As Pittsburgh seeks to attract knowledge workers to help build startups toward future stages of growth, leaders are also thinking about retaining those who move in.
Kenny Chen fits the profile of the type of professional Pittsburgh is trying to keep. With several years working in roles to build the tech community, he became a kind of ambassador for the city and its growing stature in AI, both inside Pittsburgh and beyond. But as of the end of 2020, he’s been plying his connective skills from beyond.
Chen, the former innovation director at Bakery Square entrepreneurship hub Ascender and cofounder of the Partnership to Advance Responsible Technology (PART), left Pittsburgh at the end of 2020 for Boston to pursue graduate research and education at the Harvard Kennedy School and its Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.
Chen initially came to Pittsburgh in August 2014 to participate in the Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs. The Las Vegas native had stints in D.C., San Francisco, Taiwan and Haiti before moving to Pittsburgh. Even before he set foot on a plane from L.A. to fly to Pittsburgh in 2014, he found a “welcoming, neighborly, collaborative” environment among those boarding the plane. The first impression ended up being true to his experience.
The fellowship is the kind of program that helps introduce newcomers to a city, and he took on the task of getting acquainted with prolific precision, attending 10 events a week. Yes, that’s 500 in a year. He plugged into the tech community, and soon found a passion for building community around the advances in artificial intelligence taking place here.
During his time here, he founded PGH.AI—a platform to connect Pittsburgh’s artificial intelligence community—and helped produce the annual arts and innovation-focused Thrival Festival. He also briefly worked with the Western Pennsylvania Regional Data Center, and remains an ambassador for the IBM Watson AI XPrize and ANA Avatar XPrize competitions.
Between his professional and volunteer roles in the city, Chen felt like a representative of sorts for Pittsburgh’s tech and AI communities. He credits his team at Ascender for giving him the support to “contribute my time to the broader Pittsburgh entrepreneurial community outside of our formal programs, but then also to start taking on this kind of ambassadorial role on behalf of Pittsburgh,” he said. Chen would “travel to different conferences, or partner with some of the folks we’d be inviting for Thrival Festival, and see if we could build some stronger national, and sometimes even international, relationships to really help get Pittsburgh on the map.”
This type of community building is in part what motivated him to launch PGH.AI, which was “meant more as a grassroots, bottom-up approach to really spread the message and create a platform to let any Pittsburgher know that AI is much more of an accessible space than they might think,” he said. As Chen saw the city’s technology evolving towards advanced automation and robotics across multiple industries, he wanted to help create pathways for everyone to participate.
But after filling that ambassadorial role across both his professional and volunteer work, Chen started to think about going to graduate school.
“I definitely found myself hitting a ceiling of how my own background knowledge and qualifications could actually equip me to do a responsible job of informing decisions, strategy and policy on a city and sometimes even a state level,” he said. “I wasn’t ready to take the risks of speaking on things while being insufficiently informed.”
Working with the Pittsburgh startup and tech community, Chen learned how to navigate the city’s unique landscape, where there’s a limited number of growth companies compared to the volume of startups and Big Tech presence via engineering-focused offices of Google or Facebook. And while much of his work involved supporting early stage ideas and ventures, Chen wishes he’d seen more support of those mid-level growth companies.
“It’s the serial entrepreneurs and the companies of anywhere from 25 to 250 people that are on the growth trajectory and have gotten the millions to tens of millions of dollars in Series B through F funding that are doing so much of the hiring,” he said. “…But they don’t get nearly as much attention as the early stage startups do.”
Chen also noticed a common roadblock for entrepreneurs that seemed almost counterintuitive at first. The sense of community that he admired among startups and their local support systems sometimes stifled healthy competition between founders.
Pittsburgh has a friendly and welcoming nature towards entrepreneurs. But it also sometimes means that serious conversations about “what it even means to create a viable company,” from necessary funding thresholds to what a minimum viable product should look like, don’t come often enough, he said. And pitch competitions that allow for a potentially weak business idea to win “an endless stream of awards or small grants and other kinds of things can sometimes create the wrong incentives for people to continue down unsustainable paths,” he said.
Chen wants to see entrepreneurs pushing each other to be more competitive in their ideas and business plans, prioritizing constructive criticism over superficial praise as needed. He wants local investors to push founders more, too, asking hard questions that will help them better understand what’s required to raise large sums of funding.
But most of all, Chen wants to see Pittsburgh embrace its unique entrepreneurial spirit, from its new robotics and automation prowess, to the remnants of its former industrial economy.
“There seem to be these competing narratives around Pittsburgh as the technology and robotics hub that is going to rival Silicon Valley, while also clearly having scars from the post-industrial collapse and being out-competed sometimes by the Columbuses and Nashvilles of the world,” he said. Rather than modeling success on comparisons to these other innovation hubs, Pittsburgh should feel secure in both its strengths and weaknesses, he said, and “stop shying away from national or international forums that are really demanding the kind of expertise that’s captured in the city.”
"Stop shying away from national or international forums that are really demanding the kind of expertise that's captured in the city."
Still, Chen remains excited for Pittsburgh’s tech future, and namely about some new groups on the scene like Black Tech Nation and OneValley—”different efforts to really both strengthen the internal components of that machinery, but then also make sure that it’s well plugged in to other networks outside.”
He’s not sure if he’ll return to Pittsburgh after graduate school, mostly because his desired field of work—the overlap of technology and international relations with countries like China—isn’t as well established here, yet. In the meantime though, Chen hopes to keep supporting new local leaders from a distance.
“I’m definitely planning on making regular visits,” he said. “So Pittsburgh is not fully rid of me yet.”
Sophie Burkholder is a 2021-2022 corps member for Report for America, an initiative of The Groundtruth Project that pairs young journalists with local newsrooms. This position is supported by the Heinz Endowments. -30-