square in the gut. And heart. It made me reflect more deeply on TEDx – but really – on Rich’s contributions.

In 2012, he chronicled the experiences of two of our speakers in their journeys to give their TEDx Talks. He was fascinated to look “under the hood” at what it took to start with an idea and end with a talk. The video he produced (along with his press release with more insightful writings) can be found here.

Last year he wrote the most comprehensive student/teacher guide for 800 high school students who attended TEDx – painstakingly crafting questions, discussion prompts and backgrounds for each speaker and topic. Those teachers who brought their students never had it so good.

For several years he worked with us on the curatorial committee, vetting and debating speakers. His voice was steady yet always unexpected. He could twist and turn a concept on its head in ways few others could muster.

And he attended. And attended. For two years he and his wife attended both the morning and afternoon event sessions. He would send me these stunning reflections including who did better in which session, what the audience reactions were, how we could improve in the future years with our speaker choices.

I went back to find some email exchanges I’d had with Rich. He was instrumental in brainstorming the theme for last year’s event – TRUST. For context, the theme in 2016 was RISK.

It is worth sharing.

He wrote:

So – what happens in response to Risk? Even if you relish Risk, you try to mitigate it – make it fall in your favor. You seek out trusted assumptions, trusted resources, trusted people. Trust gives you confidence, hope, strength.

But even with trust, there is risk.

Some of our trust is placed in physics – proven assumptions about the nature of things. Except – quantum physics is an example of what has proven not to be nearly so reliable, certainly not nearly so knowable.

Some of our trust in placed in power of people – groups of people, crowds, populations – and the trends they produce. Safe to consider A + B will turn out to be C. Except – black swans are popping up more frequently these days – and they require rapid changes in strategy.

Some of our trust is placed in people – counting on personal motives, even jobs – like the consequential strangers we meet and greet regularly without even knowing their names.

Except – studies like those in behavioral economics have shown that there are deep gaps in our understandings of motives and drive – and sometimes our well-intended action work in an opposite way.

Trust is the pivot point of action. And it is the framework on which we hang our interactions with:

+ The world around us (science).

+ The contracts and expectations that allow business (social enterprise, the triple-bottom-line, etc.) to exist (because it relies on people agreeing to the same set of rules, and enforcement against those who don’t).

+ The solace of individual relationships – from love partners to friends to the attachment to even faceless groups – like FB and other social tools – that enable us to nurture the herd in our historic nature.

There is risk in trust – yet we swallow it up and keep going – day after day. Do we very often examine it explicitly, systematically?

All the social constructs are built on trust. Where does it come from? How do we measure or assess it? How do we know when it’s lost? How do we create it? How do we destroy it?

While the TEDx movement has some easy measurements – the contributions of individuals like Rich inside the movement are impossible to measure.

For Rich, TEDx was both a mission and a playground. A calling and a service.

As we continue to find ways to honor his legacy and live up to his standards, we will hold his questions, provocations and expectations deep in our guts – and hearts – as we march on. It just won’t be as easy or enjoyable without him around.