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Malala, YouTube star and Delta CEO headline massive Qualtrics summit opening day

After a four-year hiatus, Qualtrics draws 10,000 and a slew of celebrities to Salt Lake user summit

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Ryan Smith, executive chairman and co-founder of Qualtrics, speaks at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City.

Ryan Smith, executive chairman and co-founder of Qualtrics, speaks during the Qualtrics X4: The Experience Management Summit at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

With news of a potential $12.4 billion buyout surfacing just two days ago, Utah-born customer experience giant Qualtrics ended its four-year hiatus on in-person events Wednesday, opening its X4 user summit with an estimated crowd of 10,000 packing the halls and ballrooms of the Salt Palace Convention Center

And on International Women’s Day, Qualtrics brought world-renowned women’s rights activist Malala Yousafzai back to Salt Lake City, just weeks after she was in town for NBA All-Star weekend events.

The Pakistani woman is the world’s youngest Nobel laureate, having won the Peace Prize in 2014 at age 17 — a recognition of her work as a champion and advocate for the equitable education of women and children across the world.

Yousafzai survived multiple gunshot wounds during a Taliban attack on her school bus when she was 15. She was the subject of a 2015 Oscar-nominated documentary film, “He Named Me Malala” as well as the founder of the Malala Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to breaking down barriers to girls and young women receiving equal education opportunities.

On Wednesday, Yousafzai noted the widespread gender disparities in the technology sector and encouraged business leaders to use their positions and influence “to bring fairness and equity into the world.”

“Ensure that you are making every decision with full responsibility and making sure it benefits and serves everyone equally,” Yousafzai said. “We want to see more women in tech from all backgrounds. Today is Women’s Day but equality is really important for us to remember every day.”

Yousafzai graduated from Oxford University in 2020 and said she’s been doing work related to her fund as well as projects to be aired on Apple TV after entering a programming partnership with the company in 2021 to produce original content for its streaming service.

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Attendees listen at the Qualtrics X4: The Experience Management Summit at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Qualtrics CEO Zig Serafin kicked things off Wednesday morning, but later company founder, former CEO and Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith bounded onto the stage to greet an enthusiastic crowd with a smiling, “I missed you all,” and noting the event’s long absence.

Smith has been on a pretty wild ride since that time, buying the Utah Jazz for $1.6 billion in 2020 and helping guide the company he sold to German software giant SAP in 2018 for $8 billion into the public markets in a 2021 IPO. Smith is the current executive chairman of Qualtrics, which he founded with his brother in 2002, and is reportedly the company’s biggest individual shareholder.

In January, SAP announced it was looking to liquidate its majority position in Qualtrics and news surfaced Monday that Silicon Valley venture capital firm Silver Lake was in exclusive talks over a potential buyout valued at $12.4 billion. The deal would return Qualtrics to private ownership.

But on Wednesday, Smith was celebrating Qualtrics’ successes and top-flight clients, including Delta Airlines, the largest U.S. carrier by revenue and the most prominent airline at the newly expanded Salt Lake International Airport.

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Attendees at the Qualtrics X4: The Experience Management Summit at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Delta CEO Ed Bastian joined Smith on stage for a wide-ranging conversation, and both men were particularly elated over Delta recently reclaiming the naming rights of the Jazz’s home arena.

Announced in January, the return of the Delta Center as home of the Jazz follow’s stints as Energy Solutions Arena from 2006 to 2015, followed by Vivint Smart Home Arena (and later, just Vivint Arena) from 2015 to the present. Delta’s corporate brand was on the building when the arena opened in 1991 and will be back on the building in July, as the Jazz’s 50th team anniversary approaches.

Bastian revisited his regret in having to pull Delta back from the arena sponsorship deal in the mid-2000s as the company was reeling from the industry-wide impacts of the 9/11 attacks and the company was compelled to seek bankruptcy protections. But Delta would go on to achieve a full recovery from that financial trough and now finds itself, as Smith noted, the No. 1 rated airline in the world and the 12th most trusted global brand among all companies. The company employs about 5,000 people in Utah.

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Ed Bastian, CEO of Delta Airlines, speaks with Ryan Smith, executive chairman and co-founder of Qualtrics, during the Qualtrics X4: The Experience Management Summit at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Wednesday’s summit attendees were also treated to video clips and a keynote talk from prankster, science nerd and YouTube influencer Mark Rober. Rober happens to be a BYU grad and former engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He also worked at Apple for five years, doing product design and engineering.

But Rober’s biggest claim to fame has arisen from videos of his sneaky “glitter bombs” constructed to foil would-be porch pirates, as well as a slew of science mega-experiments posted to his channel with intriguing titles like “elephant toothpaste”, “backyard squirrel maze” and “15 ton jello pool.” While the vids may appear to be all about fun and games, Rober said the work has a more altruistic underlying agenda.

“I try to get kids really stoked about science and education,” Rober said. “I tease them with the clickbait title … then I trick them and suddenly they’re learning about the scientific method or chemistry.”

Rober spoke about his time at JPL where he worked on the development team for the Mars Curiosity rover as well as testing out some of his inventions like the “world’s largest nerf gun” and the “world’s largest super soaker” on his unsuspecting nephews.

Rober’s content is hugely popular, even by YouTube’s lofty standards. He said his postings draw an average of 27 million views, but many of his videos have been watched more than 100 million times.

The key to a viral video, according to Rober, is creating content that garners a “visceral response” and that is a goal he said is best achieved by compelling storytelling.

But the driver behind all of his projects, Rober said, is spreading his endearing love of all things science.

“I’m in the business of infecting the minds of young people with critical thinking and a passion for learning,” Rober said.

And Rober has also found time to give back, co-founding Team Trees, an effort to support the Arbor Day Foundation that has raised enough money to plant 20 million trees as well as Team Seas, which has raised $30 million to clean up the world’s oceans.

On top of all that, Rober is also reportedly working on a television show, “The Revengineers,” with talk show host Jimmy Kimmel that will riff on his glitter bomb tactics to teach lessons about good behavior through — you guessed it — pranks.

Qualtrics’ X4 Summit runs through Thursday at the Salt Palace Convention Center.

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A University of Utah Health video is shown during the Qualtrics X4: The Experience Management Summit at the Salt Palace in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, March 8, 2023.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News