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How to build better innovation ecosystems: 10 key takeaways from the 2024 Builders Conference

The conference drew hundreds to Philadelphia in early May to discuss startup growth, entrepreneurship support and workforce development.

Founders Adeola Ajani of FemEquity and Nikisha Bailey of CoffeePLUG discuss product-market fit at a fishbowl session at the 2024 Builders Conference (Danya Henninger/
Lean into neighborhood vibrancy. Make apprenticeship programs welcoming. Cultivate in-person connections. Celebrate online community. Define your audience. Be able to tell your story. A/B test!

These themes and more emerged as hundreds from around the country gathered in Philadelphia on May 9 at the Builders Conference to discuss startup growth, entrepreneurship support, workforce development and other factors in building better innovation economies.

Sessions throughout the day explored the forces powering regional innovation and encouraged common ground in the name of progress.

“Don’t ask people why they believe something,” CEO Chris Wink said in his keynote speech. “That puts them on the defensive. Ask them how they came to that belief.”

Commonalities aren’t easy to come by in our age of self-directed media. Back in 1969, nearly 1 in 5 humans alive stopped what they were doing to watch the moon landing, Wink said. He noted an often overlooked milestone from that historic event: 

The lunar landing is when the term “software engineer” was coined.  

Credit Margaret Hamilton, a coder whose work helped the various machinery in the Apollo 11 rocket “talk” to one another, Wink said. That software would eventually save the day, opening a way to conserve enough fuel so Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin could take their module down to the surface and still have gas to fly the 250,000 million miles back home.

Panel of five individuals seated on a stage at Philly Tech Week, engaged in discussion with a large screen displaying event details in the background.

Chris Wink leads the opening panel discussion at the 2024 Builders Conference (Danya Henninger/

Before that proof of concept, software was seen as administrative, Wink said. It was considered women’s work, more “bookkeeping” than “world building.” Hamilton’s term proved prescient, though, as software evolved into the backbone of what most of us call modern technology. 

The tale served to set the stage for three themes Wink presented for the conference: 1) Once something becomes familiar it’s no longer technology; 2) Entrepreneurs need housing more than tax policy; and 3) How you work will determine who will work. 

A panel discussion followed, kicking off a day of case studies and story sharing, workshops and networking, food and drink, learning and fun. 

Scroll down for takeaways from each session, as documented on Slack by the team, and click through to read detailed recaps. 

There’s a mismatch between economic data (it’s almost all positive) and sentiment (ugh life sucks)

Keynote Panel: The future of innovation ecosystems: What has changed, and where are we going?
Theresa Singleton, Federal Reserve Bank; Laura Plunkett, Comcast LIFT Labs; Troy Lemaile-Stovall, TEDCO; Kyle Samuels, Creative Talent Endeavors; facilitated by Christopher Wink,

  • Despite positive economic indicators like increased entrepreneurship and rising wages, there is a disconnect between these stats and people’s lived experiences. Leaders should to better understand and address this disparity.
  • Many people are increasingly prioritizing work-life balance and quality of life over higher salaries, so regional boosters and company leaders should focus on these factors if they want to attract talent.
  • Generative AI is becoming a fundamental tool across sectors, so facilitating its adoption without creating barriers can be a game changer.
  • There’s a significant opportunity to strengthen the tech workforce by investing in apprenticeships and supporting recent immigrants and returning citizens.

Read more details from this session here.

To hone your product, talk to as many people as you can, and remember that ‘what matters is the user’

Startup Fishbowl: Product-market fit
Adeola Ajani, FemEquity; Nikisha Bailey, CoffeePLUG; facilitated by Danya Henninger,

  • Founders often identify market gaps through personal experiences and then tailor their products to address those specific needs
  • Startup founders can tap into strategic partnerships to help educate their target audience, which is often crucial to creating and growing a customer base.
  • Prioritizing user experience over worrying about competitors and continuously testing and adjusting pricing strategies are crucial.

Read more details from this session here.

The VC reset lets ‘quality deals’ shine, and it’s even more important for founders to ‘be kind to people’

Keynote Panel: Cheap money is over: What changes, and what doesn’t, about entrepreneurship?
Bob Moore, Crossbeam; Nasir Qadree, Zeal Capital Partners; McKeever “Mac” Conwell, RareBreed Ventures; Crystal Berger, EBO; facilitated by Sherrod Davis, EcoMap Technologies. 

  • The recent shift in the venture capital landscape, where investments don’t flow as easily, can be viewed positively because it forces a focus on “quality deals.”
  • Entrepreneurs now must prioritize profitability and sustainability over aggressive growth, which encourages a focus on goals and purpose instead of just trying to get bigger.
  • Building strong relationships are even more key to long-term entrepreneurial success: “Be kind to people.”

Read more details from this session here.

