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How drawing can set you free | Shantell Martin

Who are you? To answer this question, artist Shantell Martin followed her pen. In this brilliantly visual talk featuring her signature freestyle line work — drawn across everything from the screens of Times Square to the bodies of New York City Ballet dancers — Martin shares how she found freedom and a new perspective through art. See how drawing can connect your heart to your hand and deepen your connection with the world.

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What tech companies know about your kids | Veronica Barassi

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How to turn your dissatisfaction into action | Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr

After the devastating rebel invasion of Freetown in 1999 and the Ebola epidemic in 2014, Yvonne Aki-Sawyerr, mayor of the city, refused to be paralyzed by her frustration with the status quo. Instead, she used her anger as a catalyst for action. In this inspiring talk, she shares how she transformed her city by taking the risks necessary to bring about dramatic change — and shows how you can find power in your dissatisfaction.

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University entrepreneurship — without the university

Across the country, university campuses are in limbo.

The California State University system has committed to online classes in Fall 2020. Northeastern University is reopening as normal. UT Austin is taking a hybrid approach: in-person classes until Thanksgiving break, then online classes during flu season.

This presents a special set of circumstances for university entrepreneurs. The traditional resources and networks are nonoperational. But time and focus, historically the most scarce resources for ambitious students, is now at an all-time high.

It’s often noted that both Facebook and Microsoft were started during Harvard’s Reading Period, a week where classes are cancelled to let students study. This spring has been like one long Reading Period, sometimes with even less responsibility.

Deprioritizing classes

Stanford undergraduate Markie Wagner is taking advantage of the mandatory Pass/Fail policy that the school adopted. Since grades are no longer a consideration, Markie and her friends have free rein to put classes on the back burner to focus on talking to entrepreneurs and experimenting with business ideas.

She told us, “I’m going full hackathon mode this quarter. I’ve been reaching out to lots of founders and VCs to learn from them.” Planning on spending her upcoming senior year building a company, she’s getting a head start on exploration and network building.

If the pandemic forces school closings for the long-run, however, students will have to deal with more than a semester with an easier course load.

There’s near-universal resentment toward the idea of paying full tuition for online classes. Many of the students in Contrary’s network are planning gap years. Or, like Austin Moninger, even skipping senior year altogether. A senior at Rice studying computer science, he originally intended to graduate in spring of 2021. But given the virtual nature moving forward, he decided to accelerate graduation and is currently pursuing full-time software engineering roles. He notes, “We’ve all learned that we’re really paying for the experience and the network at the end of the day, so without it, I might as well take my time and money elsewhere.”

This puts universities in a precarious position: They must choose between letting students take breaks and defer admissions, which risks class size or financial issues (as an example, Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business decided against this, refusing to allow students to defer), or pushing forward at full price and risking brand damage.

That said, some students are affected by shutdowns or online classes more than the schools themselves are. Research-focused entrepreneurs working in biotech, hardware or other sectors typically require expensive lab equipment to make progress. Pure software plays like Facebook and Snap usually come to mind first when talking about university entrepreneurship, but such lean operations are certainly not the only ones being built.

It’s also unclear how prolonged closures or online classes will impact education itself and how that will impact founders in the long run. Most founders have completed the majority of their degrees by the time they commit to their companies and attempt to raise money. We have not seen any meaningful skill gap in 2020, nor do we expect to throughout the rest of the year.

Unless building a deep-tech startup, company-building can continue as long as an entrepreneur has enough of a technical or financial foundation to self-educate and learn by doing. Malwarebytes CEO Marcin Kleczynski is an excellent example of this — he famously started his cybersecurity company as a freshman at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign and did the bare minimum required to get C grades in school.

Virtualizing campus

Although seed funding for university entrepreneurs has not slowed down since school closings, company-building has certainly not gotten any easier.

The main challenge for 22-year-old talent is not having energy or being scrappy — it’s usually growing the network needed to recruit the right co-founder and hire an early team. In an on-campus environment, there’s enough serendipity to make this natural. But if school closings persist and virtual offerings don’t fill the vacuum, we’ll likely see a lag in new company formation.

It’s rare that founders embark on the startup journey without having known each other for at least a year. Right now, not enough time has passed to make this a problem. But at campuses where students can’t get to know peers at a deep level, it’s impossible to build bonds over a long time period.

