Before Philly Tech Week 2016 presented by Comcast started, I received an email from Juliana Reyes, Technical.ly Lead Reporter, who said, “I’m curious, how does the Chamber see tech?”
She was talking about one of the few suburban partners in Philly Tech Week: the Delaware County Chamber of Commerce. At the time I didn’t know either.
And I live here.
So I set out to get the answer. Considering that 2016 is only the second year of the Chamber’s participation, the past wasn’t too far gone; the answers just a handshake away (actually, I’m more of a hugger). For starters, I contacted my friend from the Delco Chamber, Jessica Hoffman.
Hoffman is the Senior Events Director, a position she took just over a year ago. She was recruited from her comfortable cubicle at the Franklin Mint by newly-appointed Chamber president, Trish McFarland, with the promise of a “work-life balance.” Hoffman was then a new mother.
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I found out that the story began when a joint venture was sparked in 2015 between then-Chamber Marketing and Events Manager, Suzanne Cody, and Managing Partners of Media, Pa., coworking space HeadRoom, Dan Lievens and John Tooher.
Cody wanted to get involved in niche markets. Because of her interest in creating a Chamber-sponsored event for Tech Week, she was given the go ahead by then-Chamber president Alex Charlton.
Cindi Sutera, HeadRoom spokeswoman, shared with me that, at the time, HeadRoom was getting ready to open its doors and met someone from Technical.ly Philly. Then they met Cody and the pieces came together. Since HeadRoom provides coworking and business strategy to small businesses and startups, the initial idea for a Tech Week event was to bring together people from Delaware County who had cool tech ideas.
That spawned a Shark Tank-like event offering the almost ten participants five minutes to pitch an original, unknown idea. Recruiting additional sponsor AT&T, the theme was “Suburban Innovation.” To draw attention to the event, the city shut down the streets around Veterans Square for an open-air forum where about 200 people congregated.
The only problem was attendees appeared to be more interested in networking than listening. That changed the intent for 2016.
Sutera said, “In the process of the service offered by HeadRoom, we’re in direct contact with the startup industry.” And with the Chamber having a sense of what’s happening in the community, they partnered again.
Plans were moving along nicely when, a few weeks before the start of Philly Tech Week 2016, Cody stepped down. That left Hoffman holding the bag on Philly Tech Week tasks. She instantly ran into a conflict when Comcast, the Philly Tech Week sponsor, aired its concern about sharing the bill with Delco Tech Week sponsor AT&T. At the last minute, everything was rebranded to represent the support of both companies.
Again adopting the theme “Suburban Innovation,” 14 events were scheduled from Friday to Friday, including a hackathon for girls at Delaware County Technical High School, a session on data management for nonprofits held at the Chamber and a mobile marketing event held at the Newtown Square Public Library. In retrospect, Hoffman believes this might have been overzealous. Every Chamber event during Tech Week was tagged as a Tech Week event even if it didn’t fit the mold.
Going forward, Hoffman says, “Only events that are relevant to Tech Week will be planned.” To ensure that quality presenters are guaranteed to return, she says, “As soon as the event is finished, we book it next year.”
The Startup Story Slam event that marked the inauguration of Delaware County into Tech Week was back for a second year. This one began with Corey Furlan, founding member of Sons of Ben — the grassroots disruptors responsible for bringing professional soccer to the Philadelphia region — sharing his story in the theme of “disruption.”
I caught up with Jim Wurster, a Startup Story Slam participant who was greeted the morning after like a celebrity. Wurster’s story about the disruption caused by the diagnosis of autism in his daughter was obviously memorable. The diagnosis prompted him to start a nonprofit that offers solutions for people with disabilities called New Avenue Foundation.
At the first Delco event I attended, I noticed that the three Chamber representatives were all easily under 30 years of age. Hoffman, one of them, explained that the goal is to “reach out to the younger generation.” Seems as though the solution to staying relevant in Delaware County is to recruit the generation that is familiar with tech. (Sutera has said the same.)
McFarland, the Chamber President whose eyes lit up when I asked if I could speak with her about Delco’s decision to participate in Philly Tech Week, is obviously a passionate leader.
“My job is to highlight businesses in Delco for the cool stuff they’re doing,” she said. “We’ll do this as long as Technical.ly Philly will have us.”