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Caterpillar : Cat Foundation leader Michele Sullivan calls for collaboration in TED talk

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03/21/2017 | 02:18 am

March 20--PEORIA -- As president of the Caterpillar Foundation, Michele Sullivan is a frequent public speaker but she spent several months preparing for one 12-minute talk last October.

Sullivan was tabbed for a TED Talk by the influential San Francisco-based non-profit that has been organizing "ideas worth spreading" since 1990. Sullivan's presentation is one of the few from the October program that TED posted on its website (www.ted.com) Tuesday.

"It was time for a big idea from a little person," said Sullivan, who's four feet tall and uses a wheelchair. When it comes to motivational speaking, TED is the pinnacle," she said from her office at Caterpillar headquarters in Downtown Peoria.

Sullivan's speech didn't mention the foundation or fundraising. The TED message was more personal, she said. "It's vitally important to help each other. No, we can't walk in each other's shoes, but we can walk side-by-side and support each other," said Sullivan.

"We're all dealing with challenges and we're all so quick to judge somebody. I wanted to suggest -- instead of judging someone -- that we try to experience things side by side in a supportive way," she said.

Sullivan, 52, drew on her own experience as a little person who's had a big impact in the foundation world since becoming head of Caterpillar's philanthropic arm in 2011. "I didn't know I was different from anybody else until I went to school. I found out I was different because the kids told me in kindergarten," she said.

She also recalled how her 29-year career at Caterpillar started, remembering her initial interview with the company.

It wasn't her qualifications she was worried about but a more basic problem. "At that time there was no lift in the lobby. I didn't know how I was going to get into the building," said Sullivan.

"I found a loading dock that I could use. My next concern was not getting run over by trucks that wouldn't have expected me to be there," she laughed, noting that interviewers never knew she entered the building that way.

"TED wanted personal stories like that," said Sullivan, adding that she got a lot of coaching and feedback from TED teams around the country prior to her live presentation.

"It was a question of how open to be. I had two considerations: one, what I could get through without breaking up emotionally and two, what I was willing to put out there publicly," she said.

"Once we agreed on that, once you form the talk with the stories you have, there are a lot of hands in the talk including televised dry runs in front of TED people in five or six cities around the country. Everyone has to be in agreement," said Sullivan.

"That's why it's such a privilege to be part of the TED program. They know what connects to make these talks helpful to people," she said.

Sullivan said that she wanted to make a point about the importance of collaboration. "Today's world is so polarized. When people ask if I'm a Democrat or Republican, I say that I'm a collaborator. Rarely in life do you do anything alone," she said.

"I know that many people have helped me. I have a village behind me. That was the hardest part of the talk--referencing my family, friends and colleagues," said Sullivan.

"We all have our biases and ideologies. But if you walk with me, won't we both be better off?" said Sullivan, who recalled making her TED presentation in a crowded San Francisco auditorium.

"You just go out to the red circle on the stage and start. There's no rambling and no notes are used. My voice did crack at one point but you can't really tell. I know I was glad to finish and appreciated the standing ovation. I came off the stage and cried a little. Then I went straight to the airport. I celebrated with a glass of wine on the plane," she said.

Sullivan will be the featured speaker for the 41st McCord Lecture sponsored by the Foster College of Business at Bradley University at 7:30 a.m. Thursday in the Peplow Pavilion in the Hayden-Clark Alumni Center.

Steve Tarter covers city and county government for the Journal Star. He can be reached at 686-3260 or [email protected] Follow him at [email protected] and facebook.com/tartersource.

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