(Photo by Flickr user Doc Searls, used under a Creative Commons license)
The Philadelphia tech community is mindful of inclusivity. Broadly speaking, its leaders know its own future is tied to the city’s as a whole. So, say a collective of community members to Philly’s next mayor, don’t misinterpret us as a fringe subgroup. We are part of your future, they say.
“The needs of the Philly tech and entrepreneurship community are not separate from the needs of the broader city,” said Tom Panzarella, the CEO of Love Park Robotics and an active technical meetup organizer in the city. For the young father, that means the perception of city public schools will largely determine where he builds his company — a well-cited and vitally important trend. So much is thriving in recent years in Philadelphia, but transformational change will only last if we “also change these larger systemic issues,” he said.
In November, Democratic mayoral candidate Jim Kenney will face off with Republican nominee Melissa Murray Bailey, a well-regarded business executive who nevertheless faces a steep incumbent voter registration challenge. Moreover, Kenney won a crowded Democratic primary in large part for his coalition building between Center City progressives and machine Democrats. Balancing those constituencies is no easy feat. So naturally there are concerns of whether he can continue the stewardship of a city transitioning from something resembling a family-run business trading regionally to a publicly-traded company competing globally.
"Our tech community is good for Philadelphia, not just for the tech community."
If the tech community is eager to be seen as being in a city with a worldwide reputation, nerves with Kenney aren’t helped by the fact that this community appears to generally approve of current mayor Michael Nutter, who has solid citywide approval ratings after a bumpy ride early on.
So what message does the Philadelphia tech community want to get to the next mayor?
That was the setup for the latest Technical.ly Philly stakeholder meeting at which Panzarella and two dozen other tech community leaders came together to share perspective. In these semi-regular gatherings, a diverse array of perspectives are brought together and challenged to form consensus.
This community has already made its priorities clear — by hosting during Philly Tech Week one of the Democratic primary’s largest mayoral forums (attendees said Kenney was the most impressive) and launching a mayoral candidate questionnaire on tech issues.
And so there is a healthy existing list of those priorities — like advancing, not stalling, on open data releases — but there still remains a line of communication worth developing.
“Our tech community is good for Philadelphia, not just for the tech community,” said Mjumbe Poe, now in Nutter’s IT department since May but better known locally as a leading civic hacker for hire. “The next mayor needs to know that our tech community is not like the one you might read about in Silicon Valley or even the one growing up in New York.”
He added: “People choose to be here for very different reasons,” hinting at the tech gentrification that is not happening here like it is in the country’s best known tech hubs.
"We can't let old rules mandate how we operate."
Kenney’s camp may be feeling out this community — he toured design agency Bluecadet’s Fishtown offices not long after winning the nomination. Like other nascent Philly tech hubs, the Frankford Avenue commercial corridor is changing quickly, and so many involved in last week’s conversation highlighted that more of Philadelphia need to benefit in this fast-changing economy.
“We have this growing, broad-based coalition, from the small-time entrepreneur and part-time coder all the way through the corporate giants,” said Lauren Gilchrist, a data scientist who works for real estate firm Jones Lang Lasalle (JLL). “A mayor can help support that coalition to impact the next generation of Philadelphia.”
So what does that look like?
“We can’t let old rules mandate how we operate,” said Kristen Fitch, a University City Science Center marketing manager who is active in the city’s creative circles. That means Kenney, or whomever is the next mayor, must continue that coalition building by respecting what has been without ignoring the surging of what is new. Bring these groups into your fold. Welcome what is new.
Youth programming nonprofit Coded by Kids is building new pipelines between underserved neighborhoods and this new Philadelphia, said founder Sylvester Mobley, also citing TechGirlz, which does similar work for young girls in the region. The Science Center’s STEM-focused FirstHand also has success stories, added Fitch.
"We need more support for those places where technology is exposed to more people by simply making it accessible."
They all are bridging relationships between old Philly and new in a way that more established and familiar workforce development efforts like the Metropolitan Career Center might not yet, said one.
In all cases though, the successes are often self-selecting. There are only so many 11-year-old public school coding champions.
So wider exposure matters. Several cited the annual large outdoor kickoff events for Philly Tech Week that show thousands of Philadelphians not already active in the community that there are locally-built games, apps and software.
“We need more support for those places where technology is exposed to more people by simply making it accessible,” said Kristin Dudley, the Comcast recruiter who is researching entrepreneurial qualities for her thesis at Penn. “Celebrate not just the present, not just our past, but also our future.”
That mission work is vital but ultimately, to sustain a tech business community, that community needs to compete on a global scale and be known for it. So entrepreneurs, get to work. Then, the mayor should continue to follow these successes in the way that Nutter and his team has — be it office openings or funding through StartUp PHL.
“We can use existing success stories to promote the city,” said ArcWeb CEO Chris Cera, a founder of Philly Startup Leaders. Any mayor in 2016 should be able to rattle off the names of fast growing tech firms in her city, he said. Rakia Reynolds, the fashionable networker and president of PR firm Skai Blue Media, offered her push that that messaging needs to land in publications that cater to a national business community.
“But let’s also keep it in the family when we can,” said the trucker hat-adorned Napoleon Suarez, the founder of on-demand delivery startup Fishbox. Regional purchasing power helps lift early-stage companies, he said. Likewise, mayors can prioritize local tech purchasing and a community can continue pushing each other to use local services when possible.
Throughout the night — lifted by beer, wine, a spread of buffalo chicken sandwiches and cloudless views — the theme was that the next mayor must understand that the tech community is far more integrated and influential than one might know from afar. It’s an engine for future employment, an attractant for new talent and, as software eats the world and finds its place in all businesses, IT won’t be seen as a sector but as a necessary and far-flung workforce.
“As we think about our influence, we should ask what constitutes it as being integrated,” said Brigitte Daniel, the executive of regional niche telecom company Wilco Cable and startup scene go-getter with a soft spot for access issues. “It’s not just tech skills for people in Philadelphia or tech jobs for people new here. We have the capacity to have both for all.”
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