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TEDxBigSky 2021 Speaker Lineup

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The theme for the 2021 Big Sky Ideas Festival this year is “Awakening.” The event will focus on the Awakening process that the country has gone through in 2020. OUTLAW PARTNERS GRAPHIC

By Gabrielle Gasser EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – On Jan. 30, 2021, nine speakers will gather in the Warren Miller Performing Arts Center to present speeches on the theme of “Awakening.”

This year, the 2021 Big Sky Ideas Festival will focus on the Awakening process that the country has gone through in 2020. As the world emerges from the lockdown, there are many stories of how people changed their lives, businesses pivoted their plans and focus, and other incredible examples of humanity and community building.

The emphasis will be on presence or consciousness without thought and will feature stories about people helping each other, businesses changing their focus to help the greater good and perspective shifts in the face of need.

Before virtually attending the event, here’s an opportunity to learn more about three of the speakers who will be presenting. Below are short biographies, photos and a Q&A session with three of the TEDxBigSky 2021 speakers.

Dr. Cathy Whitlock

Dr. Cathy Whitlock is a Regents Professor in Earth Sciences at Montana State University and a Fellow of the Montana Institute on Ecosystems. She fell in love with Yellowstone in the 1980s and, since then, has been doing research there as well as seeking comparisons in other parts of the world.

Whitlock is nationally and internationally recognized for her research and leadership activities in the field of climate and environmental change. She served as lead author of the 2017 Montana Climate Assessment, which has inspired climate-change discussions across the state. In 2018, Whitlock became the first person ever from a Montana university to be elected to the National Academy of Sciences.

Explore Big Sky: Tell me about your research?

Cathy Whitlock: “Well, I’ve had a love affair with Yellowstone since I was a small child. My family used to travel from upstate New York, to the west coast to see relatives and we’d always go through Yellowstone so that got my interest in the park and then as I went to college, I realized that you could actually do research in Yellowstone. Now that I’m at Montana State University, it is a place where I can inspire students and help students do their own research in the park.”

EBS: What does the theme of awakening mean to you?

CW: “The planet is experiencing a lot of change that’s moving us into places we haven’t been before, unprecedented areas. I think we’re awakening to what that actually means for us as global citizens but also as people who live in this extraordinary ecosystem.”

EBS: As a leader in the field of climate and environmental change, what goals are you working towards?

CW: “Well, the big thing we’re working through now is we’re actually finishing an assessment of what climate change means for Greater Yellowstone. This is really exciting because it’s a partnership of people from three states, and also from federal agencies, and we’re really looking at what it means for the different parts of the ecosystem in terms of how they will be affected directly by climate change and what it means for their water resources. I’m super excited about that it’s going to be released May 2021, we’ve been working on it for a couple years now. … I’ve been doing a couple of things. One of them is I’ve been looking at the ecological impacts of hydrothermal activity in Yellowstone, and other parts of the West. So that’s a matter of looking at the impact of hydrothermal explosions, big geyser events, and that kind of thing, how does it affect the ecosystem. The other project I’ve been working on is in Argentina, which is looking into the history of the lower forests the dry forest and how that’s changed through time.”

EBS: What do you hope that attendees of TEDxBigSky will take away from your talk?

CW: “Yellowstone is an extraordinary ecosystem that is of global importance. It’s the last intact pristine ecosystem in the middle latitudes of the world. We have a responsibility to understand it but also to protect it.”

Rob Balucas

Rob Balucas is an ‘every-man joe’ who was thrust into extraordinary circumstances in 2015 when a cycling accident rendered him paraplegic. At the time he was training for his first half IRONMAN triathlon, which was supposed to take place the very next weekend. He vowed to return to triathlon within a year and raced in three sprint-distance triathlons the next year following his injury.

Since then, he’s competed in five half IRONMANs, including the 2019 half IRONMAN World Championships in Nice, France. His next goal is to qualify again for the Kona (full) IRONMAN World Championship and race in triathlon’s biggest stage as a paratriathlete.

