Gizelle Lao, winner of the speaker auditions, speaking at the third annual TEDxRyersonU event at the Royal Ontario Museum on Nov. 22, 2014. (Fatima Syed / Ryersonian Staff)

When Gizelle Lao finished her TED Talk, she says she walked off the stage feeling a greater rush of emotions than she ever had in university.

“Your subjective thinking sparks innovation,” she said to the crowd of hundreds.

Lao was speaking at the fifth annual TEDxRyersonU conference. Her TED Talk was about taking down binaries that are part of our everyday society that stop us from thinking for ourselves.

“There’s this emphasis that we all have to be a certain way and think a certain way when we enter university,” she says. “But we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be boxed in by these binaries.”

TEDx events are fully planned and coordinated independently, on a community-by-community basis. TEDx was first brought to Ryerson in 2010 by Parvinder Sachdeva, then a second-year business student who wanted to bring the concept of “ideas worth sharing” to his own community.

TED, which stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design, are up to 18-minute lecture series that feature a wide variety of experts and practitioners speaking about anything from the stigma behind mental health to stem-cell technology. TED videos have racked up over 800 million views on YouTube. According to their website, some of the most popular TED Talks are “How schools kill creativity” and “The power of vulnerability.” CITES, an educational services database for the University of Illinois, says the five most viral themes include happiness, knowledge, ethics, food and psychology.

“How can a person think differently when they are told you have to think a certain way growing up?” says Lao in her five-minute talk.

The third-year sociology major was the winner of the student speaker auditions held at Ryerson this past September. But Lao’s path to her TED Talk was not first met with the unwavering support she later received.

“There’s this false assumption that a liberal arts degree isn’t going to get you anywhere,” she says.

Despite the backlash behind her degree choice, Lao says studying sociology helped spark her interest with TED Talks in the first place.

Lao acknowledges that communities across Ontario and Canada are struggling with unemployment, the long hangover of the 2008 financial crisis, and deep structural changes to the Canadian economy. But Lao says universities are about learning, not about getting jobs.

“There’s no right way of thinking or wrong way of thinking. It’s about having various types of thinking,” says Lao, adding that university forces students to think differently.

“There is subjectivity to how each of us thinks, and that’s what sparks new ideas. That’s how we can be innovative.”

The surfer and mixed martial arts enthusiast is also the vice-president of Ryerson Toastmasters, a communication and leadership group under the Ryerson Commerce Society. The Philippines native hopes to one day work at the United Nations, admitting that Emma Watson’s recent gender equality campaign led the way to the girl-fueled activist movement Lao admires and want to be part of.

“I hadn’t considered any of Emma’s statements to be new, let alone groundbreaking. They were simply a helpful reminder of what battles still need to be fought,” says Lao.

Lao hopes she too, can remind young people that it’s okay to think differently.

“It’s okay not to know what you’re really doing with your degree. Just make the most of university by trying to learn how to think differently,” she says.

“Gizelle is just an ordinary girl who goes to school but she has the guts to go on stage and talk about problems that we should be talking about more,” says Basil Iqbal, a fourth-year business management student at Ryerson.

A person on a computer, being aware and spreading the word, can lead to greater change than more traditional forms of protest like rallying, Lao told a group of students backstage.

“But are we actually getting out into the world and making a difference after seeing an inspiring TED Talk or are we just forwarding the video to a friend or posting it to our Facebook page?” asked one student.

Lao hopes her talk will inspire other women in their twenties to speak up about whatever they feel passionate about.

“I think TED Talks are a testament to the influence of web-based activism,” says Lao, telling other students that just getting up and talking about her pet to a group of people gave her the confidence to audition to represent Ryerson at the conference.

“Doing a TED Talk was the best thing I could’ve done during university,” says Lao. “I would definitely do it again.”

Alisha Sawhney was a photo and graphics editor at the Ryersonian in 2015. Currently, she was also the business editor at the Ryerson Folio. She previously worked at MoneySense, a personal finance and investment magazine.