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These Midwest startup boosters think Philly needs to get louder about its wins

Lightship's weeklong Startup Train stopped in Philadelphia, where Brian Brackeen and Candice Matthews Brackeen met with ecosystem builders and founders to better understand their struggles and strengths.

Brian Brackeen (middle) poses with his parents and founders. (Photo by Sarah Huffman)
Full disclosure: Comcast is a Technical.ly Ecosystem Builder client. That relationship is unrelated to this report.
“What tough thing are you working on?”

That was the question Brian Brackeen, cofounder and investor in residence at the Lightship, asked founders at the startup-boosting organization’s Workflow Wednesday networking event hosted at Comcast’s LIFT Labs space this week.

Founders responded with questions about investors and funding, branding and attracting customers. The group was small, with only a handful of companies represented, but each founder received one-on-one time to talk through their challenges with Brackeen and his team as well as offer each other advice and resources.

“It’s really telling my brand story. That’s what I need to work on,” answered Toni Lorraine Johnson, founder of baked goods company, Dr. Brownies. “I’m truly thankful that I came out today because that has really helped me really think about, as I start to work on my website, what story do I want to tell immediately when you pop it open?”

Brackeen, a mission-minded entrepreneur and investor, said he doesn’t always host such intimate roundtable discussions like this at Workflow Wednesdays. But it’s a good strategy to get people to talk about what they actually need help with, “especially intimate groups because there’s too many platitudes and people aren’t giving the real answer, what you need to know, what to do next,” he told Technical.ly. “And that’s all founders want — ‘Just tell me, I’ll go do whatever, just tell me what to do.’ And so that style is based in that desire to help.”

Wednesday’s event was part of Lightship’s Startup Train, a tour that the organization is doing this week through five cities in the northeast — Providence, New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore and DC — to connect with startup ecosystem builders, meet entrepreneurs and host networking opportunities.

Founder sitting in a row listening to Brian Brackeen.

Founders explain their challenges to Brian Brackeen. (Photo by Sarah Huffman)

Philadelphia was both the third stop on the tour and Brackeen’s hometown. Even after moving away from the Chestnut Hill neighborhood, he continued to follow the entrepreneurship community in the region.

“What I find is that Philadelphia is much further along than it gives itself credit for and it’s constantly bashing itself for not being something else,” he said. “I think that we have a lack of support from our leaders. We’re actually getting a lot more done at the grassroots level, but I don’t see the kind of philanthropic organizations doing enough to spur on additional support.”

Philly’s strengths and weaknesses

Brackeen’s spouse, Candice Matthews Brackeen, who is the cofounder and CEO of Lightship, is from Ohio, but she’d heard plenty about the Philly entrepreneurship community from Brackeen.

Prior to the Workflow Wednesday meetup, she said, they spent the day at Comcast meeting different members of the local entrepreneurship ecosystem, learning about the challenges and successes in the region.

“Philadelphia has all the moving parts, has everything that it needs on the venture capital side. Philadelphia is actually ahead of Miami in the amount of investments that happen yearly, but you all aren’t necessarily using your megaphone to let people know,” she said, referring to another recently buzzy tech hub. “There’s a little bit of fragmentation and that’s not always bad, but just some more coordination around the choir singing together to be loud enough that the rest of the country realizes how great you all are doing here.”

For example, Matthews Brackeen said she visited the University City Science Center and learned about the opportunities that startup-boosting organization offers. She’s also a fan of 1Philadelphia, the inclusive tech talent pipeline project that gathers cross-sector partners to create opportunities for communities of color.

She wants to hear a lot more about similar orgs.

“How do we get more of the corporations on the same page, more of the philanthropic organizations on the same page?” she said. “I think that’s what it’s gonna take. And hopefully organizations like 1Philadelphia are that kind of main convener, to make things really continue to pop.”

Sarah Huffman is a 2022-2024 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 Lenfest Institute for Journalism.
Companies: Comcast

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