Mayor Kenney and the tech scene are in that awkward, getting-to-know you phase - Technical.ly Philly

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Jan. 29, 2016 12:22 pm

Mayor Kenney and the tech scene are in that awkward, getting-to-know you phase

Tech is worth courting. And Kenney keeps showing up — even though it's not really his thing.

Mayor Jim Kenney gets interviewed at the Tomorrow Tour kickoff, January 2016.

(Photo by Juliana Reyes)

Mayor Jim Kenney was being a good sport.

He had made a quick stop at the kickoff for the Tomorrow Tour, a Technical.ly and Comcast initiative to highlight tech scenes across the country, and as soon as he finished his short speech, Comcast’s Danielle Cohn grabbed him to be interviewed by the company’s camera crew.

Standing behind a Tomorrow Tour backdrop and bright show lights, Kenney answered questions about the importance of the day’s event. He seemed a little ill at ease. Talking about fledgling tech communities? It was definitely out of his comfort zone. After the third question, Cohn cut it off. “Thank you,” she said. “I think the Mayor has to go.”

But by then, Kenney had found his groove.

“Give me one more,” he said to the camera crew.

The question was, “Why Philadelphia?” And this time, the mayor didn’t stutter. He talked about the city’s affordability and livability, its dedication to urban issues, the new bikeshare, etc. Then the camera guy undid Kenney’s microphone and the mayor and his entourage hurried out.

The interaction mirrored Kenney’s speech at the event, which he began by stiffly reading from a script about the city’s investments in technology but finished by addressing the crowd with ease, thanking them for their “faith in Philadelphia” and encouraging them to work to make sure that the tech scene’s riches reach beyond Center City.

The tech sector is not Kenney’s wheelhouse. During his keynote interview at Technical.ly’s civic innovation conference Rise, he described the tech scene as the “exciting, fun part of the economy,” with a touch of remove, the way your uncle might describe Twitter. His economic development strategy focuses more on manufacturing and Philadelphia’s ports. This is a man who knows shipping logistics. He hired Harold Epps as commerce director, who’s said he wants to revitalize commercial corridors in poverty-stricken neighborhoods.

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And yet, we’ve seen Kenney’s repeated willingness to engage with the tech scene.

It’s true that Kenney was more comfortable speaking about ports than software at Rise, but we should point out the fact that he even agreed to keynote a civic tech conference in the first place. Same goes for the Tomorrow Tour kickoff, the angel investor event, the sustainability hackathon. (He later told us that the hackathon went completely over his head.) He shows up, he told us in an interview, because “part of being mayor is about being enthusiastic about all the possibilities.”

It reminds us of Michael Nutter in that way — Nutter’s place as a champion of the tech scene was largely based on him showing up. That’s not to undermine his administration’s efforts like the StartUp PHL seed fund and grant program, but we always felt like it was Nutter showing up (and cracking a dry joke) at the Philly Startup Leaders Entrepreneur Expo or a startup ribbon cutting that really solidified his role as a tech booster. Time is valuable. Nutter offered his to the tech scene. Kenney seems to be doing the same. Should we be surprised?

(Photo by Juliana Reyes)

“I want to thank you for your faith in Philadelphia,” said Mayor Kenney. (Photo by Juliana Reyes)

We’ll note that what Kenney does seem comfortable talking about is pushing the tech scene to create opportunities for the rest of Philadelphia. And that’s an important push the tech scene needs to hear.

We’ll be interested to see if that plays into any Kenney administration policies or if local technologists use Kenney’s call to action as a way to engage his office.

For now, we’ll enjoy watching Kenney squirm a little under the tech scene’s microscope. (For the record, the audience yesterday seemed to love him.) You’ve gotta give the guy some credit for venturing into unfamiliar territory. He could have just as easily dismissed the tech scene as a Nutter pet project. Or, has the tech scene grown so powerful that Kenney had no choice but to engage it?

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Juliana Reyes

Juliana Reyes became Technical.ly's associate editor after reporting on the Philadelphia tech scene for four years. She's co-president of the Asian American Journalists Association Philadelphia chapter and a two-time Philadelphia News Award winner for "Community Reporting of the Year." The Bryn Mawr College grad lives in West Philly, likes her food spicy and wears jumpsuits often.