Outside of paratriathlon, Balucas resides in Southern California with his partner, Erika, and their dog Chloe. He is a small business owner at babaLucas Creative, serving the branding, marketing, and website needs of small businesses and non-profits.

Explore Big Sky: What does the theme of awakening mean to you?

Rob Balucas: “There’s a parallel for me that a lot of people are awakening to the idea that our freedom and liberty aren’t so inalienable and it’s kind of like what people in my situation go through all the time, you learn really quick it’s not guaranteed. There’s nothing you can do, and you have to figure out how to accept your circumstances and live a particular way that is confined from what you thought it should be.”

EBS: How have the challenges you have overcome as a paratriathlete changed you?

RB: “For me it was a big switch because I lived until like 38. I pretty much, you know, lived life for arguably half my life and then all of a sudden it changed completely. … It’s a new perspective, literally, because I’m standing up at five foot eight but I’m now four foot. So, it’s literally a different perspective. I think there’s a lot of things it confirms for me, like, the importance of people and relationships in my life. I always invested a lot of time building strong connections and bonds with people in my life and it paid in spades, if you will, when I got injured because there were a bunch of people who came to my side and helped me when I needed it.”

EBS: What does the goal of qualifying again for the Kona (full) IRONMAN World Championship mean to you?

RB: “It was just kind of like the Super Bowl of triathlon and it was just some nebulous thing out there that I never really had an ambition for because quite frankly, I’m really average as a triathlete. … I have always liked to challenge myself and not just settle for where I’m at. There’s not a lot of paratriathletes trying to go to Kona relative to the able-bodied people. … A big part of it was when I got the chair, it’s kind of like the gloves came off in terms of what’s important in life.”

EBS: What do you hope that attendees of TEDxBigSky will take away from your talk?

RB: “The big thing is, we’re far more capable than we generally think we are. I hear people tell me that they could never do a triathlon able-bodied or not, and I know they’re wrong because I’ve seen everything cross the finish line. I’ve seen overweight, I’ve seen thin, I’ve seen old, I’ve seen young, I’ve seen people with severe disabilities being tethered or carried by their parents. … I’ve seen everything cross the finish line of a triathlon and it just goes to show that we’re far more capable if we just hunker down and went and did it went after it, and worked for it. We can have it. We can weather bigger storms than we think we can.”

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David Leuschen

David Leuschen is the Co-Founder and Senior Managing Director of Riverstone Holdings, LLC, one of the world’s largest energy investment firms, as well as the largest independent investor in renewable energy. He sits on the Investment Committees of all the various Riverstone investment vehicles, and on a number of boards of directors of Riverstone portfolio companies.

Prior to founding Riverstone, Leuschen was a Partner at Goldman Sachs and founder and head of the Goldman Sachs Global Energy and Power Group. He is also president and sole owner of Switchback Ranch LLC and on the Advisory Board of Big Sky Investment Holdings LLC.

Leuschen serves on a number of nonprofit boards of directors, including: as a Trustee of United States Olympic Committee Foundation, a Director of Conservation International, a Director of the Peterson Institute for International Economics, a Founding Member of the Peterson Institute’s Economic Leadership Council, a Director of the Wyoming Stock Growers Association, and a Director of the Montana Land Reliance.

Explore Big Sky: What does the theme of awakening mean to you?

David Leuschen: “Doing things in a new way – especially as it applies to the disruptive technologies that will cure climate change.”

EBS: What inspired you to build a career in renewable energy?

DL: “Part necessity, part dedication to doing the right thing. 
1) Necessity – capital is no longer available to fund fossil fuel investments.

2) Doing the right thing – we are perfectly positioned to move the needle on climate change.”

EBS: What do you hope that attendees of TEDxBigSky will take away from your talk?

DL: “An understanding of what the decarbonization future looks like.”

For more information on speakers, their topics, and updates, please visit the event website:

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