Friday Q&A: Kelly Lee, Innovation Philadelphia President & CEO - Philly


Sep. 11, 2009 1:40 pm

Friday Q&A: Kelly Lee, Innovation Philadelphia President & CEO

Updated 9/11/09, 2:15 p.m.: Clarified summit tracks, noted “no frills” package clarification, and updated Philly panelists. If it wasn’t for the first Global Creative Economy Convergence Summit in June 2006, Innovation Philadelphia may not have found it’s niche in the creative industries. President and CEO Kelly Lee says that it was the attendees of the […]

Updated 9/11/09, 2:15 p.m.: Clarified summit tracks, noted “no frills” package clarification, and updated Philly panelists.

If it wasn’t for the first Global Creative Economy Convergence Summit in June 2006, Innovation Philadelphia may not have found it’s niche in the creative industries.

President and CEO Kelly Lee says that it was the attendees of the inaugural event, hosted three years ago, who inspired the economic development organization to shift focus from the broad spectrum of technology-based businesses to creative one: art, design, web development, and others, in place of biotech and life sciences.

This year, Lee is spearheading the second of the summits, the well-marketed and polished 2009 Global Creative Economy Convergence Summit, which happens next month, October 5 to 6 at the Philadelphia Convention Center. [Full Disclosure: Technically Philly is a panelist for GCECS2009, “Creating a Culture of Entrepreneurial Journalism” on Oct. 6]

The summit focuses on economics, entrepreneurship, workforce, technologies and sustainability, five interdependent tracks that Lee says make up the creative economy and that cities and regions need to have a strategy for.

There are dozens of workshops, panels, roundtables and presentations that include innovators and leaders from across the globe and the Philly region, like keynotes from author Elizabeth Gilbert, entrepreneur Peter Shankman, game guru Jane McGonigal and global economic developer Randall Kempner.

From flyer to Web design, packed-schedule to text message update technology, there’s little doubt that the nonprofit has invested quite a bit in this year’s summit. The organization has even launched a series of glossy, high-def videos on the conference website this week that features local entrepreneurs and policy-makers who will attend. It certainly doesn’t appear that Innovation Philadelphia is taking GCECS2009 lightly.


But critics aren’t taking their words lightly, either, including high-profile members of our business and technology communities.

Lee, who’s been with Innovation Philadelphia since 2001, joined the org because she was interested in having a hand in shaping it. Before then, she worked as the regional director of economic and business development for PECO, which had a similar task of attracting businesses to the region.

But some question how much influence Innovation Philadelphia has had in doing that.

PhillyInc‘s Mike Armstrong, and more recently, IndyHall‘s Alex Hillman have criticized the organization’s impact. In May 2008 and on the precipice of losing funding, Armstrong said that if the group was cut off, he wouldn’t miss it. Hillman told readers of his blog yesterday why he declined to speak at the upcoming conference in a lengthy post on the issue.

Among other points, Hillman criticized the conference’s intentions, and it’s value to the community, comparing it with the workshops and events that are hosted at IndyHall and throughout the community for less cost. “When we, the grassroots, plan and execute an event,” he wrote, “we aren’t doing it to justify budget spending or even our existence.”

Criticism like that could be why the $225 face value has recently been supplemented with a $75 dollars “no frills” package that literally cuts the fat – attendees can skip meals and drinks but can attend all sessions and presentations for a third of the cost. That’s a lot of fat, given that the conference is charging $50-70 dollars for individual keynotes alone. There are also several free events that are completely open to the public, a networking mixer at National Mechanics, along with a Bloblive event and an “unconference” brown bag lunch, both at the Convention Center. A summit spokesperson says that the “no frills” package was planned, and not in response to the community.

Regardless of expectations, Lee has had a unique vantage point of the region’s creative industries as a member of Innovation Philadelphia’s executive staff since it launched in 2001. We spoke to her about the organization’s new focus, its accomplishments and its failures, the landscape of creative industries in the Philadelphia region, and what Philly brings to the table at this year’s Global Creative Economy Convergence Summit.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Kelly LeeWhat is Innovation Philadelphia’s mission today? How is it funded?

