TEDxElmhurstUniversity Speakers

Speakers for the 2023 TEDxElmhurstUniversity event, “FIRSTS.”


Rajee Aerie, 2023 TEDxElmhurstUniversity presenter.

Rajee Aerie ’07

Actor, Model, Product Specialist and Speaker

‘How Love Can Transform Your Setback Into a Superpower’

Rajee Aerie was born in India and contracted polio at a young age. Fortunately, she was adopted by a loving American family. Growing up she didn’t see anyone who looked like her in TV shows, movies or magazines. The lack of representation in media frustrated her and she decided she would create the change she wanted to see, so that all people would feel seen.

Aerie received her degree in broadcast journalism and faced many rejections. She never gave up and eventually signed with a talent agency and has been featured in dozens of ads, films, commercials and publications.

Rafael Blanco, 2023 TEDxElmhurst University presenter

Rafael Blanco, M.F.A.

Assistant Professor of Art, Elmhurst University

‘Ditching the Studio’


A native of Alicante (Spain), Rafael Blanco is a contemporary visual public artist fascinated with identity and human expression. Trained as a classical studio painter for more than 15 years, Blanco had his first encounter with public art in 2014. Since then, he broke away from the studio and transitioned to the creation of site-specific large-scale mural interventions.

Blanco has painted murals across the U.S. from California to Maryland, and from Texas to Illinois, as well as participated in numerous street art festivals and mural competitions.

He currently teaches painting, drawing and art history at Elmhurst University.

Gena Cox, 2023 TEDxElmhurst University presenter

Gena Cox, Ph.D.

Industrial and Organizational Psychologist

‘Yes … And Careers: How to Optimize for Purpose’

Dr. Gena Cox is an organizational psychologist, executive coach, and speaker known for her nuanced insights and warm personal style. She advises on leadership influence and impact, career strategy, and inclusion.

Cox is the author of Leading Inclusion, an award-winning book that shows how to counter the typically disappointing outcomes from “diversity, equity, and inclusion” work.

Previously, Cox held internal corporate and external leadership roles in organizational consulting, talent assessment, selection, and acquisition.

Various media outlets, including Harvard Business Review, Fortune, Fast Company, and Forbes, have featured Gena’s work.

She holds a Ph.D. in Industrial and Organizational (I-O) Psychology.

Elizabeth Gabrek, 2023 TEDxElmhurst University presenter

Liza Gabrek ’23

Master of Public Health Student, Elmhurst University

‘Second Firsts’

Liza Gabrek is a second-year graduate student at Elmhurst. At the age of 17, Grabrek faced a life-threatening obstacle that almost took her life. After recovering from that event, she became more conscious of how lucky she is to be alive and how she should make the most of her second “firsts”. Gabrek developed a set of morals/values that she holds close to her heart and have a heightened understanding of the concept of hard work. She hopes to impart upon others the value of listening to their hearts prior to life in the future.

William Hirstein, 2023 TEDxElmhurst University presenter

William Hirstein, Ph.D.

Professor of Philosophy, Elmhurst University

‘Is Human Consciousness Actually Private?’


William Hirstein is a professor of philosophy at Elmhurst University, near Chicago, Ill. His area of focus is the human mind, and the many riddles about it that still need solving, including the traditional mind-body problem.

During his education, Hirstein was able to work closely with several eminent philosophers and scientists, including John Searle, Patricia Churchland, and V. S. Ramachandran.

Hirsein is the author of several books, including Brain Fiction (MIT, 2005) and Mindmelding (Oxford, 2012), from which his talk is taken. Most recently, working with his colleagues here at Elmhurst, he published Responsible Brains (MIT, 2018).

Neeraja Kumar, 2023 TEDxElmhurst University presenter

Neeraja Kumar

High School Student

‘Walking the Path of Firsts Towards Adulthood’


Neeraja Kumar is a senior who just turned 18. She is on the pathway to college interested in journalism, communication, and integrated marketing. Participating in a plethora of extracurricular activities including Student Council, Speech Team, Scholastic Bowl, Math Team, Model UN, Mock Trial, DECA, and BPA and playing multiple instruments including the viola, veena, piano, and guitar, she keeps quite busy. Kumar is also trained in Classical Indian Dance and currently preparing for her Arangetram, debut solo performance. She believes that experiences, whether good or bad, make a person, which is why she seldom shies away from any challenge.

