Speakers with Incredible & Inspiring Real-Life Stories
We all face things that make us doubt our abilities from time to time. Whether your organization is facing a difficult operating environment, a tricky restructuring, or is simply stuck in a rut, setting aside time to come together as a team and hear from someone who has been there and come out on the other side can make all the difference. The following speakers move audiences to leapfrog hurdles in their own lives. Their stories have the power to lift your team up and spark real change.
Speakers with incredible & inspiring real-life stories
- Ben Saunders, World-Record Breaking Polar Explorer & Repeat TED Speaker
- Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi, NASA Astrophysicist & Author of the Upcoming Book, Hacking the Stars: My Unlikely Journey Through Space and Time
- Darcy Gaechter, Adventurer & First Woman to Kayak the Amazon River
- Joan Higginbotham, Retired NASA Astronaut, Electrical Engineer, & Third African American Woman in Space
- Katie Ledecky, Olympic Champion Swimmer; 10x Olympic Medalist, 15x World Champion, 14x World Record Breaker
- Sarah Robb O'Hagan, CEO of Flywheel Sports, Former President of Equinox Fitness, and Former President of Gatorade
- Erik Weihenmayer, World-Class Blind Adventurer
- Sebastian Terry, Author, TV Host, and Founder of 100 Things Philanthropic Movement
- Reggie Fils-Aimé, Former President and COO of Nintendo of America Inc.
- Angie Bastian, Founder of BoomChickaPop
- Dakota Meyer, Medal of Honor Recipient and New York Times Best-selling Author of Into the Fire
- John Grotzinger, Former NASA Chief Scientist, Head of Strategic Planning for the Mars Rover Mission
- Tracy Walder, Former CIA Officer and FBI Special Agent, Educator, and Author
- Jo Malone, Founder & Creative Director, Jo Loves
- Laila Ali, World-Class Boxing Champion, Elite Athlete, Beauty & Lifestyle Brand CEO, & Motivational Speaker
- Vernice Armour, First African American Female Combat Pilot
- Dominique Dawes, 3-Time Olympic Gymnast and Olympic Gold Medalist
- Paul De Gelder, Navy Diver, Shark Attack Survivor, & Author
- Annie Duke, Former Professional Poker Player and Decision-Making Strategist
- Chris Gardner, Inspiration for the Film, The Pursuit of Happyness
- Alex Gregory, Double Olympic Gold Medalist & Motivational Speaker
- Dr. Erika Hamden, Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Arizona & 2019 TED Fellow
- Scott Harrison, Founder and CEO of Charity: Water
- Shon Hopwood, Associate Law Professor at Georgetown University Law Center
- Col. Nicole Malachowski, America’s First Female Thunderbird Pilot
- William McNulty, Co-Founder of Team Rubicon
- Hector Monsegur and Chris Tarbell, Cyber Security Experts
- Colin O'Brady, 4-Time World Record Holder & 1st Person to Cross Antarctica Solo, Unsupported, & Unaided
- John O'Leary, President of Rising Above LLC, Best-Selling Author, & Motivational Speaker
- Rick Stanton & John Volanthen, Cave Divers Who Played A Pivotal Role In The 2018 Tham Luang Rescue
- Melissa Stockwell, US Army 1st Lieutenant, Paralympic Medalist, & World Champion Triathlete
- Chris Voss, Former FBI Lead International Kidnapping Negotiator
- Patricia Wilson, TED Speaker and Former CEO of Make-a-Wish Greater Bay Area Chapter
- The "Paris Train Heroes", Heroes of a would-be terror attack in 2015
Keep reading for more information about each of these individuals below and click on the links below to check out each of their speaker profile pages for more specifics about their background, their areas of specialty, and get a preview of them speaking to a large audience on stage at a recent event.
World-Record Breaking Polar Explorer & Repeat TED Speaker
Ben Saunders’s incredible feats of endurance challenge conventional wisdom and prove what can be accomplished through ambition, passion, and a refusal to quit. Best known for leading one of the most ambitious polar expeditions in a century, he was the first to successfully complete an epic, 105-day, 1,800-mile trek on foot to the South Pole. A speaker at three TED conferences, Ben uses stories and stunning visuals to illustrate and justify his beliefs that “No one else is the authority on your potential” and “Impossible is just someone’s opinion.”
