Farmington Hills native to be featured speaker in 2020 TEDxDetroit

Event goes virtual, free to all who register

By: Jonathan Shead | Farmington Press | Published September 22, 2020






FARMINGTON HILLS/METRO DETROIT — A now-famous Farmington Hills native, Al Jean, is set to make his TEDxDetroit debut at this year’s annual event.

TED stands for technology, entertainment and design, an idea conference that began in California in 1984. TEDxDetroit began in 2009 and has featured more than 250 speakers from industries including medicine, entertainment, education, engineering, literature and others, all hailing from Detroit or elsewhere across the Great Lakes state.

Jean, who graduated from Harrison High School in 1977, is best known for his role with the popular animated television series “The Simpsons.” He’s contributed as a writer for the series for 32 years and has been executive producer the last 22 years.

Jean has won nine Emmy Awards and two Peabody Awards. He’s also written for “The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson,” co-created the television show “The Critic,” and has served as the editor of the National Lampoon magazine. Jean graduated from Harvard with a degree in math in 1981.

Jean has been on the TEDxDetroit executive producers’ list of speakers they wanted to confirm for the last five years or so, but due to the event’s annual timing, Jean could never get away. Now with the event going virtual and with Zoom as an option, Jean is finally able to bring his expertise and experiences back to the community where he grew up.

“The creative output of (Jean) is amazing, so we’re interested to hear the ideas he’s going to want to spread around how art can help change ideas,” Executive Producer Charlie Wollborg said.

Jean plans to keep his talk focused on what he knows best: “The Simpsons.”

“I’m going to talk about ‘The Simpsons,’ how it started, where it’s been and how long it might go on,” he said in an email.

Other notable speakers include ESPN and CNN journalist LZ Granderson, Healthy Roots Dolls founder Yelitsa Jean-Charles, AWS Enterprise Cloud consultant Jillian Blackwell, Detroit Bus Co. founder Andy Didoros, and more yet to be announced.

Wollborg described the event as always having been “the feel-good date on the calendar,” so it was tough for the executive producers to transition to a virtual format, but they knew it was best for the well-being of the TEDxDetroit community.

The virtual offering this year may have some downsides, but for those who have never attended TEDxDetroit before, pivoting to online may actually be a perk.

“It’s a blessing and a curse, because we always talk about the charge particles in the audience. The people bouncing off each other in the audience is the real value, and new collaborations come when you bring people together. The downside is to have a room that big is very expensive,” Wollborg said, explaining that, without production costs, the event can be offered for free.

“Our reach has greatly expanded. Everyone can come this year. There’s no barrier to entry. We give up a little in kind of the ‘pop’ that comes from being together, but we increase our reach by getting these ideas in front of more people and hopefully inspiring more people to create their own ideas and start their own business.”

Wollborg believes, despite the virtual format, the event can still be a “beacon of sunshine” in a news cycle filled with the pandemic, politics, racial relations, murder hornets and other bad news.

“Our whole point is to show you people who are doing it in the hopes that it encourages you to go off and do something new. Innovation is not anything more than combining old ideas in new, exciting ways,” he said. “They may not be in the field you’re working in, but the lessons can shine a light and give a pathway for you to be better in your job or get your project off the ground.

“We really want TED to be a launchpad for the next generation of creators and entrepreneurs in Detroit.”

Jean hopes to share a similar message to those in the audience, “that if a guy like me from 12 Mile Road can do it, so can they,” he said.

TEDxDetroit 2020 is scheduled for Sept. 30, with three sessions: 10-11:30 a.m., 2-3:30 p.m. and 8-9:30 p.m. For more information and to register to attend, visit