The organizers of the inaugural NorthStar Conference, created to convene Black and Latinx tech entrepreneurs and innovators for workshops, talks and connections, say they don’t think another conference is on the horizon this year.
Plans for the event, held last fall, were announced after Mayor Jim Kenney returned from South by Southwest in 2017 disappointed at that conference’s lack of diversity.
A year and a half later, NorthStar came together at the hands of stakeholders ranging from government agencies like Philadelphia’s Department of Commerce to nonprofits like Philly Startup Leaders. Serving as co-organizer was Black and Brown Founders, started by Philly native Aniyia Williams, who moved to San Francisco in 2011.
The conference hosted speakers, workshops and panels over three days in early October 2018.
“The event is not necessarily about diversity but about how to reduce inequities,” Williams told Technical.ly last year. “Our demographics are changing rapidly and people who are growing the most in size are not the people who are getting expanded opportunities to keep up with living expenses. Being employed in the innovation economy is a great tool to change that reality.”
The City noted “continuing Project NorthStar” as an action item on the “Growing with Equity: Philadelphia’s Vision for Inclusive Growth” report from May 2019.
But key players say they don’t see another conference happening in 2019.
Williams and Philly bizdev director Francisco Garcia said last week that as Project NorthStar continues, they’re focusing efforts and resources in ways they say will make a more direct, tangible impact for local founders.
Garcia said the “number one challenge” the City faces is that the Department of Commerce does not have the capacity to plan annual events on this scale, and Williams agreed, saying the conference wasn’t meant to be a final solution, but a tool in creating a “prototype for success.”
“We were really excited to breathe life into it and be able to pull it off, but I think that we would be not really doing our jobs well if we weren’t actually looking at the outcomes,” she said. “Philly will hold your feet to the fire. I’d hate to look up in a few years and see like, ‘Oh yeah, we had a run of incredible conferences, but still no one else is better off than when we started. They don’t have much more money in their pockets, they don’t have access to many more networks’ — and to me that defeats the entire purpose.”
So what do these new efforts look like?
For Black & Brown Founders, that means developing a Bootstrapping Bootcamp program that helps first-time founders get their prototypes launched and making money. Six of the businesses chosen for this round of the program are from the Philadelphia area, Williams said.
The City has set its sights on a grant program, The Venture Program, selecting 13 businesses and entrepreneurs from disadvantaged backgrounds who will receive between $5,000 and $25,000 to assist in their company’s growth.
Most of the inaugural awardees are past the idea phase and are small businesses looking for direction, or who need an extra financial boost, Garcia said. The companies are all technology-focused, but range in industry between professional services to tech hardware, healthcare and social media.
Attached to the grants will also be a mentorship program offering feedback, making connections for potential buyers, or inviting founders into networks that can help move their businesses along.
Both Williams and Garcia saw some benchmarks that would indicate these efforts are making lasting improvements on the founders they’re involving:
- Are these business owners paying themselves?
- Are they hiring people at market rate?
- Are they turning a profit?
“It turned out to be a super diverse crew,” Garcia said of the grantees, which are expected to be announced in a celebration later this summer.
André Davis, the founder of digital storytelling business Humble Genius, saw the North Star Conference as a way to welcome in Black and Brown innovators to an industry with a historically high barrier to entry.
Davis gave a talk at the NorthStar conference about believing in yourself and self-empowerment as an entrepreneur, and said he could see a lack of conference this year could be discouraging to folks who attended and got inspired.
He agrees with efforts to narrow focus and direction for some founders, but said there still needs to be a larger funnel to get people into the innovation space. He saw NorthStar do that last year, he said.
“It really gave me a room full of people who looked like me that believed in what they were doing,” Davis said. “It gave an opportunity to pour belief into people.”
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