Regina Dugan, VP of engineering at Google, and John Maeda, former director of MIT's Media Lab, sit down at PopTech in Camden. (Photo/courtesy PopTech)

Regina Dugan, VP of engineering at Google, and John Maeda, former director of MIT’s Media Lab, sit down at PopTech in Camden on Thurs., Oct. 23, 2014. (Photo/courtesy PopTech)

The diversity of the crowd at this year’s PopTech was clear to me as soon as I got inside the Camden Opera House, took off my dripping rain jacket, grabbed a cup of coffee and saddled up to a table where I met Makram.

Makram is an imam of a Muslim congregation in Minneapolis and is attending his first PopTech because he’s passionate about social entrepreneurship and making positive changes in his congregation and community. I then met Joe, who leads a technology foundation in San Francisco, met an old friend from college who leads a design consultancy in New York City, and then ran into my dentist and his wife (turns out I have a pretty cool dentist).

Diversity is important because it ensures a diversity of ideas, which is what attracts people from all over the world to Maine to attend PopTech. Collisions of diverse ideas and the collaborations that follow were on my mind because on the drive up from Portland I had listened to Walter Isaacson’s new book, The Innovators, about the pioneers who invented the first computers and, hence, the digital revolution.

Isaacson concludes that the main lesson from the development of the computer is that “innovation is usually a group effort, involving collaboration between visionaries and engineers, and that creativity comes from drawing on many sources. Only in storybooks do inventions come like a thunderbolt, or a lightbulb popping out of the head of a lone individual in a basement or garret or garage.” (BTW: Isaacson, who is also Steve Jobs’ biographer, is coming to Portland on Nov. 5 as the keynote speaker at the 5th annual WEX Leadership and Creativity Event Series.)

PopTech has plenty of visionaries and engineers in attendance, along with a large contingent of Mainers looking to mingle, soak up the awesome and be inspired.

The conference, in its 18th year, is not a conference in the traditional sense. There’s no single topic being discussed by panel after panel of experts. It’s not in a homogeneous conference room in the basement of a Holiday Inn. Instead, it’s a festival of ideas held in the beautiful coastal town of Camden and inside the cozy confines of the Camden Opera House. This year’s theme is Rebellion.

Thursday morning’s docket of speakers, who speak for each 18 minutes in a format made popular by the similar TED talks, were as eclectic as the audience. They ranged from Alec Ross, a former advisor for innovation to the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who spoke about the necessary elements of rebellion from a geopolitical prism; Paola Antonelli, design curator at MoMA, who spoke about rebellion in design and museum curation; Bob Sabiston, the animator behind the movies Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly, who turned down three job offers from Steve Jobs because he didn’t want to become a “cog in a big machine;” Anil Dash, social media pioneer, who warned the crowd to hold large tech companies accountable; Vincent Horn, a meditation instructor, who discussed where Buddhist philosophy and technology merge in “contemplative technologies;” and Maria Popova, the self-described “interestingness hunter-gatherer” behind the wildly successful website Brain Pickings.

Perhaps the most interesting talk on Thursday — and definitely the most touching — was given by Regina Dugan, vice president of engineering at Google and former director of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (better known by its acronym, DARPA) within the U.S. Department of Defense.

Dugan shared her story of suffering from a devastating cancer diagnosis at the age of 9. Her doctors gave her 10 percent chance of survival.

“I was small, but I understood: It was game on,” Dugan said.

After multiple surgeries and endless days of chemo, Dugan pulled through. The experience, while traumatic, was also formative.

What she learned is that odds are irrelevant.

“If it matters, you take a shot and don’t give up.” By extension, she learned: “If the odds don’t matter, every moment counts. … Don’t be afraid of failure because no one is promised tomorrow.”

Her parents, who maintained a constant bedside vigil during her darkest days, also taught her a valuable lesson: Showing up is incredibly powerful.

Dugan’s story brought many in the audience to tears.

“I think rebellion is just short hand for not accepting the odds, for making moments matter and just showing up,” she said.

The story of her parents led her into a discussion of what is hard work, which they displayed in their bedside vigilance. She borrowed a line from Kahlil Gibran to answer: “Work is love made visible.”

What followed was a short slideshow accompanied by loud emotion-inducing music that flashed quick profiles of people who overcame adversity and displayed love through hard work: People such as Tina Turner, Nelson Mandela, Amelia Earhart and Malala Yousafzai, the Pakistani activist who at 17 recently became the youngest recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.

“If you want to find what you love, look inside the hardest thing you do — that’s where it will be,” Dugan said.

I’m ready for day two. If you want to keep up on all the goings-on at PopTech as it happens, follow me on Twitter at @whit_richardson and follow the #poptech hashtag.