  • Mike Krupit

    “Showing up” isn’t going to cut it anymore. The photo opps and words of encouragement didn’t move the needle much, nor has StartupPHL (yet). Nor is this Generocity – we’re not going to survive by using our limited resources and talent to help the rest of the city. Let the City of Philadelphia help the startup community grow and thrive by bringing capital and more talent to the city – creating opportunities for us – and only then are we in a good position to effectively create for others.

  • http://zivtech.com Alex Urevick-Ackelsberg

    Disclaimer: I was and am a huge Kenney fan. Sure, he tried to sue twitter for “flash mobs” (which somehow existed when I was jumped multiple times in grade/high school in the early 90s), but he’s a genuine leader who is the perfect embodiment of a fundamental shift in the social fabric of Philly (compare him, for example, to the last white south Philly mayor, Mr “I’ll make Attila the Hun look like a…” google it). So, I’m a bit of a fanboy, but I’m happy to tell him (or anyone else) when they’re being, to use his term for the previous mayor, a D**khead.

    Anyhoo… I believe most people in the tech scene are here first for the City, so I don’t really know what Kenney could do to make people think he’s engaging the startup scene, outside of focusing on the issues that concern the startup tech community. And what are those issues? Well, here’s the wall of “filtered” ideas that was generated by the PSL (I think?) led political brainstorming session that occurred before the election: https://files.slack.com/files-pri/T03C34VSY-F03P61JVB/2015-02-19_19.43.32.jpg

    Here are the top issues identified during that session:
    1 Tax incentives & fixes
    2 Better schools
    3 Attracting talent, capital, and businesses to Philly
    4 Communicating with the business community in Philly, including visibility and engagement from city officials
    5 Improving the city’s systems and services
    6 Encouraging more commercial development (my recollection was that it was specifically outside of center city, but that’s not what I wrote on the summary sticky)
    7 Retaining people from the Nutter Administration who had been successfully engaging the startup community (like Archna Sahay, Tim Wisniewski, and Rebecca Lopez-Kris, to name a few), and continuing on with Startup PHL
    8 “Encouraging” UPenn (and other schools) to engage more with the business community and the city on the whole

    So which of these items do those who feel Kenney is in an awkward stance with the startup scene feel that he is not addressing? I’m guessing the first one is not a top priority, but 2-8 seem to be priorities, no? Maybe 6 isn’t exactly what startup folks wanted? So… what am I missing? Where’s the beef?

    • Mike Krupit

      Productive, Alex. Thanks. My two cents? #3, which means some of #4 and #2 (ouch, super hard, lots of $). And maybe also figure out how VisitPhilly’s success can be used to boost our business image, not just for tourism; our economic development for the region hasn’t really helped tech. And then there’s SEPTA (#5?), but another one that requires mega-$ to do right. And I’d also add to the list reducing the city’s cronyism and corruption, though wonder if Kenney is the right guy for that, which might help schools, transportation, PPA, etc…

      • http://zivtech.com Alex Urevick-Ackelsberg

        “schools, transportation[SEPTA], PPA” What are three vital services that the city of Philadelphia doesn’t have much-to-any control over? Seriously though, the mayor does have some sway, but not as much as he should or that many people believe he does.

        I think cronyism and corruption is under 5, and I think he’d like to tackle that. For example, when I first met Mayor Kenney he was touting 3-1-1, and one of his big reasons was that he felt it was wrong that people had to go “kiss the ring” of their local council person, as opposed to just reporting an issue and having it dealt with in a sane amount of time. I think you’ll find that Kenney is eminently fair, and extremely empathetic, so if you have a case to make about how something is corrupt and needs changing, I’m sure his ears are open.

        Now, how can we wrest control of our key city services from the gerrymander-elected, almost certainly racist, PA House and Senate? That’s going to take a lot of work, and probably won’t happen until the next census. That will happen, with a strong Dem majority on the PASC it’s just a matter of time, but unfortunately it may be after Kenney’s term.

  • http://southjerseyist.wordpress.com thegreengrass

    I wonder what he could do to alleviate the problem that I *think* still keeps Twitters and Facebooks and the like from starting and staying here, which is venture capital. That’s still the major problem in the tech scene, right? I’ve read several articles over the past several years that the city’s taxes, while really disadvantageous for it, don’t really stop companies who want to be here from being here. Could the mayor use his willingness to engage with tech to work on the issues that pulls people and companies away?

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