To combat this, at Contrary, for example, we hosted a virtual community of founders this past spring with a simple premise: Put 100 people in a room (or Slack channel, more literally), make sure they spend time together and give them the tools to build.

Over the course of six weeks, 150+ collaborations occurred as people experimented on different ideas and projects. Seventy-five percent of the founders said they’d been more productive since the remote transition occurred, and at the end of the program, nearly 70% of the group planned to continue working on their companies or begin a fresh project.

Perhaps most notable is the diversity of connections made — most interactions between participants were between students enrolled in different schools. Since even the best institutions in the world each matriculate only a single digit percentage of talent nationwide, virtualizing the program made the talent pool far larger.

Successful entrepreneurs like Steve Huffman from Reddit and Paul English from Kayak (and now Lola) gave off-the-record talks, but it turned out that most of the value came from access to a highly curated group of peers that each member wouldn’t otherwise meet. The program forced the serendipity that school closures lost, then combined that with the other necessary ingredient: Tangible opportunities to build rather than talk.

You can treat a university like a bundle of tools: The education, network, credential and social learnings all compose into one holistic experience.

Over the past decade, much of that value-stack has been eaten by other organizations.

To prove that you’re a talented individual, you can try applying for the Thiel Fellowship, or lean on name-brand past internships. Or to learn about venture, you can read Scott Kupor’s book or Paul Graham’s blog.

Until very recently, the university’s main “network effect” was the fact that you had to be there to meet other great individuals. Since COVID-19 has shifted most interactions to the cloud, however, that’s no longer the default path.

Looking forward

Hopefully flattening the curve will soon become extinguishing the curve. But until then, university-based founders will have to focus on the alternative infrastructure that powers funding, networking, credentialing and learning.

Had Contrary, Slack, Y Combinator or free AWS credits not existed prior, the closure of schools may have dealt a death knell to founders. But given the abundance of options now available to plug into the Valley and build, surprisingly little has changed.

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A new way to “grow” islands and coastlines | Skylar Tibbits

What if we could harness the ocean’s movement to protect coastal communities from rising sea levels? Designer and TED Fellow Skylar Tibbits shows how his lab is creating a dynamic, adaptable system of underwater structures that uses energy from ocean waves to accumulate sand and restore eroding shorelines — working with the forces of nature to build rather than destroy.

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The injustice of “policing for profit” — and how to end it | Dick M. Carpenter II

Many countries have an active, centuries-old law that allows government agencies to take your things — your house, your car, your business — without ever convicting you of a crime. Law researcher Dick M. Carpenter II exposes how this practice of civil forfeiture threatens your rights and creates a huge monetary incentive for law enforcement to pocket your possessions — and he lays out a path to end “policing for profit” once and for all.

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How “policing for profit” undermines your rights | Dick M. Carpenter II

Many countries have an active, centuries-old law that allows government agencies to take your things — your house, your car, your business — without ever convicting you of a crime. Law researcher Dick M. Carpenter II exposes how this practice of civil forfeiture threatens your rights and creates a huge monetary incentive for law enforcement to pocket your possessions — and he lays out a path to end “policing for profit” once and for all.

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Crisis support for the world, one text away | Nancy Lublin

What if we could help people in crisis anytime, anywhere with a simple text message? That’s the idea behind Crisis Text Line, a free 24-hour service that connects people in need with trained, volunteer crisis counselors — “strangers helping strangers around the world, like a giant global love machine,” as cofounder and CEO Nancy Lublin puts it. Learn more about their big plans to expand to four new languages, providing a third of the globe with crucial, life-saving support. (This ambitious plan is a part of the Audacious Project, TED’s initiative to inspire and fund global change.)

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A global pandemic calls for global solutions | Larry Brilliant

Examining the facts and figures of the coronavirus outbreak, epidemiologist Larry Brilliant evaluates the global response in a candid interview with head of TED Chris Anderson. Brilliant lays out a clear plan to end the pandemic — and shows why, to achieve it, we’ll have to work together across political and geographical divides. “This is not the zombie apocalypse; this is not a mass extinction event,” he says. “We need to be the best version of ourselves.” (Recorded April 22, 2020)

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The wonders of the molecular world, animated | Janet Iwasa

Some biological structures are so small that scientists can’t see them with even the most powerful microscopes. That’s where molecular animator and TED Fellow Janet Iwasa gets creative. Explore vast, unseen molecular worlds as she shares mesmerizing animations that imagine how they might work.

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