Monique Ruff-Bell: Smile Through the Pain

Skift Take

Monique Ruff-Bell is chief program and strategy officer at TED Conferences, a new role for the organization. Just as TED is known for powerful ideas, powerfully presented, Ruff-Bell’s road to this role is an inspiring one.

Hard work, resilience, intention, blessings, grit, and luck are what Monique Ruff-Bell, chief program and strategy officer at TED Conferences, attributes to her success. “If anyone told little girl, teenage, or even 20-year-old Monique what she would eventually get to do, she wouldn’t have believed you,” she says. 

Ruff-Bell is the new chief program and strategy officer for TED. She oversees TED’s flagship global events and conferences, TEDx programs and initiatives, global partnership sales, and key marketing verticals for the organization. She plays a vital role in shaping and executing TED’s strategic plan, contributing to the advancement of its mission, operational excellence, and overall organizational growth.

This new role for TED brings growth areas together under one umbrella. Most know TED for its flagship events like TED, TEDWomen, and TED Countdown, but there were 3,400 other events held last year across 142 countries, bringing together 600,000 attendees in local communities. 

Ruff-Bell listens to thousands of TED Talks each year in her role. What would the title of the talk she would give? “How to Smile Through the Pain.”

She acknowledges her extraordinary experiences and opportunities, but there has also been adversity. She has dealt with being overlooked, underpaid, dismissed, and discounted while overcoming biases to get to where she is today. 

“Success isn’t overnight,” she says. “There have been times I had to smile through the pain to keep going and to make it.”

Teach Girls Bravery, Not Perfection

What is one TED Talk that particularly resonated with Ruff-Bell? It features Reshma Saujani, the founder of Girls Who Code, whose talk was named “Teach girls bravery, not perfection.” Saujani has taken up the charge of encouraging young girls to take risks. 

Perfectionism holds people back, says Ruff-Bell. “You’re not going to speak up in rooms where you might be the only woman or person of color, or you feel like you don’t have the right words to string together to be heard. So, you’re not going to say anything,” she explains. “So, teaching women and girls bravery as a core foundation instead of just being nice, it’s important.”

The 80-20 rule has served her well. “When 80 percent of successes go over the line, and 20 percent don’t, CEOs usually feel good about the positive movement happening,” she says. “I don’t believe in perfectionism, and I don’t believe I will always knock it out of the park. I always ask my managers at the beginning of the year, what are your expectations?”

Becoming the Change You Want to See

Ruff-Bell also discusses that leaders in the events industry usually don’t look like she does. She has worked and was very intentional about her career in her journey to being seen as a leader within the industry.  Being the change you want to see is Ruff-Bell’s mantra and a lesson she has instilled in her son.

An Events Industry Journey

Pursuing a marketing degree in college, Ruff-Bell landed an internship with a boutique media and events company. “It was all hands on deck,” she says. “Everybody did a bit of everything.” She helped raise money, create sponsorships, execute operations, and undertake public relations. “I didn’t know this world existed but was good at it and decided to continue to progress in it.”

Her first job was as a promotion coordinator for the Northeast with Ringling Brother Circus. The job involved walking the elephants from train stations to the venues where they would perform.

She later landed at Money20/20 when the show was on a downward trajectory. The organization’s president took a chance on Ruff-Bell as she didn’t have big trade show experience, and it worked out. “We helped put the fun in fintech,” she says.

For an event to succeed, you must create an experience people want to discuss. How do you do that? By starting by defining the emotions you want to stir, she shares.

Career Success

Learning all aspects of a company and particular career path has led to Ruff-Bell’s success. When she started in the industry, she didn’t have the resources to pursue a designation like CMP. She continued on her trajectory, which led her to her current role.

“I needed to learn how to play chess, not checkers. I needed to understand how to ask for access because they weren’t going to give it to me, and I needed to stay the course,” she says.

During the Covid pandemic, executives looked at events with more respect, and that continues, according to Ruff-Bell. “We are seen as the business strategists we are,” she says.

In January 2022, Ruff-Bell became head of events at TED. TED showcases prominent, well-known people, but there are also those whom many may not have heard of who make an impact. At its core, TED is a storytelling platform that is an emotional rollercoaster of sorts. “The magic is walking away with knowledge you would’ve never had unless you’ve listened to a TED Talk and then getting it in a way that connects you to the speaker,” explains Ruff-Bell.