What we found at the swanky, invite-only Philly Tech Dinner - Technical.ly Philly

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Jul. 26, 2016 12:59 pm

What we found at the swanky, invite-only Philly Tech Dinner

Beyond the pasta from Zavino and the chilled white wine, what's the proper takeaway from an upscale gathering of the Philly-area tech scene?

At Philly Tech Dinner 2016.

(Photo by Roberto Torres)

Correction: This event was co-organized by Philly Startup Leaders, not StartUp PHL. The original version of this post cited text from an incorrect event invitation. (7/26/16, 4:13 p.m.)
Gladwyne, Pa., has to be the swankiest town this young reporter from Venezuela has ever been in.

See, last week I was invited to the fourth annual Philly Tech Dinner, a previously walled-off gathering of venture capitalists and Philly technologists which has, over the years, transitioned from a semi-secret get-together to an invite-only event for community members.

The annual dinner, organized by Bullpen Capital, First Round Capital, SeventySix Capital and Philly Startup Leaders, kicked off in 2013 as a private gathering of a few friends.

“We’re always running into each other on the Amtrak to NYC or at an SFO terminal before the redeye back to PHL,” the invite email read. “So it would be a good idea to pull together a great group of Philadelphia tech entrepreneurs and investors to spend some time together in our own city.”

Philly Tech Dinner 2016 was held at the suburban home of Wayne Kimmel, managing partner of SeventySix Capital, and that’s where I headed, unsure if it would be worth a writeup.

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On the way there, my Uber driver — whose name was Roberta, with an “a”— kept slowing down as we checked out some of the large estates on Conshohocken State Road.

“Wow,” she whispered in amazement as we passed by an old mansion with plenty of green, green grass around it. It’s obvious why Gladwyne landed itself a spot in a CNN Money list of America’s top-earning zip codes in 2014.

We pulled up to Kimmel’s house right behind a sleek, dark BMW. In front of it, a valet jumped behind the wheel of another sweet ride whose brand I didn’t even recognize.

“This is like a gathering of most of the people I’ve interviewed so far,” I thought as I made my way across the backyard, where some 50 familiar faces from the tech scene were already mingling.

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There was a drone hovering above the party.

Just a drone hovering above the party. (Photo by Roberto Torres)

I must have met a dozen new people that night, and bonded further with others I thought I already knew. That’s the thing about the suburbs. It makes you feel like everything slows down for a second and you finally have a chance to breath.

As the sun fell and drinks were had, the tech scene revealed itself more clearly with each passing hour. Aside from a full stomach, a dozen business cards and a bunch of story ideas, the evening left me with a few tech-scene findings that I will share with you now.

1. There’s a certain thirst for success, both personal and collective.

Over the past two months, as I’ve been making my way through the tech space, I’ve often noticed that people — generally — root for the success of others. The idea is simple enough: if one company makes it big, it’s good for the whole ecosystem. I saw evidence of this in the eager way in which some people would pitch me stories from other companies or individuals.

“They’re doing really wonderful work, you should check them out,” a founder said of two other companies. “Wait right here, I’ll introduce you.”

Tech entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are fully aware that Philly’s visibility and success is a tide that lifts all boat.

2. There’s a willingness to give back.

And based on the above realization, those who have made it — those dubbed as “real” by Technical.ly Associate Editor Juliana Reyes — always have a word of advice, encouragement or a connection of worth to offer to those starting out.

Like Guru CEO Rick Nucci, who at the gathering spoke to younger players in the tech scene, gave them honest advice, introduced them to others. Like him, plenty of others from both the venture capital and entrepreneurial side made connections for others and capitalized on the concentrated worth of that suburban backyard.

And the giving back part isn’t just about knowledge, nor is it restricted to the tech scene. The Philadelphia Youth Basketball project got a public shoutout and a $1,000 donation from Kimmel himself as the foundation starts fundraising to build a sports complex/community center in North Philly. (You can also donate to their campaign here.)

3. There are outsiders coming in.

I met more than a few newcomers from out of state trying to get settled in Philly, perhaps drawn by all the national hoopla.

Like the Hollywood producer who came to Philly for personal reasons and wound up staying to develop an app. Or the San Francisco founder who didn’t quite fit into Silicon Valley and came to Philly to give it a shot.

Look for them in upcoming installments of our Entrance Exam series.

4. There’s still a relatively small circle calling the shots.

But it’s growing. With companies pulling in outside capital, the playing field is evening out a bit with the Philly names in capital investment we have come to know so well.

5. There were people having fun.

We’ve heard all about the beer test as an indicator for good work synergy. If you can sit and have a beer with a person, odds are you’d like working or partnering with them. But how about the 10 beer test? Well, a lot of people passed it that night with flying colors.

The camaraderie and honest engagement with other players in the scene is a good indication that tech folk can get along. For the most part, people in the tech space enjoy each other’s company, and that’s a healthy sign.

6. There’s still a diversity challenge.

Yes, the majority of the guests at the party were white. And although that is a problem, because it’s a signal of reduced opportunities for minorities, lack of diversity is a structural problem, not an isolated one.

A cool thing, though? The issue of diversity is being talked about. An even cooler thing? Diverse members of prominence within the community have earned their spot, not thanks to condescension or tokenism, but through true value and hard work. And few things draw more inspiration than that.

7. There’s still a fear of failure.

As I got to talking with a tech scene member, I mentioned an upcoming interview with their boss, the CEO of a local startup which, for the time being, will go nameless. They asked me not to profile them just yet, as results would be “unimpressive.”

A few beers later, another community member made a mention of the dust kicked up by our recent piece on Real Food Works.

Starting a company means risk. It’s an inherent part of doing awesome work. But in order to get the next big acquisition, the next big successful company, we as a community must get more and more comfortable with the idea that sometimes, things just don’t work out.

The party went on past sun down.

The party went on past sundown. (Photo by Roberto Torres)

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If you’ve ever been to an tech event featuring Mayor Jim Kenney, you’ve heard him belt out his greatest hits on the tech community:

  • Startups in every neighborhood
  • Innovation as a symbol of Philly, instead of poverty
  • Job creation to spur economic growth

After a night of networking with people who have several more zeroes on their bank accounts than mine — which is by no means a great achievement — I went home and thought about the great expectations the tech scene faces.

By doing right, that small group of people who met in the wealthiest of suburbs, have the power to do a whole lot of good for the entire city.

And that’s no easy task.

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