DR. HAKEEM OLUSEYI
NASA Astrophysicist & Author of the Upcoming Book, Hacking the Stars: My Unlikely Journey Through Space and Time
Born into deep poverty in Mississippi, Dr. Hakeem Oluseyi grew up in some of the roughest neighborhoods in the country. He realized a love of science and space at a young age and, despite near constant discouragement, went on to obtain three degrees, 12 patents for inventions in modern computer chips, and to work on Nobel Prize-winning research projects. Funny, warm, honest, and inspiring, Hakeem moves audiences to never give up. A leading astrophysicist, educator, and humanitarian TED Fellow, Oluseyi trounced race and class to become an important contributor to computer technology and space research. Back on Earth, he's doing all he can to give young and underfunded scientists a chance to reach for the stars.
Adventurer & First Woman to Kayak the Amazon River
An adventurer, record-setter, and boundary-breaker, Darcy Gaechter is best known as the first woman to kayak the Amazon River from source to sea. Her three-person team also became the first team to kayak the entire river, where all previous expeditions had either hiked around or rafted portions of the whitewater in the Amazon River’s headwaters. The journey required her crew to paddle over 4,000 miles across the widest part of South America, a voyage that took 148 days to complete. The successful traverse of the entire Amazonian watershed relied on Gaechter’s team’s ability to balance many factors: physical endurance, an ability to work with the locals to assuage their fears of outsiders, patience for interpersonal conflicts arising from three people spending every waking moment together for five months, and a mental toughness that allowed no room for quitting to be an option. Without a doubt, the Amazon was as much an intellectual and emotional undertaking as it was a physical challenge.
Retired NASA Astronaut, Electrical Engineer, & Third African American Woman in Space
A former NASA astronaut, Joan Higginbotham is a trailblazing electrical engineer who, in December 2006, flew aboard Space Shuttle Discovery mission STS-116 to become the third African American woman to travel into space. Over the nearly 13-day mission, she joined the seven-member crew to continue construction of the International Space Station (ISS), embarking on four space walks and operating the station’s robotic arm.
Olympic Champion Swimmer; 10x Olympic Medalist, 15x World Champion, 14x World Record Breaker
Record-breaking Olympic champion swimmer Katie Ledecky first grabbed headlines worldwide as the breakout star of the 2012 Olympics at age 15. As the youngest American at the 2012 Games, she showed maturity beyond her years to beat out a field of more experienced competitors and win her first of seven gold medals. As relatable as she is personable, she shares her inspiring journey from up-and-coming swimmer to the winner's podium at the Olympics, as well as lessons learned along the way about developing a winner's mentality, setting and achieving goals, pushing past obstacles, and performing beyond what you thought was possible.
SARAH ROBB O'HAGAN
CEO of Flywheel Sports, Former President of Equinox Fitness, and Former President of Gatorade
Sarah Robb O’Hagan is one of the most powerful and successful women in sports today. But, in her late 20s, she was fired twice—back to back. High-energy and known for shaking up conferences, Sarah shares stories from her own life to illustrate why turning failure into fuel for success is the most powerful skill to have in business and in life and why taking risks and “crashing” more is what led to her vital personal development.
World-Class Blind Adventurer
Despite losing his vision at age 14, Erik Weihenmayer is an accomplished climber, paraglider, skier, and kayaker who never allows blindness interfere with his passion for pursuing an exhilarating and fulfilling life. Weihenmayer sees his lack of sight as an opportunity, and he has managed to push past the anger, frustration, and fear. After making friends with other blind individuals who went rock climbing, he continued working on his craft and, at age 33, he became the first blind person to reach the summit of Mount Everest. His incredible story of determination and perseverance has been featured on The Today Show, Oprah, Good Morning America, and many more major media outlets. This year, an Award-Winning documentary about Erik and his latest adventure kayaking the Grand Canyon, entitled The Weight of Water was released. In speeches, he teaches audiences to follow his path and lead a "No Barriers" life, or a life without self-imposed limitations.
Author, TV Host, and Founder of 100 Things Philanthropic Movement
Known worldwide for pursuing an incredible list of 100 Things that he wants to achieve before he dies, Sebastian Terry’s story is surprisingly not about a bucket list. It’s about something more far reaching; permission, choice, growth, and connection.
