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Philly Tech Scene: How Diversity will Push it Past it’s Tipping Point

The Llenrock Blog will be covering WeWork’s monthly series “Future of Philly” in order to get a better grasp on the various industries which make Philadelphia the amazing city it is. While only one event is centered around Real Estate, we hope to analyze trends in the areas of tech, food, art and more to help us better understand the needs of the booming city.

When I heard about WeWork Philadelphia’s community event and panel “Tech: A Global Perspective for a Local Market,” I RSVP’d immediately.

The fact that the panel was all female was a complete accident, but it was still diverse in nature. The four speakers represented both the local Philly tech scene and the industry at large. Speakers included: Ellen Weber, Executive Director of Temple University Innovation and Entrepreneurship Institute, Tiffanie Stanard, Founder and CEO of technology and media company Stimulus, Danielle Cohn, Senior Director of Entrepreneurial Engagement at Comcast, and Stephanie Glenn, Vice President of SMB Sales at Salesforce. The mix allowed the panel to accurately explore trends at a global scale and apply them to a local market.

Panelists Danielle Cohn, Tiffanie Stanard, Stephanie Glenn and Ellen Weber with Anita Shannon, WeWork’s Philly Lead.

Philadelphia has long-relied on its Universities and Hospitals to help the city thrive. Today, people are banking on the city’s tech scene. “Philly has long been an Eds & Meds city,” Danielle Cohn commented, “it’s cool to see consumer goods gain traction.”

The four panelists praised Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney’s efforts to support the city’s startup scene. This includes creating resources for startups, tax credit incentives, and the StartupPHL which provides early stage investments to Philadelphia startups. Danielle Cohn also gave a huge shout-out to Archna Sahay, the City’s Director of Entrepreneurial Investment and Founder of the Female Founders Network.

While Philly’s tech scene is promising, some fear that it has reached its Tipping Point. After all, growth can only continue under a guide which makes the landscape easy to navigate – simplifying the process of finding and meeting with investors, fellow collaborators and so on. “It’s less about infrastructure and more about meaningful connections,” noted Stephanie Glenn.

Formerly Known as ‘New York’s Little Brother’ 

Located between New York City and the Nation’s Capital, the City of Brotherly Love often gets written off as the Big Apple’s little brother. But Philadelphian’s don’t see this as a negative. “The tight knit community of Philadelphia is a positive,” said Cohn, “it makes connections more attainable.”

However, unlike tech hubs such as Boston and San Francisco, the presence of VCs and competition – two key factors for startup growth – are lacking in Philly. This is a hurdle the city struggles to push past.

“It’s all about scaling beyond your size and utilizing available resources and technology before achieving full maturation,” commented Glenn. Universities and larger corporations like Microsoft are slowly adding start-up incubators and innovation centers around the city. Are these centers scaling the local industry’s full potential? Innovation centers, while a dominating force in University City, aren’t abundant enough to classify Philly as a “hub for innovation.” Not when compared to places like Boston, at least. This brings up a relevant project panelists failed to mention: Schuylkill Yards.

Building for the Future

In March 2016, a 14-acre master planned innovation development known as Schuylkill Yards was announced. The project, a partnership between Drexel University and Brandywine Realty Trust, is projected for a 20-year completion and will consist of 5 million SF of mixed-use real estate with a key emphasis on entrepreneurial spaces, research labs, cultural venues, residential and retail spaces and more. The lofty $3.5B venture is a long-term investment in not only city’s tech scene, but Philadelphia as a whole.

Image from Drexel University

“Inclusion is at the heart of this project,” commented Drexel President John Fry, “it’s a value, not a side benefit.” Fry’s comment projects the idea that the “new neighborhood based on innovation” will help benefit nearby residents, rather than displace them.

We sure hope so. After all, diversity will help push Philadelphia’s tech scene past its Tipping Point. This doesn’t just point to collaboration between tech entrepreneurs of different backgrounds. No, it’s far bigger than that. It’s a movement. It’s on-going encouragement of young people (no matter what race, socio-economic status, education level, etc.) to pursue a future in STEM.

Regardless, Schuykill Yards will help position Philly as a hub for innovation and will provide the tools needed for entrepreneurial growth. Philadelphia isn’t looking to be the next Silicon Valley; it’s too beautifully and authentically gritty for that. But future economic development of the city relies on the growth of its tech market and Schuylkill Yards will help attract VCs, allowing for healthy competition.

How a Local Market Will Change the World

Though hard to believe, many were skeptical about the Internet in the 1990s. A friend of Ellen Weber’s even  dubbed it “just a fad.” Many say the same about Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality today. Philly outsider Stephanie Glenn of SalesForce gave her prediction for the tech industry as a whole:

“We’re going to figure out what predictive really means. We talk a lot about AI, we talk a lot about analytics. I think there’s just so much innovation happening in that space. We will take the predictive and AI and figure out how to commercialize them.”

While commercialization is key, breaking barriers is just as important. Ellen Weber’s wish for the city’s blossoming tech scene is around cooperation and bridging the divide between the suburban and urban markets.

Of course, Diane Cohn of Comcast, who had just returned from an international tour of start-up and innovation spaces in tech hubs like Tel Aviv, is thinking on a more global, headline-worthy scale. “What headline would I want to see? Something like ‘Latest Innovation out of Philly Saves Cities,'” Cohn said.

To panelist Tiffanie Stanard, the future of Philly’s tech scene is more female founders. While the tech industry is heavily dominated by upper-class White men (think Jobs and Zuckerburg), the city has a chance to make a powerful global impact. As a local market, Philly can change the norms of an entire industry through its inclusivity and diversity.


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