Women of Influence: Kelly Stoetzel

In our Women of Influence series, meet three extraordinary leaders whose keen instincts and bold ideas have shaped the way we dress, how we connect, and what we talk about.

Kelly Stoetzel
(Image credit: Marcus Mam)

TALENT SPOTTER: Kelly Stoetzel

Director of TED Content

Mind-blowing ideas: If you've got one, Kelly Stoetzel wants to meet you. Stoetzel, 44, is the director of content for TED, the biannual four-day conference that under her purview has become a coveted stage for intellectuals, leaders, and pretty much anyone else with a winning spiel. It's Stoetzel's job to populate the TED lineup with speakers so arresting and concepts so disarming that you'll put down the remote control or quit surfing the Web to do nothing else but listen. "We aren't necessarily looking for someone who is slick," Stoetzel says. "We really look for people who have a new lens on an existing idea and can communicate it clearly and with passion."

Thanks to her uncanny ability for spotting talent, Stoetzel has become a star-maker in the conference world. In 2006, she invited British educator Sir Ken Robinson, relatively unknown outside education circles, to give a TED talk. His fascinating speech on why schools kill creativity is now the most-watched TED talk ever delivered, with some 15 million page views. She also coaxed Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert to the stage for a talk on creativity that has logged nearly 5 million views.

Born and raised in Dallas, Stoetzel attended her first TED talk when she was 31. She confesses that she can't even remember who it was, but the heady experience of circulating among TED's eclectic audience of big-thinkers and high-minded doers hooked her. At the time, Stoetzel was a saleswoman of contemporary art; by her own admission, she wasn't great at the gig. TED became her side passion. Then, in 2003, Stoetzel heard Dr. Sherwin Nuland, a surgeon who had suffered from crippling depression, deliver a heartbreaking and exquisite account of his electroshock therapy. She would never be the same. "I was moved to tears," she says. "It's something I left with and thought about for a long time afterward."

So moved by that talk and the whole conference, in fact, that she quit her job and persuaded TED owner Chris Anderson to hire her. At that point, TED was still a smallish, private conference for people in the know (and with deep pockets—passes to a conference now run at $7,500). Stoetzel was one of three people working on booking speakers. But she proved a relentless wrangler of talent, cajoling Jane Goodall, musician Reggie Watts, author Susan Cain, and pastor Rick Warren to the stage.

You don't have to be a celebrity to score a spot at TED, Stoetzel assures. Once she has a lead on a potential candidate, she vets them through a rigorous interview process. "Often, when they're telling you their story, and telling you about the work they do, there will be a moment in the conversation when they really light up. And if there is, then that's the thing the talk is about," she says. TED talks last at most 18 minutes, and many have become viral sensations. Under Stoetzel's watch, TED has garnered more than a billion page views and has become a model for copycat "big ideas" conferences around the globe. "TED was a once-a-year conference when I started," she says. "Now it's a movement."

Stoetzel, who lives in rural Pennsylvania with her 9-year-old daughter and husband, an artist, commutes five hours total to TED's New York offices some three times a week. "Those days are the hardest because I don't get home until 10 p.m.," she says. "But on the days I'm home, I try to shut down by 6:30 so I can help with homework and make dinner." Once she puts her daughter to bed, she's back at work, tackling a daunting reading list of magazines, scientific journals, blogs, and opinion sites. "TED speakers come from all over the place. These are not necessarily the people out schmoozing over drinks," she explains.

To cast the lineup for the most recent TED conference, in Long Beach, California, this past February, Stoetzel traveled to 14 different countries—including South Africa, Qatar, and China—over three months to scout talent. Among those selected: Daniel Reisel, a London researcher who spoke about the neuroscience behind evil, and Ron Finley, a self-described "renegade gardener" from South Central L.A. She also oversees brand extensions like TEDActive, an event which streams live talks to theaters in other cities, and TED-Ed, a Web channel devoted to TED talks for younger audiences. "I never have a day when I can kick back," Stoetzel says. "But I do what I love. And it's led me to some incredible opportunities."

How to Land a Spot at TED

CULTIVATE YOUR SPEAKING SKILLS — AND AN ULTRA-ORIGINAL CONCEPT: "We aren't necessarily looking for someone who is slick," says Stoetzel. "We look for people who have a new lens on an existing idea and communicate it clearly and with passion."

FOCUS ON A TOPIC YOU CARE DEEPLY ABOUT: "Often, when [potential speakers are] telling you their story, and telling you about the work they do, there will be a moment in the conversation when they really light up. That's the thing the talk is about."

FIND THE THING THAT YOU — AND ONLY YOU — CAN EXPLORE: The lineup at February's TED talk, whose theme was "The Young. The Wise. The Undiscovered," included a researcher who specializes in the science behind evil and a "renegade gardener" from South Central L.A. The next TED conference is slated for June 10–14, in Edinburgh, Scotland. Apply online at ted.com.

Meredith Lepore

Meredith Lepore is a freelance writer and editor who has written for Instyle.com, Brides.com, LEVO, and Bustle well as magazines including 'Marie Claire', 'SELF', 'Women's Health' and 'Cosmopolitan'. She earned her Master's in Journalism from the Newhouse School at Syracuse University and resides in New York full time.