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The president of the TED conference acknowledged this week that inviting billionaire investor Bill Ackman to address the annual forum came with some risks.

The Technology, Entertainment and Design conference has spent 10 years holding events in Vancouver highlighting entrepreneurs and innovators who usually deliver upbeat performances.

But this week, it presented a controversial investor whose position as founder and chief executive officer of Pershing Square Capital Management has earned him millions. His vocal advocacy of Israel, however, and his role in the ouster of Harvard’s first Black president has made him a pariah in some circles.

“I don’t think I’m breaking any secrets,” TED president Chris Anderson told the crowd. “We were worried about this session as a team. This is different than stuff we’ve tried before.”

Indeed, the invitation prompted several TED fellows to resign in protest over Mr. Ackman’s outspoken support of Israel in the conflict with Hamas. In addition, the progressive non-profit, Color of Change also called for Mr. Ackman’s removal for his role in Claudine Gay’s departure from Harvard.

Mr. Ackman appeared onstage at TED with New York University lecturer and podcast celebrity Scott Galloway and former U.S. presidential candidate Andrew Yang. He was also joined by astrophysicist Avi Loeb, activist Xiuhtezcatl Martinez and former New York Times columnist Bari Weiss, who herself has stirred controversy because of her views on the conflict in the Middle East.

Mr. Ackman told the crowd his reputation isn’t accurate.

“The short-form description of me is never really an accurate one,” he said. “I certainly want to be perceived the way that I actually am, as opposed to some caricature of myself. And also, I think the ideas are important. And if you want to challenge them, I’m always up for the debate.”

Mr. Ackman’s profile was again raised last October after students at Harvard, his alma mater, issued letters blaming Israel for the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 that killed about 1,200 people. Mr. Ackman and others wanted Harvard to release the students’ names to ensure they were not “inadvertently” hired by companies like his that might take issue with their position.

He later led a campaign criticizing Harvard’s handling of the matter and accused Dr. Gay of plagiarism and the school of antisemitism and financial mismanagement.

Mr. Ackman, who has 1.2 million followers on his X account, was surprised by the controversy he generates.

“We are in a world today, where if you challenge conventional wisdom, or you take on sensitive topics, we’re at risk of being clinically cancelled,” Mr. Ackman said. “You can be accused of being a racist, you can be accused of lots of things. And I think that’s led to a shutdown of a kind of free speech, which I think is a big negative for society,”

He also acknowledged that his vast wealth gives him a freedom of speech that others with less secure employment might not have.

“If you work for a company and want to comment about something in politics, for example, and you do it on Twitter, you can end up losing your job, for expressing your views, and I think the world is a better place where all views can be heard and can be assessed, can be debated,” he said

Mr. Ackman also acknowledged that his views on matters such as diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) policies in business may be provocative for some people.

In February, he issued a 5,200-word X post on the subject that has drawn more than 3.4 million views. The thrust of his argument was that “DEI itself is racist because reverse racism is racism, even if it is against white people.”

Moderator Alison Taylor asked Mr. Ackman if he agreed with concerns that those with excessive wealth exert an outsized influence on democracy, technology and discourse.

Mr. Ackman did not answer directly.

“I think the notion that someone can spend several $100-million on various campaigns at state levels and impact the politics of attorney-generals around the country I think is not a good thing,” he said, referring to Tesla CEO Elon Musk and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

When his speech was over, the crowd politely applauded.

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