Volunteering with TEDxSingapore has given Ms Michelle Wan (Science ‘91) a sense of purpose — and belonging.
AS A HOSPITALITY VETERAN — who has headed the communications department at the likes of Portman Ritz-Carlton in Shanghai, Four Seasons Singapore and now The Fullerton Heritage — Ms Michelle Wan is in the business of making people feel at home. Yet when she relocated from China back to Singapore in 2008, she felt strangely out of place. “It was quite difficult to assimilate back to Singapore after eight and a half years,” she recalls. In 2012, she was introduced to TEDxSingapore through work. With this group that is dedicated to giving inspiring ideas a platform, she found a community that shared the same outlook in life. Ms Wan went on to co-curate TEDxSingapore alongside its founder Mr Dave Lim, and played a key role in putting together a two-day event that attracted some 1,700 attendees in 2015. “That SG50 event was my first experience of being among fellow TEDx organisers around the world and it felt like family. There were no barriers between us. That was the power of having people who are aligned in purpose,” she shares.
Ms Wan is moved not simply by camaraderie, but by conviction that the work at TEDx betters society on many different levels. “People are hungry to share their knowledge and make the world a better place. It sounds like fluff but collectively we have seen the impact it has made on people’s lives — even on the lives of the speakers. The speakers go through three to four months of professional speech training and when they finally get on stage to present their personal story or idea, you see how they have grown — it fills me with pride and joy.”
Have you always appreciated the company of those from diverse backgrounds?
Even though I was a science student, I loved literary expression and went on to join Ogilvy & Mather Advertising and Promotions as a copywriter. My colleagues were eclectic people and we still adore each other.
Why did TEDxSingapore strike a chord with you?
I was looking for something that is Singaporean in terms of values and chanced upon a group of people with the same passion and outlook. These people who volunteer their time do so not to up their street cred, bump up their CV or rub shoulders. Nobody goes in there to fluff their ego — we are all down to earth. it is modern-day kampung ideation – an evolution of the gotong-royong (cooperative) spirit.
Did your professional background help in putting together the talks?
As a hospitality professional, I found the utopian ideal in conference organising through TEDx. TEDxSingapore 2015 was organised by a disjointed group of 100 volunteers with no experience in putting a conference together, let alone one that saw thousands of attendees. Yet we pulled it off with no glitches. It was done through acknowledging that we are all different, and bringing our collective strengths together. It was also done through tapping into the power of our shared purpose.
How does TEDxSingapore benefit Singaporeans?
It makes the world recognise that we are TED-worthy, that there is something more to Singapore. It celebrates the diverse communities we have, all the people doing odd and weird things — from Mirella Ang who spoke, as a six year-old, about learning kindness from the poor in Chiangmai at the TEDxYouth@Singapore in 2010, to the late centenerian Ms Teresa Hsu; from mountaineers to tech entrepreneurs who want to launch themselves to space. We celebrate the human spirit. When the community voice is amplified, it makes people realise that there is more beyond the pressures of life and work. Therein lies power. Everybody in the audience is there as a pupil satiating his curiosity. You could be sitting next to a professor or CEO but nobody is overwhelmed, because everyone is there to learn from each other.
What about outside of Singapore?
The TED global community is also very actively connected, and through them, I can do my part to help somebody outside of Singapore. For example, Mr Pierre Thiam, a Senegalese chef based in America and a TED Global speaker, is promoting Fonio, a grain that grows in the Sahara. He wants to do this to uplift the livelihood of his fellow man, and has given them hope now that he has gotten Fonio into Walmart. I have a contact who imports African products and connected Pierre to him. I am also open to see what we can do at the hotel if there were to be an promotion of African products. Though I don’t have time to do the traditional forms of social work, through TED I am able to make an impact with the limited amount of time I have.
How did your years at NUS lead you to where you are today?
Though I did not pursue science after graduation, the precision, timeliness and discipline that called of us as chemistry and biochemistry students have stood me well through the years. I’ve always been interested in a multidisciplinary range of subjects and am not one-track-minded — though back then cross-faculty courses were not available, and we simply didn’t have the time for that given our 40-hour weeks with long hours in the laboratory. That said, looking back, my creative journey might have started even at NUS, when I took to editing the science faculty newsletter. Ours was not as “happening” a faculty, so we also learned to make things happen for ourselves.
How much time do you dedicate to your work at TEDxSingapore?
During the more intensive months when we were organising the big event, my “second job” was from 10pm to 2am. People say that we are suckers. They say that we are in a cult! But I do what I do because I have seen how it works as a community for good. These days, I watch a TED talk whenever I am stressed. It grounds you to hear positive stories of the human spirit while fighting war, racial bias and other bigger, harder fights than yours.