TEDxDetroit draws thousands to inspire, shape next big idea

Maureen Feighan
The Detroit News

Diagnosed with throat cancer three years ago and meeting with his radiation oncologist to talk about treatment that could end his career and life, famed voice actor Rob Paulsen, a Metro Detroit native, did what he does best: He imitated his oncologist's Russian accent at the doctor's request.

The moment drew laughs and was a life lesson for Paulsen, who grew up in Livonia, Dearborn, Rochester and Grand Blanc, about the power of laughter.

Rob Paulsen, voice actor behind cartoon characters from Pinky and the Brain, Animaniacs and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, talks to the crowd at TEDxDetroit Wednesday at the Masonic Temple.

"My motto now is laughter is the best medicine," said Paulsen. "And you can’t OD. And the refills are free."

Paulsen was one of dozens of speakers who took to the Masonic Temple's main stage in Detroit Wednesday for TEDxDetroit. Now in its 11th year, the event showcases artists, tech experts and entrepreneurs from all over the country — all speaking for less than 18 minutes — sharing their ideas to hopefully inspire others.

Now cancer-free, Paulsen, known for his voice work in the original "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" and as the character Carl Wheezer in "Jimmy Neutron," said he considers his bout with cancer, which could've easily ended his career, a "gift." 

"Empathy, courage, kindness, humility — like love — come from the most unusual and unexpected places," said Paulsen. "And all of you have that ability to cultivate it."

Wednesday's event drew roughly 3,000 people — nearly a third of whom were students. Speakers included former Michigan Lt. Gov. Brian Calley, now president of the Small Business Association of Michigan; HGTV star Nicole Curtis, a Lake Orion native, who recalled her rise from cleaning houses as a single mom to TV star; and Portia Powell, the daughter of an orphaned teenage mom who grew up in Detroit and is now a vice president at Chemical Bank.

Oscar-winning music producer Luis Resto, who worked with Eminem on "Lose Yourself," also performed a song that integrated percussion from the audience.

Calley said the rhetoric that politicians often use pledging "to fight every day" for their constituents would sound ridiculous in any other field. He encouraged people to take the time to listen to someone with opposing politics to try to understand their position and remember that someone isn't bad for having different beliefs.

Brian Calley, former Lt. govenor of Michigan and current president of the Small Business Association of Michigan, waves to  the crowd at TedxDetroit at The Masonic Temple in Detroit, Wednesday morning, November 6 2019.

"Changing the world is very difficult but changing the part of the world that you’re in is not that hard," said Calley.

TEDxDetroit Curator Charlie Wollborg said TED started in 1984 at a dinner party. Today, 3,000 TED talks — TED is an acronym for technology, entertainment and design, though topics now cover everything from pollution to co-parenting — are held every year in 170 countries.

Wollborg said the day is about "creating ripples in the pond" and pushing people to pursue their purpose, he said.

"When you're living with purpose, on purpose, you inspire others," Wollborg said.

TEDxDetroit attendees clap for voice actor Rob Paulsen inside the Masonic Temple Theater.

April Anderson, a baker and the owner of Good Cakes and Bakes on Livernois in Detroit, talked about becoming a teenage mom, going to prison for embezzlement and coming to terms with her sexuality. Anderson, who worked in finance before going back to school to become a baker, said for years she questioned if she belonged but needed to learn to take herself out of the "boxes" she put herself in.

"Right now, I’m exposing my true ingredients. I hope it doesn’t take away from my accomplishments," she said.

Magician Jason Hudy, a Premier Magic Productions entertainer, performs a magic trick with the help of volunteer Lanagan Wollborg, of Lake Orion.

One group, InDemand led by Quan Neloms, a teacher, focused on the importance of encouraging more black men to go into teaching. Neloms said less than 2% of teachers are black men. He and a group of teachers rapped about why more black men should become teachers.

"Here we stand," the group rapped and as one singer rapped the words "In Demand." "I’m a teacher. I’m black and I’m a man."

Wollborg said if one person is inspired by Wednesday's event, they've done their jobs.

"If we can spark one entrepreneur to get off their butt, we win," he said.