TEDxHiltonHead: Voices of Resilience

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It’s hard to prepare to be resilient, but when faced with adversity, most people are surprised to find they can rise above. Their stories were on display on Oct. 20 at the inaugural TEDxHiltonHead talk, held at the rooftop bar at Poseidon Coastal Cuisine.

TED is a nonprofit group that was originally conceived as a conference to focus on technology, entertainment and design in 1984. Today, the talks cover almost all topics — from science to business to global issues — in more than 100 languages and have earned a global following online. Independently run TEDx events, like the recent forum on Hilton Head Island, help share ideas in communities around the world.

During the daylong Hilton Head event, speakers had 18 minutes to share their stories with the sold-out crowd. Rex Gale, the event’s organizer, said more than 70 people expressed interest in speaking; that list was narrowed down to 40 applicants. After an extensive review, in which applicants were asked to submit a short video clip, 17 speakers were chosen.

Bea Wray acted as master of ceremonies and discussed the ravages of Hurricane Matthew, posing the question: “Where am I going to insert myself into something I could turn away from?” Therapist Dr. Debi Lynes prepared the audience by conjuring “mindfulness” by conducting a short breathing exercise. “Mindfulness lowers stress,” said the long-time island resident.

Here are highlights from the talks by the rest of the speakers:


  • Amber Kuehn, owner of Spartina Marine Education Center, discussed the Lowcountry’s sea turtle population and how these animals are resilient in the face of changing environmental conditions—up to a point. “The sea turtle is a keystone species at the top of the food chain,” she said, explaining that sea turtles are often the first indicators of a problem.

  • Chris Marsh, the executive director of the Spring Island Trust, said that eco-systems have tipping points. He was adamant that “Port Royal Sound determines the quality of life on Hilton Head. Crustaceans are the key.” He said that area institutions including the Port Royal Sound Foundation, the Mitchelville Preservation Project, and the Coastal Discovery Museum are instrumental in sharing the story of Lowcountry waterways, and that “everyone can be a storyteller.”

  • Research biologist Al Stokes of the Waddell Mariculture Center, where aquaculture and fishery management has been evolving for 35 years, discussed the future of fish: “How are we going to keep fish on the menu? Fish farming is the future. The next generation will need to meet this challenge. Seafood production is going to have to double because of the world population.”

  • Larry Hughes, the founder of the new Lowcountry Oyster Trail, took a large container and filled it with sand and water to demonstrate how life gets muddy and, like the oyster, we have to work hard “so oysters can be around in the next 100 years.”

  • Mark “Puck” Mykleby, author of “The New Grand Strategy: Restoring America’s Prosperity, Security, and Sustainability in the 21st Century” and co-founder of Long Haul Capital Group LLC, delivered a dynamic talk asking the question: “What do we stand for in the new 21st-century world? We’re the land of opportunity, not the land of threat of threat and risk.” He advocates a different approach and has dedicated his efforts to creating sustainable, walkable and healthy communities.


  • Talk show host Donna Drake of “Live It Up!” has interviewed many famous figures in the worlds of entertainment, the arts and philanthropy, and her upbeat personality and smile are infectious. She shared how the acronym FOCUS – Figuring Out Consistent Unique Strengths – became her mantra and how it has, against all odds, prompted her professional and personal success.

  • Jazz musician and composer Martin Lesch is an advocate of cultural tourism, “which needs to be fostered” given the Lowcountry’s rich musical scene, which includes everyone from “Marlena Smalls, who sings for presidents, to Cranford Hollow, who tours the country.” He performed a hilarious song with other talented local musicians titled “Is It Love in the Air or Is It Pollen?”

  • Inventor of the notebook computer Chris Gintz asked “Eight classes of water a day? Why should we do this? We’re mostly water.” He discussed his newest invention, the microwave rotational spectrometer, which measures hydration in the human body for ages 3 to 100.

  • David Nelems is the CEO of the Don Ryan Center for Innovation, a partnership between Clemson University and the town of Bluffton that focuses on technology, innovative products and service industry startups. His recounted the story of his circuitous route to founding a company that defined the video-streaming segment of the marketing research industry. He advised prospective startups that it’s not an idea or funding but “a paying customer is the first thing a company needs.”

  • John Cranford of the rock band Cranford Hollow and owner of Swampfire Records discussed the power of Facebook and social media and how social media has significantly impacted his brand.

  • Matt Cuccaro, director of performance at the Golf Learning Center at The Sea Pines Resort, advocates that “Courage is not the absence of fear, it’s the choosing to lean into it.” He shared his passion for the development of high-performance team cultures and working with athletes, coaches, parents, businesses and educators on mastering the mental aspects of elite performance.


  • Emily Johnson, founding owner and director of Polaris Capital Advisors, got a big laugh from the audience when the words “A Man is Not a Financial Plan” appeared behind her on the screen. Taking the reins of one’s financial affairs and not being afraid to ask questions are vital parts of creating financial security, she said during her talk.

  • David Premo, a retired publishing executive and an associate professor of communication at Kaplan University, shared the story of his stroke and how his rapid road to recovery astounded doctors. He regained his speech, resumed teaching and took on leadership responsibilities with Toastmasters. The audience gave him a standing ovation.

  • Justin Batt, founder of Daddy Saturday, said there is an epidemic of “fatherlessness” that impacts children with a myriad of detrimental consequences: “It a sour state of the union of fatherhood today. Zombie-like fathers and disengaged shells represent a different kind of fatherlessness.” Fathers spending quality time with their children can greatly impact their children’s lives. “When you have kids, the days are so long but the years are so short.”

  • Screenwriter, novelist and Thrive global contributor Sandy Johal discussed how she transitioned from a very successful career in the software industry to a new career after facing an unimaginable and devastating personal loss. Her passion for writing and speaking took root and she has embarked on a passion project to shed light on issues of ignorance and segregation in the South.

  • Ree Williams, founder of In the Pinc and ReeMarkable Women Entrepreneurs, told the audience that she faced adversity as a child but decided no one was going to determine her future; she knew she wanted a better life. It was that ambition and desire to help other women that led her to become a business coach, she said, mentoring and guiding women in launching their own small businesses as they become part of her “entrepreneurial village.”

  • Growing up on Hilton Head Island, social influencer and entrepreneurial coach Chris Schembra lived through many hurricanes, but it was his childhood spent heavily medicated that caused the biggest personal hurricane, he said. It stifled his creativity and energy and led to years of destructive behavior and being “an afflicted kid in high school,” he told the audience, but he was able to find healing in Mother Nature and her “raw and liberating power.”