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Trishala Pillai: Striving for Impact, Looking for Change

Working towards a B.A in Economics with a specialization in Financial Economics and minors in Management and Communications (Woah!), Trishala Pillai aspires to start an organization or movement in the future that prioritizes shared value creation. Ambitious, driven, and passionate, Trishala is currently taking the global community by storm through her role as Co-Chair for TEDxUW. I sat down with Trishala a few weeks ago to see what was behind her drive. Here’s what she said:

How did you get involved with TEDxUW?

Around this time last year, I was at the receiving end of the viral marketing TEDxUW 2014 campaigns that were making the rounds around campus. I was incredibly excited to hear that UW would be hosting its own TEDx event. TED has been a movement that I have followed for many years and it has truly been such a huge source of inspiration for me. Attending a world-class TEDx conference was something that was on my professional bucket list, but curating one was at the top of that list. I applied to attend and I got accepted, I was ecstatic because the application pool is enormous and it is a very exclusive event. I went to the event with the hopes of being even more inspired and meeting really interesting people but I came out with a lot more than that. I was so empowered, met amazing people from different walks of life, got exposed to different ideas and ways of thinking and more importantly, I was surrounded by so much positivity and optimism.

After attending the event I knew I wanted to get more involved. A lot of time went by but I didn’t act on the motivation to be a part of it, because other things in my life came in the way. However, during summer term, I saw that they had applications out for Co-Chair. It was honestly a long shot because I had no prior experience with TEDxUW but I applied anyways because I wasn’t willing to let this opportunity go! In August, after applying, going through screenings and a couple rounds of interviews, I heard the good news! Since then, it’s been such a wonderful journey and I am enjoying every bit of it.  

How will TEDx help you in achieving your goals for the future?

I take every opportunity as it comes and try to make the most of it and give it my best. I don’t see TEDx as a platform for me to achieve other goals because curating a TEDx conference on its own is or rather was a future goal of mine at a point in time. Having said that, it will help me because it enhances and develops my skill set in ways that mean more to me than just listing it onto my resume/cover letter. TEDx will help me in setting future goals.

I’m very ambitious by nature in the sense that I set a lot of personal and professional goals. TED is an impactful organization that gives back to their global community. That’s kind of a long lasting mission that has stuck with me. Going out of this experience, I do hope to be a part of an organization that’s driven by impact and purpose with the intent to give back to their global community. Through TED, I’ve been able to do that. I’ve been able to spark conversations that matter, connect different people to one another, stimulate change in people’s lives and actions. It is a really empowering and inspiring feeling to have.

Where do you hope to see yourself in the future?

The future is so exciting. I hope to see myself working hard, making a difference and being happy with whatever it is I’m doing. I’ve never been one to measure my success or self-worth according to the achievements of those around me. In the long run and grand scheme of things, I hope to see myself starting my own organization addressing pressing social issues. For me, over the years, having lived in/been affiliated with so many countries (both in the developed and developing world), I had the opportunity to see, firsthand, social issues like poverty, youth unemployment, and lack of healthcare and equal opportunity. It’s fueled a burning desire in me to do something about it. Change starts with us.

Who is TEDxUW’s target audience?

In terms of the target audience of the actual event, it is open to everyone who stands for all things TED; even those outside of Waterloo! It really depends on your application. If you get accepted during the screening process, you can come and be apart of the lucky 100 who get to attend the conference in person.  The reach of our conference however, is global. We live stream our event to a vast, global audience every year. We get messages from TEDx events, academic institutions, organizations, student-run movements, all over the world through social media. The response is overwhelming, so it really goes to show that TEDxUW is making an impact and challenging the thoughts and opinions of a global audience.

Describe your responsibilities as Co-Chair.

My Co-Chair, Mugwe Kiragu (an undergraduate student at UW in Scibus and just the most sincere and genuine person!) and I are essentially spear-heading the curation of the conference and working with our phenomenal core team of 14, so much love for all of them. We’re all looking to collaborate and curate the event together. In terms of the position, it is hard to define the position because we all put in an equal amount of work just in different scopes. We all have the same passion of working towards translating the vision we have in our minds into reality.

What is the conference about?

My favourite question! TED conferences typically have a theme of some sort. The theme we’ve chosen is Collaboration, in it’s true and simplest form. I think it’s a very relevant theme not to just our local, Waterloo community but also to our generation and our global community. The thought process that my Co-Chair and I had was that we’re rendering into a world that’s essentially, for lack of a better term, a “rat race”. Everyone is constantly competing with each other, failing to realize that if we take a collaborative approach, we can achieve a lot more. We really wanted to use this conference as a catalyst to remind people of the really amazing ideas and initiatives out there that are taking place because of two people or disciplines (e.g. Arts meeting Sciences) working together and collaborating.  

Do you find it difficult to be taken seriously in such a big organization because of the fact that you’re so young?

Hmm, this is a really valid question. Our generation is so different in the way we think and work- I think we’ve completely destroyed that stigma! We have founders of companies who are under 25 today. Being one of the youngest people in the team has its set of advantages, for example, the drive and the energy that comes from being young. That’s only going to bring good things to the organization. In terms of being taken seriously, I think Mugwe and I have hired our team well in that respect. My team members come from different lines of thinking. They’re very open-minded and they don’t constrain themselves by stereotypical views. Ultimately, we all want to pull off a great event!  

What are some obstacles you’ve had to overcome as co-chair?

I think as a full-time student, there is always a lot going on. You have your studies, your personal and social life – which is very important – and then you have extra-curricular and in the midst of all that, obstacles that come your way. It’s been a struggle to maintain that balance- I don’t think anyone has it easy. This is partly why I think it is so important to do work that you love. There is a really cool quote from Simon Sinek, ironically from a TED Talk, “working hard for something we don’t care about is called stress; working hard for something we love is called passion.” I work with this approach.

What are some things you’ve accomplished as co-chair for TEDx?

We’ve come a long way since January this year- our accomplishments so far bring the biggest smile to my face, I’ll spare you the details and leave you with food for thought, but TEDxUW 2015 is going to be a big show. At this stage, the accomplishments have predominantly been personal ones. I’m learning a lot about leadership through this experience. It is an art to empower the people you work with.  It’s important to not always put yourself first. For the past few months, Mugwe and I worked really hard to put together an executive team- we hired for character. We have a phenomenal team in place so that’s been a major accomplishment, I look at them and feel so proud, I get goosebumps thinking of what we can achieve together!

Other accomplishments would also include working on professional and personal relationships. A lot of organizations tend to keep things very professional, and that’s good, but unless you have a personal relationship with your team, it’s hard to align your goals and render members who are committed to both you and the organization. In that sense, a huge accomplishment has been sitting down with my team members, planning internal socials, getting to know them on a personal level. We’re going to be working on this conference for the next year and so one of our goals is to come out of this project not as colleagues but as great friends. We’ve already grown into a small family of change-makers!  

What is some advice you’d like to give future leaders?

A piece of advice is don’t take things too seriously. Sometimes you’ve just got to appreciate things for the way they are or people for the way they are. Go with the flow! Have a sound support system- it really matters. Lastly, being ambitious is good, great actually, but being able to manage and control ambition is a lot more important. Over-ambition can be disruptive.  

Tasnia is currently a student at the University of Waterloo in the Honours Rhetoric and Professional Writing Coop Program. With an interest in journalism and the communication industry, her passions include reading, writing, and watching commercials on YouTube. Follow her on twitter @tasnia_n! 
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