Felicity Fellows: from TED to Summit Series, building strategic relationships

Felicity Fellows .jpeg

Interview by Molly O'Brien, Marketing & Communications Specialist, Advance. 

Following a gut feeling and moving to the other side of the world with no job? It’s a notion that many global Australians can identify with. A self-described “born wanderer”, Felicity Fellows did exactly that: packed up her Sydney life, packed her bags, and moved to New York City.

Following her tenure as the Head of New Partnerships at the Sydney Opera House – securing multi-year agreements with internationally recognised brands such as Airbnb, Google and Intel – Fellows has just finished up after two years at one of the biggest and most influential media organisations in the world, TED, as the head of TEDx Global Partnerships in New York.

With a passion and talent for connecting people and ideas, we believe Fellows’ next career move will be just as exciting. Advance caught up with Fellows in New York to hear all about what’s next in what she describes as the “world’s city”.

What are you up to at the moment?

I’ve recently left my job as the head of TEDx Global Partnerships at TED in New York, and have accepted a new role at Summit Series, a company that creates unique gatherings and events designed to catalyse entrepreneurship, creative achievement, and global change to create a more joyful world. They’ve just opened up offices here in New York and I’m coming on board to be the Director of Global Partnerships.

How did Summit Series come to be?

There are five co-founders of Summit Series; they’re all mid-thirties. In 2013 they acquired America’s largest ski resort in Utah with the vision to build a public mountain town focused on innovation, entrepreneurship, altruism and the arts. Members of the Summit community are building homes on Powder Mountain, which has become a year-round destination for an ongoing program of events and activities focused on creativity, collaboration and emergent culture.

They have a great ethos of cultivating the next generation of leaders and create unique experiences, all around the world. For example, this November they’re doing “Summit LA 2017” for the first time and are taking over downtown LA – abandoned carparks, rooftops, hotels and bars. They’re doing four days of programming that combines ideas - with thought leaders such as Malcolm Gladwell, Jeff Bezos, Brene Brown – a music festival, health and wellness tracks, social impact projects and an outstanding culinary program. The festival campus will be transformed into an urban wilderness.

For the past two years they hosted Summit at Seas as their flagship conference – hosting 3000 people on a cruise liner – so Downtown LA is the next phase in Summit’s evolution. As with all Summit events the community is highly curated to represent diversity of industry, thought and ideas, with the goal of bringing people together who can take on some of the world’s greatest challenges

You sound very passionate about it!

I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a company or an organisation where I haven’t had that real passion point. Essentially, I am responsible for bringing in the right brands, individuals and foundations to fund the evolution and growth of organisations – so it’s vital for me to do something that I believe in. I’m never going to try and sell something I don’t care about. But it’s also more than just the selling; it’s the strategy, the creativity, the vision, designing campaigns and experiences that make people feel something they’ve never felt before. It’s creating moments for people to connect with people and ideas that are going to change the world.

TED has been very formative in shaping your career – it must be bittersweet to leave such an incredible organisation ahead of an exciting career move.

TED has been a part of my identity for six years. I volunteered on TEDxSydney for four years before moving to New York. The TED network and the opportunities it afford me have had a profound effect on me both personally and professionally, so yes it’s bittersweet. But they have been incredibly supportive of the move and I’m excited for a new journey. I plan to be instrumental in helping take Summit to the next level so it’s exciting time to join a young organisation with limitless opportunities.

Tell me a little bit about your transition from Sydney to NYC.

I reached a point in my career and life in Sydney where it felt like it was time for me to expand my horizons; I wanted a new challenge. I also think it’s in my DNA to keep moving and keep searching, so moving to New York felt very natural. Everything really aligned for me moving over, I had a dream run. Someone sent me an alert that TED was recruiting – it was completely coincidental that I wound up working for TED in New York after being with them in Sydney. It was like the role was written for me.

When the job came up – to specifically build revenue for the global TEDx platform – and I realised I could be getting paid for what I was already doing; it made a lot of sense! I attended the TED Women’s conference in Monterrey and met my former director – we clicked straight away. The first week I got here I had a three-hour interview with seven people – it was a very intense few weeks. Luckily, they called me back the next day to offer me the job.

