Panelists Stress Locality During Innovation Nation Town Hall on UMBC Campus
On Sunday, November 13th 2011, local tech personality Mario Armstrong hosted “Innovation Nation” a live screening of the much anticipated CNN “Black in America 4” documentary that took a look at two black entrepreneurs who decided to organize the NewME Startup Incubator in Silicon Valley aimed at helping minorities break into and learn from the technology startup scene. Mario also moderated a panel of local businessmen/women in and two members who participated in the NewMe Startup Accelerator program that aired immediately following the screening that focused on not only gaining insight and identifying issues, but also asking the question “what’s next for blacks in technology”.
I attended the event on the University of Maryland – Baltimore campus and from the sponsors of the event, observations from the panel, to the questions from the crowd, one thing was clear – While trying to break into the technology startup scene by being in the epicenter where it all happens is ideal, there are also opportunities for minorities to seek out guidance, make connections, and take advantages of resources/funding locally as well.
Sponsors included AT&T, the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, UMBC and others and the purpose of the event was to discuss key issues that arise from the latest “In America” segment. Topics of discussion included diversity in Silicon Valley, STEM education in schools, and how can minorities, given all the issues and challenges, can still turn the corner and make a meaningful impact on the tech scene.
It was the comments of Wayne Sutton, NewMe co-founder, participant, and Innovation Nation panelist that struck a cord with me the most. He fielded a question from the audience in regards to how can you get the exposure, be involved with influential networks, and get funding if you don’t have the means to actually be in Silicon Valley? Sutton answered with “We went out to Silicon Valley simply to learn how to play the game.” His comment influenced other panelists, who are mostly locals to the DC, Maryland and Virginia to chime in and reveal several resources that can help a local entrepreneur/startup succeed.
Among the list of recourses was the National Business Incubation Association that among other things, helps entrepreneurs locate local startup programs. UMBC was the host site for the panel and one of its representatives quickly pointed out that the campus houses a 71-acre Research and Technology Park with the sole purpose of offering early-stage technology and bioscience companies access to campus resources, office space, mentorship, and support services. Other panelist included, Terry Jones, managing partner of Syncom Venture Partners, that was a sponsor of the NewMe program and a local company that provides capital for media and communications companies; and David Troy, local entrepreneur, CEO and Angel Investor. That was just a taste of the actual panel at last week’s event. There were many other faces in the audience from the local tech scene who contributed to the conversation.
What am I getting at here? I think the CNN Black in America segment publically exposed an issue that many minority entrepreneurs were already keen on – Lack of minorities in technology. But more than that, I also learned that overcoming that issue and breaking into the tech scene can be as dramatic as creating a program that uproots several startup hopefuls and forces them into the tech epicenter that is Silicon Valley for several weeks. Or it can be more organic by taking advantage of local resources that may be underused, but more beneficial to minorities looking to make a name for themselves on the technology startup scene.