Ignite Howard County #5 started out just like any other night. Many of us who attended may have felt tired after a long day of work, making tonight’s event a blip in our day. But the evening’s speakers and activities had something simple yet special in store for us.
Ignite is an event where a dozen (or so) speakers courageously present a topic they are passionate about in five minutes with 20 slides automatically advancing every 15 seconds to a room full of strangers. It’s an event for community members to connect and be inspired by one another.
This was my first time at an Ignite event, and I was curious to experience it. Unfortunately, I was exhausted when I arrived at Jailbreak Brewing Company, the venue. I had had a long day, and someone rear-ended me on my way to the event. Once that was resolved, I signed in at the kiosk, got my name tag, and found a seat next to my coworkers. I had the idea in my head that I would stay at our table and keep to myself for the evening. That was, at least, how I felt.
Over time, Jailbreak became crowded with people. The table where I stationed myself quickly became occupied by a handful of strangers, most of them on their phones doing virtually the same thing I was doing: avoiding other people.
People continued trickling in when Wendy Baird, the emcee (and my boss), turned on the mic and got everyone’s attention. And when Wendy has a mic, you know something interesting will happen and people are going to listen (it just works for her). She said it was time for icebreaker questions while we waited for the event to start. So she prompted us to ask each other, “If you had the ability, what superpower would you choose?” and “What historic person, who has been dead for at least 50 years, would you choose to have dinner with?” This turned into conversations I enjoyed, even when I mostly listened. Learning about other people around me suddenly became delightful.
Jailbreak was getting full by the time Wendy had us do something else: move to other tables to talk with more people. Every now and then, she would tell us to switch. I imagined the evening was going to be more interested in formal networking than it revealed itself to be. These icebreakers and musical tables were exercises in getting people to simply connect, not sell or promote. I talked with a school gym teacher, a personal trainer, an entrepreneurial couple, and a group of Howard County moms.
The Ignite presentations were an eclectic collection of passionate messages. Some were personal and full of emotion, such as one woman’s story about the time a mysterious stranger saved her from drowning in a rip current as a little girl. Other talks were more related to the speakers’ professions, such as a high school teacher’s argument for valuing educational experiences over standardized tests.
The topics were deliciously diverse, ranging from being your own boss to growing spiritually. One man shared his story about discovering he was a “mediocre” marine and learned how to live intentionally. One mom shared her story about living bald in solidarity with her daughter who suffered from an autoimmune disease that caused baldness. Each speaker covered a completely different corner of life from the others. It seemed like the basic rules of five minutes and 20 slides were the only constants. And even the time limit was subject to change when speakers understandably got out of sync with their 15-second slides and improvised to get back on track. But all of the stories were thought-provoking and pulled at something that felt true.
One woman, Yolanda Sonnier, got to the heart of Ignite Howard County #5. She argued that not all great minds think alike and that actually “all amazing minds think differently.” She works for the Howard County Office of Human Rights and said that when we think all great minds think alike and “pigeonhole people into a box” is when thoughts of discrimination begin to surface. Instead, she encouraged us to do what the other speakers and Wendy encouraged us to do: “meet someone new. Go and meet someone different. Meet someone who is not part of your circle of influence,” or in other words, “learn something new.”
Ignite Howard County #5 started like any other night. But what made it special was how it challenged us to get outside of our every-other-night thinking and instead make and find moments that are magical and connect with others in fresh ways. Ignite’s speakers and even its icebreaker activities nudged everyone to expand themselves, like the poet Rainer Maria Rilka wrote: “I live my life in widening circles.”
This year’s talks inspired me to share a story of my own next year; I’ll be applying on the Ignite Howard County website. Take a look at all of the Ignite Howard County stories. They are certainly worth watching, and they might just inspire you to connect with strangers or think a little differently.
—Max Mason, freelance writer
Ignite Howard County is organized by Conscious Capitalism Central Maryland Chapter. All are welcome to apply to be a speaker! Ignite is usually held the third Monday of October each year. For more information, visit the Ignite Howard County website.