The power of two

Two international school students take their TED-inspired conferences to India with the aim of motivating teenagers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 23 April, 2013, 10:50am

No one could have predicted the doors Anna Zhou and Karen Lee Mei-ling have opened with their Ndoto conferences. Not only are students at their own school, Hong Kong International School, looking at their futures differently, but so are students in India. And it may not stop there.

Both Year 11 students at HKIS, Anna, 18, and Karen, 17, hope their vision (that's what "ndoto" means in Swahili) will also help other young people broaden their visions about the world around them.

The pair are fans of the TED (technology, entertainment and design) ideas conferences in the United States and decided to organise something similar after attending an event staged by a local spin-off, TEDxYouth@Hong Kong, two years ago.

Karen says she thought Anna was crazy when she first mentioned the idea. "The whole thing was Anna's idea," Karen says. "On our MTR ride after the TEDxYouth talk, she said: 'Why don't we do a TED ourselves?'"

But because they couldn't meet TED's licensing conditions, they gave up the idea of establishing a local chapter. That's how the first Ndoto Conference was born.

"When we started this in 2011, we were under 18. TED's licensing conditions [stipulate] that talks organised by those aged below 18 should have no more than 100 people including volunteers, attendees and speakers. We wanted to get more people to attend," says Anna.

The talk took place in February, featuring 11 speakers who are leaders in their respective fields. About 200 people attended, surpassing everyon's expectations

Anna attributes building their stellar line-up of speakers - including Nury Vittachi, the Sri Lankan-born author and co-founder of the Hong Kong International Literary Festival, and Howard McCrary, a Grammy-nominated African-American gospel singer - to luck and hard work.

"We did a lot of research on the speakers. We went to the Hawkerama exhibition in Mong Kok in 2012 to talk to Michael Leung, the product designer and the first urban beekeeper in Hong Kong. But he turned us down," Anna says. "But we also ran into Kacey Wong there, the Polytechnic University School of Design assistant professor who has curated many arts exhibitions. We approached him, and he agreed eventually.

"When we went to Mana! restaurant in Central for catering of our conference, the owner, Bobsy Gaia, a yogi born in Lebanon, overheard our conversation with an employee in the restaurant. It turned out that he started some restaurants in Hong Kong that we're familiar with. We had just found out that Ocean Park's chief, Allan Zeman, couldn't make it, so we asked Bobsy to speak at our conference."

They also met plenty of naysayers. "When we mentioned it to our teachers, they had doubts," Karen says. "They said it's a huge job to set up a TED-like conference. I actually wanted to give up two months before the conference. Exams were coming up and potential sponsors didn't respond to us. I was stressed out. I was overwhelmed with so much work that I didn't want to work on it any more. But Anna persuaded me not to give up."

There were no corporate sponsors to be had, so the girls' parents used their connections to raise HK$90,000 for the conference.

Karen says they learned from the experience. "In hindsight, we were like kids when we approached Michael Leung," she says. "We didn't present ourselves and sell our points as well as we should have. We weren't confident enough. The key is to sound as mature and professional as possible when writing e-mails or calling the speakers."

Word got round about the conference's success and an Indian school principal invited the girls to stage their next Ndoto Conference in Ambur, a city of about 120,000 in southeast India.

Held on March 9, it featured four Indian speakers from fields such as education and youth work, and was attended by 200 students from four schools in Ambur.

Anna and Karen credit the help they received from the principal, Franklin Desai, whom they met in India while on a community service trip.

"He asked us to bring it to India. He found three of the Indian speakers. The fourth, Rohit Pothukuchi was an alumnus of an international school in India where one of our HKIS teachers had taught before," Karen says. Pothukuchi founded Verdentum, an organisation that connects school students across the globe to discuss pressing social, environmental and policy matters via video conferencing, in 2010.

The Ndoto Conference in Ambur made a huge impact on the students, all from the lowest stratum of Indian society.

"They're all untouchables. They had never heard of TED before," Anna says. "The speakers delivered the talk in Tamil, their mother tongue, and inspired the children to be brave and not be shackled by their surroundings. They know that they can change their fate with the power of education."

But it wasn't all talk. "We taught them to set goals for themselves," Karen says. "We designed games to teach empowerment."

After the conference, Karen says, the students in India set up Youth and Empowerment Clubs in their schools to find solutions to problems plaguing their impoverished rural community.

"After we left, the clubs launched action projects in the community such as campaigns to make people more aware of the importance of recycling paper and bottles, and doing money-raising drives to get toothbrushes to people with poor dental health", she says.

"The schools where they study are decrepit. The neighbourhood has leather factories that pollute the drinking water. The problem of child labour is also severe. Some of the children there stopped attending classes after they were forced to go to work to help supplement the family income."

Bill Leese, a humanities teacher at HKIS, says he was "impressed with the magnitude and impact of the event" as well as the the girls' determination.

"The conferences cover such a broad range of interests. The speakers - [including] a social activist, a musician and a professor - can serve as a range of role models for students."

Leese has taught the two girls for three years and didn't think either stood out initially. But through their conference venture, "their leadership has blossomed in a way that wasn't predictable", he says.

Now Anna and Karen are raring to take their conferences to other places. "Desai wants us to do it for another school in India," Karen says. "One of the speakers at the Hong Kong conference, Howard McCrary, has connections with top administrators in Monaco. One HKIS student has connections with an orphanage in Thailand.

"We originally did this as a one-off thing. But after the feedback we got, we think it's a good idea to continue it. We just need to figure out where."