How does TEDx differ from TED?

TEDx is TEDs most globally minded initiative. From TED HQ we provide a free brand license for people to host and organise their own independent TED like event for their local community. They’re in over 170 countries around the world, in 50 different languages. Every day there’s up to 10 TEDx events in the world and they take place anywhere – from the Sydney Opera House to the Amazon, prisons, refugee camps, schools and grand opulent theatres in Europe.

What type of things were you working on during your time at TEDx in New York?

One of the most memorable tasks I worked on was building up a TEDx council, which is an advisory board. To my supreme luck, I met a woman named Sunny Bates, who may be the best thing that has ever happened to me! She’s the woman who introduced Chris Anderson to TED, the current owner and head curator. He took it from a very small, elite annual conference in Long Beach for a select group of people, and made it widespread and accessible by putting the talks online and creating TEDx. Sunny is a brilliant connector and just happens to be one of the most joyful, incredible people I’ve met since landing in New York. She helped me meet new people to bring them on board. She’d made her joy of living and curiosity about people in to a lucrative business, which to me, is very impressive.

What advice would you give to someone wanting to grow their networks or to start a career is partnerships/business development, when they’re just starting out and attending global conferences may not be a possibility?

I think it’s important to start building relationships in whatever format you can. Your network is your strongest asset – and I feel like I still have so many people to meet. I think it could be as simple as hunting down someone in a company that you admire and sending them a LinkedIn message. People are receptive to that stuff here, as long as you do it in a respectful way. It’s all about being yourself in a fun, respectful, transparent way.

I think it also helps being a connector yourself and putting your best foot forward

What are you most proud of from your time at TED?

On a personal level, the thing that I’m most proud of is doing public speaking, which I used to be so terrified of. I’ve done a lot of pitches in board rooms and am completely fine with that, but a part of my role at TED was educating volunteers around the world how to do events. A few months after I had started, I was required to give a 15-minute TED talk at a global conference in Geneva to 500 TEDx organisers from all over the world. I really questioned myself before giving that talk – thinking “who am I to teach all these amazing people and peers how to do business development?!" I was so nervous to begin with. But I realised I did have something valuable to share. From there, I’ve spoken at different conferences around the world and I’ve surprised myself by almost starting to enjoy it!

From a business perspective, I’m proud of going from having zero revenue to a robust partnership and relationship program with people and organisations all around the world. TEDx is growing at an exponential rate – it’s been exciting to be a part of fueling that growth.

Do you have a favourite talk or conference you’ve seen throughout the years?

I have a few! My favourite talk from a business perspective is Simon Sinek “Start With Why”. It was produced at a TEDx event and then made it on TED.com. where it’s one of the most watched talks of all time. Another one by Andrew Solomon – about how the worst moments in your life can become the greatest, and the most definitive. I remember crying hearing him speak. It’s a deeply moving talk.

What’s the secret behind TED becoming as successful as it has?

I think because it’s very mission inspired. TED really tuned in to something that’s very innate in people: sharing stories. They created a formula that archives a new way of connecting people through stories.

What’s your favourite part about living in New York?

New York is like the world’s city. There’s so much diversity here with such a transient culture with much opportunity. It feels alive and vital. However it’s the people I’ve met over here that have made it so incredible.

What’s your number one piece of advice for Australians thinking of moving to NYC?

I wish I had known more about real estate and also had lower expectations about coming here. It’s hard going from beautiful, open spaces to living in a shoebox. Before I moved here, I made a big list of everyone I knew that was currently or previously living or working here, and started to create my own network, and would recommend that to anyone. I wish I knew more about building credit and those basics. Build credit as fast as you can if you plan on staying here!

What are your top tips for someone coming to New York?

I’m a big foodie and am a fan of obscure little places where you can get a true NYC experience. There are some amazing Jazz clubs here – Woody Allen plays at the Carlyle Hotel on a Monday night. Smorgasbord in Williamsburg for a feast of food and hanging out in Central Park. A lot of what I do now is getting gout of the city on the weekends; I’d recommend if people were coming for a while to go upstate. It gives you a different perspective of the city and you can get completely lost in it.