Marvin Malone, 2023 TEDxElmhurst University presenter

Marvin Malone, MBA ’23

Creative Project Manager at NBCUniversal, Elmhurst University MBA Candidate

‘Speaking to the Crowd’


Marvin Malone is a Creative Project Manager at NBCUniversal. He is also an Elmhurst University MBA Candidate (class of 2023) with a specialty in Marketing and Consumer Insights. Following graduation from Elmhurst, Malone is continuing his education with Cornell’s Graduate Certificate program in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. He is passionate about creating safe, equitable spaces for all people. Additionally, he dedicates this talk to his family and friends who have always encouraged him to show up as his true authentic self. Special thanks to LB for always setting the bar high, and nothing less!

Lukas Munoz ’23

Economics and Philosophy Student, Elmhurst University

‘(DACA) A Dream Deferred’

Lukas Munoz is a senior at Elmhurst University studying Economics and Philosophy. Lukas enjoys reading and spending time with his cat, Pepper. As a college student, Lukas has engaged in undergraduate research projects, led a philosophy club, worked as a school newspaper editor, and managed a food pantry. After graduating, Lukas will work with Teach For America as a middle school teacher in Dallas, TX, before applying to law school.

Morgan Ogunleye, 2023 TEDxElmhurst University presenter

Morgan Ogunleye ’23

Nursing Student, Elmhurst University

‘The Art of Unlearning’


Born and raised in the heart of Uptown Chicago, Morgan Ogunleye is a first-generation Nigerian-American and the eldest daughter of her household. Ogunleye is a senior nursing student at Elmhurst University with aspirations of pursuing a career in pediatric complex medicine. A prominent presence on campus, Ogunleye is an executive member of the Student Government Association and holds several other roles. This past semester, she impressively obtained 11 passport stamps after a life-changing study aboard experience in Europe. Morgan hopes to shed light on the tug-a-war between embracing both of her cultures and the art of unlearning.

Felicia Shakespeare ’96

Educator, Author and Founder of A Purpose Driven Woman LLC

‘You Are Your Brand: Building From the Inside Out!’


Felicia Shakespeare is a global speaker, bestselling author, award-winning educator, personal brand strategist and the founder of A Purpose Driven Woman LLC. Shakespeare is the recipient of multiple prestigious awards, including the Global Woman Inspirational Award, FWD Award (For Women and Diversity) and the WNBA Chicago Sky Redefine Possible Women’s Leadership Award. In June 2022, she was invited to speak at the Global Woman Summit in London, England. Shakespeare moderated the Rising Young Female Entrepreneur panel, interviewing the winner of “The Apprentice UK,” Harpreet Kaur, among several other influential women. Felicia inspires others to be intentional about living.

Sarah Strom Kays, Elmhurst University

Sarah Strom Kays ’90, Ph.D.

Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication and Media, Elmhurst University

‘Say What? Slang is More Than “Being Hip” ’


Sarah Strom Kays is a professor of Communication at Elmhurst University. In addition to seeing the benefits of slang, she also works with organizations to figure out how to improve communicative processes and practices.

Angela Williams, 2023 TEDxElmhurst University presenter

Angela Williams ’06

School Administrator, LBS1, Faculty Director of Turning Pointe Autism Foundation

‘Fears, Failures, and Firsts in Autism’


Angela Williams has been in the field of education for almost 15 years and working with individuals with autism for 10 years. She has worked in therapeutic day schools as a special education teacher, instructional coach, assistant principal, and as faculty director at Turning Pointe Autism Foundation. Williams has an undergraduate degree in elementary education, and two graduate degrees in special education and school administration respectively. She enjoys traveling around the world with her husband, Jeff, and daughter Kali. She has learned her best lessons from individuals with autism who have taught her to be the person she is today.

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