Former President and COO of Nintendo of America Inc.
An award-winning innovator and disruptor, Reggie Fils-Aimé is a proven expert on transforming companies, re-vitalizing brands, and reshaping industries to solve daunting challenges and achieve ‘the impossible.’ Most recently, he was the president and chief operating officer of Nintendo of America – the first American and African-American to hold this position.
Founder of BoomChickaPop
A business phenom and women’s advocate, Angie Bastian launched her namesake popcorn brand out of her garage in 2001 and created one of the fastest-growing snack brands in the country. So, how did she create a novel product with a fanatic fanbase in a crowded industry full of well-known brands? In down-to-earth, optimistic keynotes, she shares the secrets to her success, plus how to build a corporate culture that spurs innovation.
Medal of Honor Recipient and New York Times Best-selling Author of Into the Fire
After risking his own life to provide cover for more than 30 soldiers during a battle in Afghanistan, Dakota was the first living Marine to receive the Medal of Honor since 1973. His motivational talk draws on incredible stories and visuals that move audiences to reexamine their own lives and fight for accountability and achievement.
Former NASA Chief Scientist, Head of Strategic Planning for the Mars Rover Mission
Grotzinger oversaw a team of more than 450 scientists working together to launch the Curiosity rover, which remains the most complex spacecraft to ever land and operate on the surface of another planet. His talk is filled with lessons about teamwork, ambition, and leadership, and is accompanied by images, video, and stories straight out of a Hollywood movie.
Former CIA Officer and FBI Special Agent, Educator, and Author
When Tracy Walder enrolled at the University of Southern California, she never thought that one day she would offer her pink beanbag chair in the Delta Gamma house to a CIA recruiter, or that she’d fly to the Middle East under an alias identity. Graduating with a history degree, she would spend the next four years as a covert operative for CIA’s Counterterrorism Center, assuming aliases, thwarting terrorist attacks, and debriefing terrorists at black sites. In speeches, Walder shares her riveting story with audiences, and according to Publishers Weekly “opens a window into life in two of America’s major intelligence agencies.”
Founder & Creative Director, Jo Loves
Jo Malone CBE has been described as an 'English scent maverick and the woman responsible for creating some of the world's most loved fragrances. Originally a facial therapist, Jo fell in love with fragrance while working from her discreet skin care clinic which she set up from her London home. Discovering an instinctual talent for creating scented products by hand in her kitchen, word of her exceptional potions quickly spread and soon Jo was unable to keep up with demand. From these artisan beginnings Jo launched her first brand, Jo Malone London, which gained cult status around the world.
World-Class Boxing Champion, Elite Athlete, Beauty & Lifestyle Brand CEO, & Motivational Speaker
As the daughter of famed boxing champion Muhammad Ali, Laila Ali grew up wanting to box. But her dreams were always confronted by naysayers who told her things like, "Women don't box," or "It will be too hard." Ali admits that her own father told her she shouldn't take up boxing. Regardless, Ali not only began boxing but went on to become a four-time undefeated boxing world champion. Her stellar record includes 24 wins (21 of which were "knockouts") and zero losses. Laila is heralded as the most successful female in the history of women’s boxing. In speeches, she talks about tapping into your personal power to defy any odds and how to be a champion in all that you do.
First African American Female Combat Pilot
It’s incredible to hear charismatic Amour talk about how, after the Combat Exclusion Policy was overturned by the Pentagon in 1994, she came across a female pilot at an ROTC career day and a dream was born. She went on to become a Captain, serve two tours in Iraq, and wrote the book, Zero to Breakthrough: The 7-Step Battle-tested Method for Accomplishing Goals That Matter.
3-Time Olympic Gymnast and Olympic Gold Medalist
Three-time Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes is well-known for her incredible success at the 1996 Atlanta Games and four Olympic medals. What’s less known is Dominique’s difficult childhood and personal journey to overcome negative thoughts and develop strong, supportive relationships with her teammates. Her story is moving and packed with takeaways that will have your attendees feeling motivated to stop procrastinating, face failure head on, and build stronger relationships and skills at work and at home.
