What began as Dhvani Bhatia’s college admissions essay turned into a TED talk – a story-driven lecture on big ideas – all because the teen said “yes” to applying to be a presenter at Saturday’s TEDxRaleigh event.
Ironically, that essay is about the power of the word “no,” a message the 18-year-old will discuss on the TEDx stage at Nash Hall. “No,” she says, is not symbol of rejection but one of power that forces us to persevere to find a solution to a problem.
Bhatia, a student at Apex High School, was selected from about 250 applications to be one of 12 speakers. She is by far the youngest presenter in the lineup, which includes an array of motivational speakers, scientists, professors and entrepreneurs, all talking about the theme of “wonderlust.”
“During the finalist interviews, one of the interviewers asked me, ‘If I’m the CEO of a company, why should I listen to you?’ ” Bhatia said.
“I told him, ‘This isn’t a college classroom. I’m not a professor. But I think that hearing it from me, maybe other high schoolers would try this mindset and perspective and use it on a day-to-day basis.’ ”
Kevin Snyder, curator of this year’s TEDxRaleigh event and a former TEDxRaleigh presenter himself, helped select Bhatia as a speaker.
“What I love about her talk is it has a universal message.” he said. “It can be applied to anyone at any level of life, and I think the fact that she’s 18 years old is a testimony to that.”
TEDxRaleigh is one of hundreds of independently run TEDx events around the world, and Snyder said the response to this one has been massive. All 350 tickets sold out in under 10 minutes, he said.
Snyder said the TEDx model also gave him and his team the autonomy to select Dhvani in a process that differs from other TEDx events.
“Some events, the curator or the team will hand-pick people,” he said. “I didn’t like that philosophy, so we ended up sending out a public call for speakers. I wouldn’t have met Dhvani otherwise, and frankly, I wouldn’t have met most of the people we ended up selecting as presenters.”
Bhatia is a senior at Apex High School, where she’s taking seven classes this semester – three more than a typical semester at Apex High, to say nothing of senior year.
She works part-time at SAS Institute in Cary as a technical writer. She’s also part of her school’s guitar ensemble and founder of Apex’s chapter of Nourish International, one of just a handful of high school chapters granted charters by the nonprofit.
Up to this point, Bhatia appears to have made a habit to saying “yes” to anything she possibly can.
But she said her success in all those ventures has depended on just as many failures and rejections. That was something she wanted to articulate in her college essay and, ultimately, her TED talk.
“Because I was applying to UNC (where Nourish was founded), I knew I wanted to write about my experience with Nourish,” she said. “I realized, thinking about it, that the word ‘no’ was very prominent in that experience, and I realized it might be the most important word in the English language.”
Readying for the stage
Bhatia spent part of Thursday afternoon at SAS – she had to leave her calculus class early – practicing her presentation in front of coworkers who had assembled in one of the campus’ auditoriums to critique her 13-minute presentation. Most of the reviews were glowing, although one colleague suggested Bhatia walk less around the stage.
Bhatia spoke simply and earnestly, in the energetic style of Steve Jobs unveiling a new Apple gadget. She credits Snyder and other TEDxRaleigh coaches, in attendance at SAS Thursday, for helping her hone her message and learn how to present it.
“I’ve been hyperventilating and forgot to eat anything today,” Bhatia said after Thursday’s practice run. “But no offense, you guys are just people, and I try to remember once I’m up there that it’s just a conversation.”
Bhatia is a member of the Academy of Information Technology at Apex High School, which she hopes will prepare her for a career as an entrepreneur in the tech world. She’s currently trying to decide between UNC and N.C. State for college, although she said she’s leaning toward State because of its computer science program.
“I’m attracted to the idea of working for myself and being able to do the things I want, but I don’t want to be the person who does that right away,” Bhatia said, hinting at her desire to be told “no” a few more times. “Failure is an entrepreneur’s best friend.”
Gargan: 919-460-2604; @hgargan
More about TEDx
TEDx is a program that allows cities and schools the opportunity to host speaker events in the style of the TED mainstage, which presents story-driven lectures given by leading scholars and thinkers. Various North Carolina cities and universities, including UNC, host TEDx events, although Raleigh hasn’t since 2013.