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Detroit, Michigan

Charlie Wollborg

By Tunde Wey
October 10, 2013

There are fools and then there are jesters, and while the two are oft confused their difference is significant. A fool is irreverent without thought, while a jester uses irreverence to provoke thought; this is where the inverse of the popular expression "a difference without distinction" proves useful, for the difference here is one with considerable distinction.
Charlie Wollborg is a jester, the sort of man who seems most comfortable in casual dress: shorts, sandals and shirt. He is easily excitable and excitedly gestures while delivering some wittily titled, neologistic speech; "MOHO is the new SOHO" or the even more intriguing "Jump and the internet will appear." But all of this performance is in service of a larger cause, to ruin staid convention.
Now let’s pause and assess the popular narrative of Detroit: bankrupt, blight- and poverty-stricken, illiterate…dying (or dead). Wollborg ventures otherwise: "We were sick of the continuous 'burning, bleeding, bankrupt, blighted' narrative in the national media about Detroit, yes, all those problems existed, and still exist, in Detroit, but that's not the whole story."
Wollborg’s refrain in itself is not venturous, however it becomes so when one considers the vehicle he commandeers. Wollborg is executive producer and curator of the annual TEDxDetroit conference, a daylong conference featuring engaging talks around technology, entertainment and design.
The highly-regarded conference is the most poignant way Wollborg remains irreverent while still embodying the sort of gravitas needed to make the ideas he believes in relevant…and what is Wollborg’s big idea (which also happens to be a stated goal of TEDxDetroit)? To "bring the 'charged particles' together to encourage collaboration, optimism and a sense of what's possible."
All those individual convention breakers, like himself, Wollborg wants to coalesce and set their collective strengths to the task of rewriting old rules and stimulating stale notions.
TEDxDetroit, was begun by Wollborg and "a few of his cool friends" in 2009. Since then it has grown in size and prominence, featuring such speakers as Dan Gilbert of Quicken Loans fame and Veronika Scott, the locally based but nationally celebrated social entrepreneur.
This year’s TEDxDetroit drew about 1000 attendees to COBO Hall, all eager to hear stories and be inspired to share ideas and take action, because while inspiration is always necessary it is never sufficient. The extra step required is doing.
"We want TEDx to serve as a creative catalyst for the region. If we can bring two innovators together to start something new or spark one new idea or inspire one new leader to rise up and start a movement, TEDxDetroit will be a huge success."
Wollborg sees plenty of inspiration appropriately levered by action in the region. He rattles of a slew of innovative organizations: "…Hatch Detroit is incubating new retail ideas. FoodLab Detroit is spawning new food entrepreneurs. Menlo Innovations is rewriting the rules of the workplace. Shinola is making a case for American manufacturing. And GM, Ford and Chrysler fund more R&D than just about any industry on the planet. Detroit still is the engine of the world's economy and hotbed of innovation."
Even with all this proof that the region is not all doom and gloom, Wollborg says our victories are sometimes buried beneath the "din of bad news."
So what better way than to be loud and irreverent, boastful even, as a reminder to the naysayers and conventionalists that where we are going is better than where we have recently been. For Wollborg it is the only way.

All photos by Doug Coombe.

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