PAUL DE GELDER
Navy Diver, Shark Attack Survivor, & Author
A long-time co-host of Discovery Channel’s Shark Week, Paul de Gelder is an Australian-born Navy diver who lost two limbs in a shark attack in 2009. Attacked while diving for the Navy in Sydney Harbor, Paul was pulled out of the water barely alive. In the years that followed, he took the saying “Never say die” to a whole new level, fighting through pain to meet and exceed each new rehabilitation obstacle. He authored the best-selling autobiography No Time for Fear and embraced a gift for public speaking.
Former Professional Poker Player and Decision-Making Strategist
For two decades, Annie Duke was one of the top poker players in the world—and usually the only woman at the table. Duke talks to audiences about her surprising rise to the top and the lessons on risk, fear, and smart decision making she’s learned along the way. Her new book, Thinking in Bets: Making Smarter Decisions When You Don’t Have All the Facts, was published in February.
Inspiration for the Film, The Pursuit of Happyness
If you’ve seen the Golden Globe and Academy Award-nominated movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, starring Will Smith, then you’re familiar with Gardner’s story of going from homelessness to Wall Street. But what you may not know is that in person, he is one of the most warm and impressive speakers I’ve seen in a while. He came by our office a week ago and talked about the 3 most important decisions he ever made, why Plan B “sucks,” and his belief that you can always turn things around. The team left feeling excited and inspired.
Double Olympic Gold Medalist & Motivational Speaker
British rower Alex Gregory knows a thing or two about resolve; his Olympic success did not come easily. After a decade of failures and disasters, Alex was taken to the very edge of his belief, before making his way through to the other side and emerging as a world-class athlete and global champion. Alex takes his audience on an emotional journey through the highs and lows of top level Olympic sport. His relaxed attitude and emotive words allows the audience to live the journey with him while developing the qualities and skill set of a double Olympic champion.
DR. ERIKA HAMDEN
Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Arizona & 2019 TED Fellow
Dr. Erika Hamden is currently leading a team building a new UV space telescope called FIREBall for NASA. She recently delivered a show-stopping talk at TED 2019 and got real about the challenges that come with trying to create something new. “I’ve realized that discovery is mostly a process of finding things that don’t work, and failure is inevitable when you’re pushing the limits of knowledge,” Hamden said. She explains how she has persevered through the toughest failures of her life, and why–despite her telescope crash landing in 2018—she’s not giving up any time soon.
Founder & CEO of Charity: Water
Scott Harrison launched his company Charity: Water with two huge goals: To turn the concept of what charity is on its head, and to eliminate the global water crisis in his lifetime. Today, he’s known for his innovative business model, which many investors said couldn’t work, and for funding water projects in 24 countries. He talks about making the change from being a night club promoter living a lavish lifestyle to becoming one of the world’s most-recognized philanthropists. He touches on why it’s never too late to make a change, how to solve problems with new ideas, and how to overcome obstacles with creativity and innovation.
Associate Law Professor at Georgetown University Law Center
In his early 20s, Shon Hopwood was sentenced to 11 years for robbing five banks in Nebraska. But that’s not where his story ends. Inside prison, he cultivated a passion for the law that resulted in an extremely rare feat: two certiorari he prepared for fellow inmates, with no proper law training, were granted review by the Supreme Court. After Shon’s release—and despite being told by 300-400 lawyers he would never join their ranks—he became a licensed attorney and well-known law professor at Georgetown. In speeches, Shon talks about the importance of setting goals and abandoning instant gratification, persevering, and tuning out discouraging voices.
COL. NICOLE MALACHOWSKI
America’s First Female Thunderbird Pilot
Colonel Nicole Malachowski was a breakout star on the lecture circuit this year and we’re so happy to be working with her. It’s hard to watch her talk without getting emotional—she covers both her ascendance to become the First Woman Thunderbird Pilot in the Air Force and how she was ultimately forced to retire due to a medical condition. Nicole speaks honesty about drawing on inner strength and having the courage to say your goal out loud and ask questions like, “Why not me?”.
Co-founder of Team Rubicon
Before founding Team Rubicon, William McNulty served for nine years in both the infantry and intelligence. He tells his personal story of coping with the service void in his life after his enlistment ended, and how a trip with a few friends to help in Haiti in the wake of the devastating 2010 earthquake led to a new career.
