AUSTIN, TX — You could fill a volume on how and when and whether an economic development case can be made at SXSW, the big and noisy annual conference bonanza in Austin. The tech-infused Interactive portion of the programming wraps up tomorrow.
What the #WeDC unit gets right is messaging. From the ostentatious activations adjacent to the Austin Convention Center of the past to this year’s takeover of 6th Street bake shop and beer garden Easy Tiger, the contingent coordinated by the Mayor’s office in conjunction with economic development group WDCEP puts dozens of residents and reps of The District in sync.
Judging from Sunday morning, they had no problem attracting people, and will tonight host an open-doors style party for more of them. Walk into any SXSW activation and you’ll find a heavy dose of people who are looking mostly for free food and drinks. That’s true in the bake shop activation, swarmed with D.C. branding and swag, but this reporter also found genuine city lovers from around the world who tour city houses hoping to learn more about a place.
If they wanted to meet genuine D.C. boosters, they were in the right place. And their message was, if nothing else, consistent. Of the D.C. residents I caught up with, there were plenty of familiar faces, including sanctioned D.C. ambassadors.
When this reporter asked, I heard a familiar (and recurring) theme: D.C. has gone beyond a government town and is leveraging its international residents to vie for the inclusive innovation crown.
“This is where we can tell that story,” WDCEP Director of Programs Tiffany Thacker said in the busy hallway that spilled out to a back patio where POLITICO was hosting a government insider event. Naturally, a program like that attracted conference attendees from around the country. I spoke to a couple from Alabama and another from Arizona.
Here are others they could have met, and why they were representing D.C.
Ruth Chandler Cook, founder of HireHer
“D.C. is one of the most inclusive cities in the country, particularly for women, and I’m one of those women founders in tech. I want to tell others it can be done here,” said Cook, the friendly D.C. native founder behind a diverse talent acquisition app.
She was there to meet and network with conference attendees, including other DC area conference goers.
Ryan Croft, TransitScreen COO
“We are a good representation of a D.C. tech company that started, cultivated and grown in the District. This is a platform the mayor and the deputy mayor and the mayor’s office created for us, and we want to use it and make sure other people know about it,” Croft said. He’s also a cofounder of the startup that supports displays of transit times, delays and schedules for, say, offices.
He mentioned specifically the value of showing D.C.’s strengths in mobility-related companies, like his own company and the District’s move to explore bikeshare expansion. I found him catching up with Ryan Foutty. He’s the local business development director of ofo, the Chinese dockless bicycle sharing program giant that’s one of five companies currently piloting in the District.
Meghan Malik, Design Foundry event designer
“It’s a great way to showcase what we do. D.C. is different, with lot of diversity as it pertains to tech companies,” said Malik, of the Maryland-based custom build and design shop.
D.C. holds her heart but she travels throughout SXSW to see event activations – “I find inspiration.” She was part of three activations, including the #WeDC house itself, a maze on South Congress and a Comcast pitch elevator in the Amplify Philly house. She noted she wants to see more collaboration across cities, including Mid-Atlantic ones like D.C. and Philly.
Of food brands like La Colombe and Honeygrow, she said: “I like Philly companies coming into the neighboring city because that’s a place where D.C. companies can expand, too. A little friendly competition can make us both better, but we can also work together.”
To stand out, D.C. must continue to lead with its inclusivity she said. “D.C. is known for women in tech, and I’m proud to be one of those women. I’m here because I want others to look to D.C. to find the same and look to deliver their tech from there.”
Joycelyn James, Office of Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development, Tech And Innovation Portfolio Manager
“We already are a place with inclusive innovation, and so a house like this is a play to show it,” she said. “There’s an economic development incentive for the city to open its doors to one of the world’s largest tech and innovation conferences and introduce attendees to the city’s founder network. Many of the early successes are done so the District needs to show it.”
It seems then that the steady stream of SXSW attendees walking busy 6th Street, not far from the convention center, represents that goal of sharing the inclusive, post-government-town message. It’s additionally a place for those D.C. tech ambassadors to invite and exchange. There are attendees from around the world, technologists, entrepreneurs, innovators and their admirers.
Like so much at SXSW, the opportunity and obstacle are both in reach.-30-