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SXSW EDU: From 0 To 8,000 Attendees, With Founder Ron Reed

Ever wonder what it takes to plan and run an 8,000 person conference? While attending SXSW EDU this week, Vadim got a chance to speak with the founder of the conference, Ron Reed.

This episode covers the origin story of the education conference and how Ron saw a big opportunity to build a community for people interested in improving education. In our conversation Ron explains why the original event was double the expected size, and talks about how the conversation has changed over the years around education. We also dive into what it takes to plan and run a conference of this magnitude, which grew to about 8,000 attendees in 2019.
Vadim also had a chance to watch the keynote address from renown author and New York Times columnist David Brooks, and found out how Ron was able to get David to speak at this year’s event.

Show Notes

1:40 The Texas Education Agency was the first partner of SXSW EDU, ultimately helping get twice as many attendees as expected – 800 people.

2:49 SXSW was around for 30 years, founded by Ron’s childhood friend, Roland Swenson. He attended almost every event as it morphed into a film festival and a tech conference.

3:45 Ron had some successful startups in the education space of his own and through his experience saw a need for a separate place for people to meet and discuss the future of Education.

5:00 Vadim: How was running a conference different than the other businesses you’ve run?

5:15 Ron’s earlier businesses were more product oriented, but with a conference/service business there’s a lot of setup work and ongoing community management. It’s important to listen to what the community needs, and to highlight their voices.

6:00 Vadim: How do you keep focused during the difficult time that it takes to set something like this up?

6:18 They have a few hundred advisors that help them stay aware of the most important topics to focus on in the education space, and learn form the community by attending other conferences.

7:00 Running a conference that has so much interest and facilitates important conversations in the education space makes it incredibly rewarding.

7:20 Vadim: How much bigger is the team that comes to put this thing together vs. when you started?

7:41 They have the benefit of being able to work with a small and lean team since the main SXSW conference brings in 40,000-50,000 attendees, allowing his team to quickly scale SXSW EDU to any size it needs to.

8:31 Vadim: How have you seen the education space change to have a need for this type of event?

8:50 SXSW EDU has evolved from focusing on structure and systems to prioritizing the social and emotional health of learners, and how to support teachers at the intersection of culture and learning.

09:59 Their mission is to build the worlds largest learning festival.    

10:11 Vadim – How did you get famous The New York Times columnist David Brooks to Keynote your event?

11:31 Dan Porterfield of the Aspen Institute and David Brooks both had something to share and promote this year, so it helps to reach someone at the right time when they’re interested in reaching an audience. It also took many years of outreach and persistence to develop that relationship.

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