HECTOR MONSEGUR & CHRIS TARBELL
Cyber Security Experts
What happens when you combine the experience of a former FBI cyber crimes leader with the perspective of one of the world’s most-wanted hackers? You get a heart-pounding talk on the day their worlds collided. With experience on both sides of the cyber security equation—Tarbell as a former law enforcement official and Monsegur a former black hat hacker who led the Anonymous/LulzSec collective—they deliver one of the most jaw-dropping and informative presentations on the lecture circuit today.
4-Time World Record Holder & 1st Person to Cross Antarctica Solo, Unsupported, & Unaided
In 2008, while on a trip abroad, Colin O’Brady suffered a tragic accident and was severely burned in a fire. Despite being told he might never walk again, Colin went on to shatter two world records and a world first as a mountaineer and explorer. He is the first person to ever cross Antarctica solo, and he holds the record for the fastest climb of the Seven Summits (132 days) and the Explorer’s Grand Slam (139 days). In a presentation packed with stunning videos, he took himself at the ends of the Earth, Colin encourages audiences to dare to dream and embrace the growth mindset he has used throughout his life to achieve greatness.
President of Rising Above LLC, Best-Selling Author, & Motivational Speaker
Expected to die, John O’Leary now teaches others how to truly live. John was a curious nine-year-old boy. Playing with fire and gasoline, he created a massive explosion in his garage and was burned on 100% of his body. Given less than 1% chance of survival, John is proof of the power of the human spirit. His unlikely recovery meant a journey of pain and loss that could have easily been insurmountable. However, far from being an example of someone who simply endured tragedy, John is a luminous example of thriving through adversity. His book, On Fire: The 7 Choices to Ignite a Radically Inspired Life, was an instant #1 national best-seller, has sold 100,000+ copies and has been translated into 12 languages.
RICK STANTON & JOHN VOLANTHEN
Cave Divers Who Played A Pivotal Role In The 2018 Tham Luang Rescue
Rick Stanton spent 25 years as a firefighter before retiring and John began caving with the scouts at the age of 14. Since then, John and Rick have been involved in exploring and mapping caves throughout the world, including the UK, Europe, and Malaysia. Recognized as two of the world’s leading cave divers, in 2018 they both played an integral role in locating and rescuing the Tham Luang youth soccer team. Rick and his diving partner, John, were the first to make contact with the team, and played a leading role in the rescue mission.
US Army 1st Lieutenant, 2016 Paralympic Bronze Medalist, & World Champion Triathlete
Melissa Stockwell shares her amazing journey from tragedy to triumph. She was just 24 when she lost her leg as the result of an IED explosion in Baghdad. She felt devastated and hopeless, until one day at Walter Reed Medical Center, when she looked around and thought, “How lucky am I to have just lost one leg?”
Former FBI Lead International Kidnapping Negotiator
A top FBI negotiator turned business consultant, Chris blends gripping anecdotes with lessons in negotiation. He shares the real stories behind high-profile international kidnappings and bank robberies and uses them to illustrate how to get ahead in any conversation or negotiation. He talks reading people, the art of persuasion, and protecting against your own vulnerabilities.
TED Speaker and Former CEO of Make-a-Wish Greater Bay Area Chapter
Wilson is best-known as the mastermind behind the incredible effort to turn San Francisco into Gotham City so that a cancer patient named Miles could become Batkid for a day. A main character in the documentary “Batkid Begins,” she shares the story behind how the day came together. Her emotional and inspirational talk leaves audiences with incredible takeaways on leadership, teamwork, and creating an atmosphere of excellence.
THE "PARIS TRAIN HEROES"
Heroes of a would-be terror attack in 2015
Childhood friends, Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, and Spencer Stone were thrust into the international spotlight on August 21, 2015, when their bravery and quick-thinking thwarted a would-be terror attack on a Paris-bound train with roughly 500 passengers on board. They are the authors of the new book, The 15:17 to Paris, which is now being made into a feature film directed by Clint Eastwood. They talk about overcoming adversity, the importance of relationships, how to embrace unexpected opportunities, and pushing past fear.
For more information about these motivational speakers or to browse through our list of moving speakers with similar “unreal” true stories, visit our motivational speaker list page or explore our inspirational speaker list page.
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