Bjarke Ingels was a previous TED speaker, at TEDGlobal 2009, Session 11: "Cities past and future," July 24, 2009, in Oxford, UK. Credit: TED / James Duncan Davidson.

Today kicks of the start of this year's TED conference, an annual confab of ideas-driven speakers that's been called the "Holy Grail of digital-age production" and, alternatively, a collection of "tent revival sermons."

The most famous speaker on the four-day schedule may be the world's most famous intern, Monica Lewinsky, who intends to advocate Thursday for more empathy and safety in our culture of social media-driven humiliation. Some lesser-known or up-and-coming thinkers — like power-posing Harvard professor Amy Cuddy, for instance — might also become stars. And of course, there will be plenty of buzz-worthy scientists, journalists, artists and entertainers to make the audience's $8,500 price of admission feel worth it.

TED eventually posts many of its talks online, but not all of them, and the organization hasn't yet announced which talks will become available to watch for free. (Of course, you can buy a TED Live membership to watch all of the talks, whether while they're happening or after the conference wraps.)

We scanned this year's list for leaders whose talks we're eager to hear, and below are the top five on our radar:

(1) Martine Rothblatt, CEO of United Therapeutics (Talk is on Tuesday)

When Rothblatt graced the cover of New York Magazine last year, the cover language noted that the highest-paid female CEO in the United States (that's Rothblatt) was once a man. Though her pay has since been cut, she'll have plenty of other interesting topics to discuss. To wit: Rothblatt founded a religion that believes "death is optional," wrote a book about the ethical issues of "cyberconsciousness" and created a robot modeled after her current wife.

As a CEO, Rothblatt has had repeat success: both with her current company, Maryland-based biotech United Therapeutics, which she founded to help save her younger daughter's life, and with another startup she founded that became satellite radio provider Sirius XM. She is transgender, having had sex reassignment surgery in 1994, yet her TED tagline is "transhumanist" — that is, someone who believes technology will advance human life to the point that things like disease and even death can be avoided. At TED, she'll speak in the "life stories" session, which features speakers whose own lives "would make tremendous biopics." Indeed.

(2) Dame Stephanie "Steve" Shirley, entrepreneur and philanthropist (Talk is on Tuesday)

Way back in 1962 — ancient history in the tech world — Stephanie Shirley began building a software company. It became known as the FI Group, employed mostly women and took an extraordinary approach to management that we now consider commonplace: Jobs could be flexible, home-based and shared. To compete, she often went by the name "Steve."

Shirley's company was later renamed Xansa and has since been acquired, and she is now better known for her philanthropy, particularly relating to autism. But her life is a remarkable one that should impart some powerful lessons. She arrived in Britain as a child refugee before the start of WWII, lost her son to autism when he was 35, and has been a pioneer for women in business and technology.

(3) Tony Fadell, Founder/CEO, Nest (Talk is on Wednesday)

Fadell made a name for himself at Apple, overseeing the development of the iPod. But he's since moved on to found Nest Labs, maker of smart home devices like the company's popular thermostat, which learns the temperatures that its user likes and then programs itself. Other devices include a smoke and carbon monoxide alarm, which sends a message to the owner's phone if the alarm goes off or the batteries are low, and a home video monitor that streams HD video to a computer.

The company was acquired by Google last year, and Fadell, who remains at the helm of Nest, will now be helping the big data-driven company think ahead of Apple on the consumer electronics front.

(4) Rev. Jeffrey Brown, Baptist minister (Talk is on Thursday)

Brown was a co-founder of the Boston TenPoint Coalition, a faith-based group that played a key role in Boston's huge decline in violent crime in the 1990s. According to his bio, Brown nows acts as a consultant to municipalities and police departments about mobilizing communities to deal with youth violence, and is currently working on a second national conference to bring together faith leaders and law enforcement. At a time when the events in Ferguson have reignited a national discussion about race, police and community, Brown's addition to the conversation seems worth a listen.

(5) Dame Ellen MacArthur, yachtswoman and natural resources advocate (Talk is on Friday)

If you haven't heard the phrase "circular economy" yet, you probably will soon. Generally, the idea (which has its roots in concepts like biomimicry and "cradle to cradle" design) posits that the world's economy must move on from a "linear" industrial approach, in which resources are made, used and disposed of, to one that is "restorative by design," as MacArthur's foundation calls it.

Advocates of the idea say it goes beyond basic recycling. It encourages companies to design products from the outset using as few materials as possible, rethink their business models — such as by renting rather than owning equipment — and harness technology to lower resource use. MacArthur, who was inspired to establish her foundation while circumnavigating the globe in a solo sailing voyage, hopes to spread the idea through her organization, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. She already succeeded in getting the topic on the agenda at this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, attracted big companies to join her campaign (Cisco, for instance, and Renault), and won the most recent Breakthrough Idea award from Thinkers50, which ranks the world's most innovative management thinkers.

Read also:

Five TED talks on leadership worth watching

The science of introverts in the workplace

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