May 19, 2014

The power of individual actions; local success stories from neighboring communities; the worlds that cannot be seen with the naked eye but affect our lives—this year’s TEDxColumbiaSIPA event celebrated the small. All told, 11 speakers and performers examined the notion that bigger is not always better before an audience of more than 400 guests at the University’s Miller Theatre on May 8.

It was the second consecutive year that SIPA students curated a TEDx event—an independently organized gathering that presents talks in the spirit of the TEDx global conferences that began in 1990.

“I am proud of our entire team that brought a day of uncommon inspiration to Columbia University, with speakers from different worlds and areas of expertise,” said Lindsay Litowitz MIA ’14, the event’s MC, curator, and TEDx licensee. “It's a testament of the power of collaboration at SIPA.”

This year’s program featured sessions entitled “Tiny Considerations,” “A Little Imagination,” and “It’s a Small World After All”—each a variation on the conference theme of “Think Smaller.”

David Zweig, author of the forthcoming nonfiction book Invisibles, began the event with a talk that asked: "What if becoming successful has nothing to do with gaining attention?" In an age of relentless self-promotion, he said, “the value of your work, not the volume of your praise will bring you lasting reward.”

Michael Aufrichtig, Columbia’s head fencing coach, talked about the importance of paying attention to details and being open to new ideas, exemplified by the use of his “deliberate focus practice” method and the statistical analysis that transformed Columbia’s fencing team into champions. “We've come a long way from the team that was 2-16 to the one that is 27-3, and we're not done yet,” he said.

Local entrepreneur Aurora Anaya-Cerda, owner of La Casa Azul Bookstore in East Harlem, shared her personal story of books that inspired her to open her Latino literature bookstore and her innovative approach to making her dream into a reality, including a successful crowdfunding campaign. “People ask me what I love about running a business,” she said. “Every day is magic.”

Dr. Özgür Şahin, a professor of biological sciences and physics at Columbia, demonstrated the power of nature’s smallest biological system and the potential to extract renewable energy from bacterial spores. “The power of evaporation is worth pursuing.”

At 95 years old, Tao Porchon-Lynch is the world’s oldest yoga instructor. Approaching the stage she kicked off her heels and sat in a yoga pose throughout her talk, calling for the audience to tune into the life force within them: “I'm not interested in what I can't do. I am interested in what I can do.”

Joel Putnam MPA ’15, who won this year’s student speaker competition, focused on crowdsourcing democracy: “When you face people in power, you need a solid political strategy.”

Chef Joseph “JJ” Johnson, chef de cuisine at the Cecil restaurant in Harlem, talked about food and identity, referencing his family influences and culinary experience abroad in Ghana. “Slaves changed the culinary game,” Johnson said. “It took a long time for me to say that.”

The Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter Michelle Citrin discussed the experience of letting other people’s perceptions of her stature affect how she viewed herself, while sharing the music that contributed to her ultimate realization. “So you may as well learn to love yourself for exactly who you are. Because you know what’s really short: life.”

Lucius Riccio, former commissioner of NYC’s Department of Transportation and a faculty member at both SIPA and the Engineering School, provided an overview of the larger problems of America’s crumbling infrastructure from the street level vantage point of a Manhattan pothole. “A pothole is not an act of God, it's a failure of public policy,” he said. “Potholes are a microcosm for the way America views its infrastructure problems.”

Joseph Koyie, a Maasai warrior and education advocate, told the story of his near-death experience with a lion and how it sparked his passion for community-led development. “When I look back now on that lion almost killing me, I realized it was just the beginning of a new life.”

The day ended with an appearance by the Grammy-nominated musician Matisyahu, who performed songs from his new album, Akeda.

In between the event’s live presentations, attendees viewed recordings of popular TED talks from years past. They also saw two videos—prepared for TEDxColumbiaSIPA by Capital C, a Canadian advertising agency— that poked fun at the prospect of a world that doesn’t foster “ideas worth spreading.”

Cartoonist Connie Wonnie sketched the event happenings throughout the afternoon with delightful results.

The talks will soon be viewable at