Innovation Philadelphia is a nonprofit organization that supports for-profit creative- and technology-driven economic growth in the Philadelphia region. We are funded by private sources through sponsorships and events, federal grants and then through private foundations. [In the past] we’ve received city funding, but we haven’t received any for the past three years. We have received grants from the state, but we don’t have a current grant with the State of Pennsylvania.

Since former-Mayor John Street helped shape the Innovation Philadelphia initiative, what is your relationship with the Nutter administration?

We have a very strong relationship with the current administration. We work closely with the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy. Our mission is very much in line with current administration’s goals and initiatives. We’ve worked closely with the commerce department providing them with information and statistics for for-profit industries. We work closely with City Council Blondell Reynolds Brown, Councilman Green’s office and the Division of Technology.

Can you tell us some of Innovation Philadelphia’s accomplishments?

We were the first to release any type of statistical data on creative industries in this region with a report in January 2008 called Creative Footprint [PDF]. Innovation Philadelphia has a creative economy investment fund that goes to local creative industry businesses in the region and those investments have done very well and we’re very proud of them. There wasn’t an alphabet soup, so we created the Entrepreneur’s Resource Guide. We created Philly Creative Jobs, the only regional website for creative industry professionals that also has freelance positions. We also provide numerous programs and workshops.

Who have you funded?

Vuzit, Brown Partners, we were the original funders of DreamIT Ventures, and there’s others that you can read about on our website.

What are some of Innovation Philadelphia’s failures?

When we started in 2001, the organization could have done a better job of taking a look at the region and seeing what programs existed prior to starting. Some programs were [duplicates] of others. When we wanted to change our focus [from broad technology industries specifically to creative industries], we really looked at where there was a gap, a strong industry sector that had great potential for growth but didn’t have strong leadership. We chose to focus on creative industries. One thing we continue to strive to do is ensure that if we are providing services to the entrepreneurial community, that these are services needed by the entrepreneurial community.

Is your focus on bringing businesses into the city or into the region?

We are a regional organization, so we focus on helping creative industry business to start and grow in the Philadelphia region. There are a lot of attributes in the city that creative professionals love: having arts and culture in the city, all of the options that come with living in the city. But one of the cool things about the region is that the city is very accessible.

What can policy-makers do to bring business into the city itself?

The City of Philadelphia can always do things to make it a more appealing climate and that’s a very important strategy to this current administration.

Are you seeing an uptick in interest in the organization given the state of the economy?

We’ve been really busy because there are a lot of people within the creative industries who have been layed off and are now starting their own businesses and trying to freelance. A lot of people in this sector are using that opportunity to go solo, and those that do have jobs are doing their own things on the side.

An interesting article in the Inquirer recently that said that folks ages 20 to 29 face the highest rate of unemployment aside from teens. There’s a 14 percent rate of unemployment in the Philly metro area. I would argue that that’s a huge obstacle to your core mission.

Grads have it really tough because they don’t have experience to get that first job. What’s happening in Philadelphia is probably being mirrored elsewhere, but our stats are probably not as bad as most major metropolitan areas.

Though the conference has a global focus, what is the Philadelphia region’s role in the event?

We’re excited to be planing a summit to showcase all this cool stuff happening in our own backyard. Anyone who comes will be surprised by how many tech professionals that we actually have in the Philadelphia region. There’s really amazing projects and initiatives in this city and in this region.

Anything specific that you’re excited about coming from Philadelphia?

There’s a panel on animation, “Baby Pixars,” pulled together by a local designer named Ian Cross about what’s next in animation. [The technology track] keynote speaker [Jane McGonigal] was from this region. There’s a music panel with Mike Worth, who’s doing it on music technology and game music. Marci Wagman of MAD Dragon [Update: Wagman has pulled out of the conference due to a scheduling issue]. Comcast, Drexel University, a lot of people that are local and regional are participating in these sessions.


Every Friday, Technically Philly brings an interview with a leader or innovator in Philadelphia’s technology community. See others here.

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