“Around the Campfire” Profile: Will Lucas

willlucastedactiveThe campfire is still lit! We are profiling the extraordinary activators and thinkers who attend the TEDActive conference and highlighting their personal experiences, passions and most meaningful conversations.

Will Lucas is the ultimate doer. He’s started two internet companies from the ground up: In 2007, he founded Creadio a brand marketing technology firm and last year, he created Classana, a discovery engine that connects you to what you want to learn. In September of 2012, he organized the first TEDxToledo event optimistically themed “You Will Do Better.” But, that’s not all! Recently, he was named one of the 25 most influential African-Americans in Technology. This year was Will’s first TEDActive and so we caught up with him to hear about his experience and to pick his brain on what drives and motivates him.

How did your TEDActive 2013 experience begin?

I’ve been a big proponent of TED for a few years. I got introduced to TED several years ago when I saw Steve Jobs Stanford commencement speech. That kind of started it all — you know when you watch one video, then it shows you another video. You get engulfed in the whole environment.

I live in Toledo, Ohio and we have a rich artistic community and a budding technology community. I was thinking about how we could connect the nodes of our growing economies because everybody worked in their own silos. If I could bring TED to Toledo that would really cultivate the environment that I was interested in. I found the TEDx license page, applied and two weeks later I got an email approval. We had our first event in September of last year. I went to Active with the intent to have a bigger audience at our event [TEDx events are limited to 100 audience members unless the organizer has attended an official TED conference]. But after the first day I got there, it wasn’t even about that anymore. It was so much more than that. I think somebody said there were 72 countries represented. You get this sense that you’re a part of something much bigger than yourself. You’re surrounded by people who are really passionate about what it is they’re doing and share one common vision of making the world a better place. TEDActive was a life-changing experience.

Was there any one moment that stood out for you? 

I wouldn’t say a moment. If there was a moment, it happened several times. TED, this year, kind of had a bent towards education. Every talk had a slant towards the shifting view of how we educate our young people and lifelong learners. There were several moments when I realized we’re on the cusp of something great — if we make it great. My thought was that the talks were fantastic, but we can watch the talks anytime. It’s really about the people that you get a chance to meet and engage with and share with. TEDActive is a place where people come with strong ideas, strong opinions and strong beliefs, but are willing to be wrong. For me, this is the essence of what TED is about: sharing these ideas and being open to learning something new that might fly at the face of what you know.

What did you take away from the experience?

The experience solidified some things that I had been thinking about and dreaming about. Post-event, I had a conversation with [TEDActivator] Mauricio Bejarano on Facebook. In response to my post, he said that we all should write down our thoughts and ideas because as time goes on you start to forget things. There’s also this Chinese proverb — “A short pencil is better than a long memory.” I’ve always been the Tumblr type. It’s difficult for me to sit and write longform. I didn’t have the patience to sit and write. After reading Mauricio’s comment, I decided it was time to grow up and be patient and sit and write because I have a lot to share on education. I know one of the editors at one of our large papers in Toledo and I sent him one of my articles just to see what he thought about it. I didn’t have any intent. But he loved it and asked me to be a regular paid contributor.

It was encouraging that someone thought my thoughts were something the community should know about. We all have something to offer the world and I think TEDActive allows you space to be around, people who can feed that inertia. People who are interested in TED are usually people who contribute to their communities. But, you can only pour yourself out for so long before you need to be poured into. A car can run only so long. You’ve got to put gas in it. It’s important to think of TEDActive not just as a vacation but somewhere you can go and be refueled by being around people who can teach you something new or encourage you or confirm what you’re doing. Somebody said in the first Google Hangout, we’re nodes in a global network. Being at TEDActive I now have friends in Sweden and Switzerland, Nairobi – I didn’t know anybody in Africa before. Now I have three friends in Africa. If I ever go to Sweden, I have someone to talk to. Knowing that you can change the world and that we’re all hoping to change our communities– at some point you need to be around people who can pour into you.

A view from Will’s camera:

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How did you get into what you’re doing now? What fuels your passion?

The thing I’m most passionate about is the future of education. I love the internet and tech, but I think what I’m doing with Classana is the most important thing I’ve ever done.

I didn’t graduate from college. I did 3 years in college. People were telling me that it’s fantastic that I have my own business but that others will respect me more if I had a degree. About a year and a half ago, I was running my own business Creadio and I decide to take 16 credit hours. I want to finish what I started. I had a conversation with one of my mentors – and I have several mentors and I encourage everybody to have mentors—and he asked why I was going to school: “So, you work for yourself. When you graduate, what are you going to do? Promote yourself?” He said, “I’m not telling you not to go to school. But if you’re going to go, take classes that specifically speak to you and what you’re doing and to get better at that. Not just for a piece of paper.” That reframed how I thought about pursuing my education. I went back to the drawing board for planning the spring semester. But college is not really set up for you to pick and choose classes. It’s set up for you to go along a pre-requisite course towards a degree.

To make a long story short, I thought there’s got to be a better way for people to find educational resources. It’s the early infancy of the MOOCs (massive open online course), the Courseras of the world, the Khan Academys of the world. We believe education will be a more entrepreneurial endeavor. It’s in our natural state to seek out things that make us better. That Stanford commencement speech by Steve Jobs encompasses and solidifies the whole future of education. He said, “The minute I dropped out I could stop taking the required classes, and drop in on the ones that looked interesting.” I think he was more prophetic in that than he even knew. Our goal [with Classana] is to re-imagine the way we distribute education. If we can get people to what they’re passionate about, I think we’ve done our job.

When did Classana launch?

Classana launched publically 3 weeks before TEDActive. I have people on my advisory board from TEDActive! Michael Karnjanaprakorn, [TED Fellow] and CEO of Skillshare, and Ben Jones from Google joined. I met Ben Jones while standing outside of the auditorium waiting for one of the sessions to start. Everyone asks what you’re interested in. I’m into education so we ended up talking about that. That happened to be the session when Sugata [TEDPrize winner] presented. As soon as he got up on stage and started talking Ben turns around and looks at me like “Dude, you’re onto something. This is perfect for you.” We had a couple conversations since TEDActive. I met Michael from Skillshare the night of Jill Sobule’s fireside performance. He gave me advice on how to really grow and scale the business.

What is your advice for someone attending TEDActive for the first time?

I think you should go not knowing what to take out of it. You should go as open[-minded] as possibile. If you go looking for something, you walk with tunnel vision. You won’t see all of the other things that are possible. I think the best thing about TEDActive is that it’s easy to meet new people. There’s a guy I met in Bangladesh who in 45 seconds of meeting him, wanted to help bring Classana to Bangladesh because there’s such a need for resources like Classana in developing countries. I’d never thought about that. They’re just getting online and they want information, but they don’t know where to go. That’s the problem Classana solves. We just met 45 seconds ago. We never would have gotten into that conversation had I been talking to him with an ulterior motive. I would say go totally ready to be fed. Not looking for anything specific. Go and be genuine.

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