Joan Soskin got her start in tech in Cleveland.
The Minnesota native and Duke grad went to Ohio for an industrial supply company’s management program but ended up cofounding a startup instead, under the mentorship of the cofounders of Cleveland accelerator Flashstarts. Her five-person company, Lufthouse, developed a proximity-based technology for museums and tradeshows using iBeacon and Bluetooth.
“We were both infected by the spirit of entrepreneurship here in Cleveland,” said Soskin and her cofounder Lauren Wyeth in an interview last year.
Now, Soskin, 26, is bringing her startup know-how to another emerging tech scene: Philly. She just moved to Logan Square this summer.
In her Entrance Exam, we spoke with her about how she chose Philly, what we can steal from Cleveland’s tech scene and how she got interested in computer science. Find a lightly edited transcript of the interview, conducted via Gchat, below.
What brought you to Philly?
The short answer is that I moved here because my fiancee just started his MBA program at Wharton, but we were actually pretty intentional in choosing a program and city as a package deal. So the academic side of things was one part of the equation, but in part we picked it because we wanted to be in Philly.
So I visited a couple of times and did a lot of asking around, but it was really Philly Tech Week that sealed the deal for me.
In part, we were drawn to the size — we’ve both lived in bigger cities, but we were coming from Cleveland and didn’t want to give up the quality of life side. But for me it was a big career question. Back in Cleveland, I was running a startup under the umbrella of a tech accelerator, and it was important to me to move somewhere that had a strong tech community.
So I visited a couple of times and did a lot of asking around, but it was really Philly Tech Week that sealed the deal for me. I came out here for the whole week knowing nobody, stayed in a part of town I’d never seen, and had a great time while learning a ton.
Was there a specific event you liked or remember from PTW?
I thought that, generally, the events were organized and well-run, but more importantly they were filled with people who were eager to share their interesting and varied work with an outsider. That did it for me. Specifically, I really enjoyed Dev Day. Cleveland has a budding tech/startup scene, but the two are really entwined. It was refreshing to see innovation discussed from such a broad range of perspectives.
What do you mean by the “two are entwined”? Like the tech scene and the startup scene? Meaning that in Philly, you feel like it’s different?
Exactly. There’s a great organization in Cleveland called TechPint that does a great job of bringing together tech startups in the area, and those typically come with developers or tech-minded people. But it creates a different dynamic, I think, when the focus is entirely on early-stage innovation. It leaves out a lot.
From what I saw at Tech Week and what I’ve seen since, there’s a separation of tech from tech startups that leaves room for innovation at mid-size to larger companies, and it just creates a more holistic view of what tech innovation looks like in the city.
As a startup, it’s important to showcase your strength, and I think the same is true of the city as a whole.
Tell us a little more about the Cleveland tech scene.
I mentioned that tech in Cleveland is closely tied with the startup scene, and that’s true, but there’s also a sense that the term “startup” means something different than it does in other parts of the country. One version of entrepreneurship is trendy right now, but Cleveland — like Philadelphia — has a rich industrial history and a strong healthcare sector. As a startup, it’s important to showcase your strength, and I think the same is true of the city as a whole.
Will you be running your startup from Philly?
No. The concept has great traction back in Cleveland with the accelerator I worked with, but I decided to move on and the company has shut down.
So you were running your startup and working for the accelerator you were in as well?
It was an unusual situation. Essentially, the accelerator hired my cofounder and me to start a company for them as an in-house project. So we were employees of the accelerator, but working as entrepreneurs to build a company.
Done well, I think the model has a lot of potential and have heard of a few larger corporations operating similar programs.
And how long were you in Cleveland?
About four years, on and off. I moved there originally for a rotational program in management at an industrial supply company, which was fascinating and not at all what I thought I’d do after college. Then I got really into learning how to code in my spare time and went off to New York for five months to join the web development immersive program at the Flatiron School before moving back to Cleveland.
What’s next for you here? In terms of work, that is.
I’m really just starting to look around now, so I’m not sure yet. Some people can articulate exactly what industry or function they want to be in, but I’m more flexible on that front. I’m more interested in finding a group of passionate people who build a really excellent product and moving from there. I have experience building web applications and managing teams, and I can do whichever one of those things is most useful.
One thing I’ve seen in Philadelphia that I’ve really admired is the community built around solving real, local problems by building solutions.
Anything strike you about Philly’s tech scene so far?
One thing I’ve seen in Philadelphia that I’ve really admired is the community built around solving real, local problems by building solutions. Your last interviewee mentioned the bike share app built by a group from Code for Philly. It’s a good thing I read the article because I was halfway through making one of my own!
I’ve also been pleasantly surprised that there seem to be so many groups to support women in tech (and to bring them in!). This is certainly not a local initiative, but one that can have enormous benefit locally at all levels. Growing up, I never considered computer science as a path of study — I preferred languages — and never saw the connection between creativity, linguistics, and code. Groups like Techgirlz can make such an impact just by introducing the thought into a young woman’s head, and it’s great to see so much strength behind those movements here in Philly. I’m excited to get involved.
Is there anything from Cleveland’s tech scene that you think Philly should adopt/take cues from?
Being such a newcomer here, it’s still hard for me to tell what’s missing, so it’s entirely possible that someone’s already doing this, but one thing that I really enjoyed in Cleveland were the regular micro-conferences hosted by the organization I mentioned earlier [TechPint]. A bit like Tech Week, but on a much smaller scale, after work or on a weekday. I think it’s a great way to bring the community together across functions with some regularity.
What’s an example of one? Like would it have a theme?
Sure, it could. The best ones had a few different components though. For example, one event was a pitch competition for ideas, startups, or inventions built from a hackathon, conducted like a game show for entertainment value. Then there were speakers and demos concurrently, so attendees could pick based on their interest. Not complicated, but enough fodder for conversation and a way to get groups to interact. I think that, combined with some tech representatives from more mature organizations or even the civic projects I’ve seen, this type of thing could make an interesting showcase for Philly tech. -30-