When we read that The Philadelphia Citizen, the news outfit backed by power-broker attorney Ajay Raju, took a bus full of young tech and social impact leaders to the annual Pennsylvania Society gala, we got to thinking about power and where those in power meet. Who’s allowed in and who’s kept out, and what that means.
Side note: If you haven’t heard of Pennsylvania Society, we’re not that surprised. At our recent civic tech conference, Rise, when Mayor-elect Jim Kenney announced he wasn’t attending this year’s gala (“It’s like Groundhog Day in a tuxedo,” he said), there was a quiet murmur and a hoot or two, but no real reaction. We’d venture a guess that’s because most people didn’t know the significance of Kenney’s comment.
Anyway, it’s basically a weekend-long, swanky New York City affair where Pennsylvania’s politicians and business people hobnob. (Philadelphia Daily News columnist John Baer, among others, has said that the event — and the millions of dollars it generates for NYC — should be moved to Philly. Unfortunately, his 2008 column about the issue is nowhere to be found online, except, somehow, excerpted on our cofounder Chris Wink’s blog.)
As The Citizen’s cofounder and editor, Larry Platt, put it: “Pennsylvania Society is a place for insiders to talk to insiders, make contacts, and get backroom deals in motion. Mostly, though, it’s the place where conventional wisdom gets formed.”
Comcast’s chief lobbyist David L. Cohen attends every year, according to Platt.
“He usually carries around a slip of paper listing every party—making it a point to appear at them all,” Platt wrote.
The price tag for the gala at the Waldorf-Astoria is $400 for members, $450 for non-members. Though anyone can attend the gala (if they can afford it, that is), the rest of the weekend is full of cocktail parties and fundraisers and, as Diann Coady of the PA Society told us, those are largely invite-only.
So, back to the tech scene, the Citizen’s “new guard party bus” and the media outfit’s PA Society “innovation invasion.”
On said bus: familiar faces like the city’s Archna Sahay, Philly Startup Leaders’ Yuval Yarden, BioBots cofounder Danny Cabrera, Coded by Kids’ Sylvester Mobley and ROAR for Good cofounder Yasmine Mustafa, among others.
“When we got to the Waldorf’s Bull & Bear saloon, an old-school, wood-paneled bar with Sinatra—a previous generation’s Jay-Z—crooning about the Summer Wind, we toasted to our newfound hashtag and mission: “To the #NewGuard!” Platt wrote.
At the happy hour the Citizen threw, DreamIt Ventures’ David Bookspan showed up, as did SeventySix Capital investor Wayne Kimmel. Comcast’s Cohen met the crew, too.
Platt was positively giddy.
Despite all the “downers,” like the fact that our state lawmakers are nearly six months late on passing a budget (Superintendent William Hite recently announced that the Philly schools will not be able to operate past January unless they do), Platt said he wasn’t feeling down.
“Perhaps because I was in the company of people who spent most of their time talking about education reform and investing in startups,” he wrote. “Instead of wringing my hands about our present, I found myself fantasizing about the future.”
But we’re not sure how to feel about the whole thing.
On the one hand, we like the intention behind it. PA Society, like the Union League and the insurance industry, is an institution that’s gate-kept. Sure, you can buy your ticket and put on a nice dress, but it’s different if you’re ushered in by someone who knows the drill, someone who can move around in that world with ease. That’s what Platt represented.
But does the tech scene even need the PA Society?
In a way, bringing a group of technologists to the gala sends the message that we buy into its importance. It’s not disrupting any old guard. It’s promoting them, playing right into the exclusive house they’ve built, when the message should actually be: Tear that shit down. (And could you maybe pass the budget so our schools can stay open?)
We’re not saying that technologists shouldn’t work with politicians. Efforts like the city’s StartUp PHL early-stage seed fund and the state’s Innovate in PA venture investment program have come from the tech scene working with government. What we object to is the exclusivity of the affair, which seems designed to ensure that those in power stay there.
We talked to some of the technologists that went and they all agreed that the bus ride to New York was great — they liked how it convened civic-minded, entrepreneurial Philadelphians. But when it came to the merits of PA Society itself, they disagreed.
Yarden, the young, ambitious Temple grad behind this year’s Philly Startup Leaders Founder Factory conference, told us she didn’t have any substantive conversations with anyone or meet anyone valuable, other than the other people on the bus, but it was still a fun experience.
— Yuval Yarden (@yyarden03) December 15, 2015
How’d the old guard react to party bus crew? Eh, they were kinda patronizing.
“Recently I’ve been finding myself around a lot of middle aged men that I don’t find very inspiring,” she wrote in an email. “I think their reaction to us being there was, ‘That’s cute!’ Being a woman millennial focused on innovation I think was just too much for them.”
And yet, Yarden didn’t feel turned off to the event at all. In fact, she felt inspired to shake it up.
“Dressing up and making the trip was lots of fun,” she said, “so I would definitely do it again but now that I have an idea of what we are working for, I really want to make a plan for how to disrupt this event and infuse a sense of energy and hope for the future of PA.”
Coded By Kids’ Mobley said he would definitely go back.
“I know that PA Society often gets a bad rep,” he wrote, “but it isn’t very often that you go to something where you have that many decision makers in one place in such a laid-back environment.”
But BioBots founder Cabrera called it “a waste of time for people trying to grow a business.”
“It’s one of these ‘networking’ events where people are just collecting business cards and drinking as much wine as they can in 2 hours,” he wrote in an email.
It also made us wonder what the tech scene equivalent is, if there is one.
There’s PACT’s IMPACT, the annual venture capital conference, whose gala will set you back $350 if you’re not a member. (They also hold an invite-only dinner for speakers, investors and sponsors.) PACT also hosts the Enterprise Awards ($400 per person). There are angel groups like the Keiretsu Forum and Robin Hood Ventures, which you can’t join unless you’re an accredited investor. There are private parties like the one investor Paul Martino throws during the summer at his house in Doylestown.
But for the most part, there isn’t anything in the Philly tech scene quite like the PA Society (let us know if we’re wrong about that). Don’t get us wrong, there’s still a lot of work to do around making the scene more inclusive.
But the gates aren’t kept under lock and key, whether intentionally or not: think of how anyone can join the Philly Startup Leaders listserv, how civic hacking group Code for Philly installed an executive director who makes it a point to welcome newcomers with open arms and how startup CEOs volunteer their time to teach entrepreneur bootcamps for fledgling founders. For the last five years, the ticket price of our biggest tech event of the year, the Philly Tech Week closing party, has never gone above $50, fwiw.
Even PACT is trying to make itself more accessible: they introduced $200 IMPACT conference tickets for entrepreneurs (that include the gala), added an early-stage track two years ago, worked to diversify their speaker lineup and for the first time ever, made IMPACT’s dress code business casual this year — something that PACT CEO Dean Miller said he’s been working on for years.
That eye toward a lack of exclusivity is something to be proud of, and something the tech scene needs to keep working on.