To increase employee engagement, learn the ‘art of intentional gathering’ and let people feel safe to be creative

Lightning Talks: What employee engagement strategies are working right now?
Hannah Marks, Discord (formerly); Gabby Harvilla, Comcast; Lakia Elam, MDC; Alyssa Vasquez, Cultured Enuf; Barry Wright III, Highwire Improv and Noom; facilitated by Carrie Brooke,

  • Leaders should focus on educating and caring for their staff, ensuring directives are genuinely connected to on-the-ground realities.
  • Creating an atmosphere of psychological safety is crucial for employee engagement, allowing for creativity and honest communication.
  • Managers should clearly define and communicate the purpose of meetings to ensure they align with the company’s mission and allow for organic interactions.

Read more details from this session here.

To build an inclusive innovation ecosystem, seek partnerships, improve quality of live, and practice ‘relentless incrementalism’

Keynote Panel: What does inclusive ecosystem building mean in practice?
Maria Underwood, Birmingham Bound; Charles Mansfield III, Pittsburgh Innovation District; Danae Mobley, 1Philadelphia; facilitated by Kory Bailey, Upsurge Baltimore

  • Successful ecosystem development focuses on quality of life and integrating founders into the community, ensuring they feel valued and see themselves as integral parts of the local innovation landscape.
  • Building inclusive ecosystems requires tracking data and embracing gradual progress (aka “relentless incrementalism”).
  • Forming strategic partnerships can avoid duplication of efforts and maximize resources.
  • Diversifying the innovation economy can help achieve overall digital equity and strengthen youth career pipelines throughout a region.

Read more details from this session here.

Will AI change the job market for better or worse? It’s all in how we use it: ‘AI, good. AI plus humans, bad’

Lightning talks: Is artificial intelligence a threat or just another technology?
Andrew Gamino-Cheong, Trustible; Kimberly W. Klayman, Ballard Spahr; Munir Y. Mandviwalla, Temple University; Tito Obaisi, Comcast; facilitated by Alanah Nichole Davis,

  • The effect of AI on the labor market will likely depend on how well firms organize their practices and data. 
  • Generative AI won’t necessarily be bad for the workforce, but it depends how people use it: “AI, good. AI plus humans, [possibly] bad.”
  • To be legally safe, companies should quickly update customer contracts to reflect and account for potential AI usage.

Read more details from this session here.

Fundraising is harder now, founders say, so ‘be able to tell a story’

Startup Fishbowl: Fundraising
Yasmine Mustafa, ROAR; Amit Singh, NearStar Fusion; facilitated by Mike Ravenscroft, USM Maryland Momentum Fund

  • Raising money has become more difficult as investors are more selective and demanding, requiring founders to present compelling pitches and proof of potential success.
  • Maintaining investor relationships is a balancing act; efficient communication like monthly updates can keep investors informed without taking up too much time.
  • Engaging with the entrepreneurial community and joining peer groups can provide valuable support and insights.

Read more details from this session here.

Apprenticeship programs not only change lives, they strengthen the workforce companies need to thrive

Keynote Panel: What is working in alternative pipelines for tech workforce?
Jameel Rush, Google; Nicole Pumphrey, Greater Philadelphia Chamber of Commerce; Karen Douglas, Exelon; Dominique McPhaul, Accenture; facilitated by Haniyyah Sharpe-Brown, Accenture

  • Breaking the cycle of companies recruiting from the same talent pool is essential. Innovative programs and early interventions are necessary to bring new, diverse talent into the tech workforce.
  • Alternative tech workforce pipelines, like the Philadelphia Apprentice Network, can significantly change lives by providing support, autonomy, and financial stability.
  • Fair measurement practices ensure equal opportunities for all participants, fostering inclusive cultures where diverse talents can thrive.

Read more details from this session here.

To become a ‘cool tech hub,’ regional leaders can lean into strengths, embrace former weaknesses and bring people together

Lightning Talks: How do innovation ecosystems talk about their strengths, and adapt to their weaknesses?
Deontee Gordon, Tech Birmingham; Zakiyyah Ali, Tech Council of Delaware; Tasia Malakasis, The Company Lab (CO.LAB); Ryan Touhill, Arlington Economic Development; Nick Smith, Sailes AI; facilitated by Nathan Ryan, Blue Sky Partners.

  • Identifying and leveraging unique regional characteristics can differentiate and strengthen local tech ecosystems.
  • It’s important to honestly evaluate local strengths and weaknesses. Comparative data analysis with peer regions can help guide growth strategies.
  • Encouraging the creation of accelerators that nurture startups and foster innovation through collaborative problem-solving are key to a strong ecosystem.

Read more details from this session here.

For a startup, word of mouth can be just as useful as traditional marketing, but tracking metrics is still important

Startup Fishbowl: Sales and marketing
Amit Jain, MentoMind; Colin Fraser, Upling; Nic Esposito, Circa Tech — facilitated by Danya Henninger,

  • Engaging directly with potential users and educators can help startups refine their products and build a loyal customer base.
  • Not only are personal interactions and feedback crucial for evolving a company, but word of mouth can be more effective than traditional marketing.
  • Tailored marketing efforts, either in-house or through specialized firms, that track user acquisition costs and other metrics are critical to effectively reach the target audience.

Read more details from this session here.

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