The Smartest People in Philadelphia

Meet the brains behind the brightest ideas in Philly right now.

The Smartest People in Philadelphia



Vijay Kumar

Robot Designer 
Just when you thought Apple had cornered the market on cool gadgets, along comes Kumar, the 50-year-old Penn prof who has invented tiny (as small as eight inches!) robots that can outmaneuver human-controlled drones, and even create 3-D maps of what they survey. Oh, and yeah: They fly. It’s all positively Jetsonian, but Kumar thinks the coolest part lies in application. “I can see a time when a swarm of them can go flying into some emergency situation before the first responders and transmit information,” he says. “It’s a way to protect human resources.” He es­timates it will be roughly a year until we see his robots get out and about in the field.

Frank Lee

Gaming Guru
Lee, 43, co-founder and co-director of Drexel’s renowned video-game design program,* plans to grow Philly into the Silicon Valley of ga­ming—not just by training future designers (“I tell freshmen that ga­ming is an ideal entry point into entrepreneurship”), but also by working with state legislators to give economic incentives to gaming companies. “It’s a billion-dollar industry,” he says. “I’m very keen on creating a video-game company within Drexel, affiliated with the design program. Philly is a great place for this kind of ­initiative. Drexel has a gaming program. Penn has an excellent co­mputer-design program. Most communities don’t have this foundation to build from. We need to harness and grow it, and we’re in the process of doing that now.” *In July, Lee’s design students won first place at Microsoft’s prestigious Imagine Cup. 

Youngjin Yoo

Head of Temple’s Apps And Maps
Yoo, 46, director of Temple’s Center for Design + Innovation, also heads a cool start-up incubator called Urban Apps & Maps. The idea? Students and North Philly neighbors—pa­rticularly high-schoolers, whom Yoo hopes will grow into “civic digital entrepreneurs”—create apps addressing real city needs. One favorite thus far, focused on urban farming, comes complete with temperature and soil-moisture sensors, to help the user find good spots for growing things.

Tony Werner, John Schanz, Cathy Avgiris, Marcien Jenckes, Sree Kotay, Charlie Herrin

The Comcast Brains
Comcast CEO Brian Roberts noted recently to Bloomberg Busin­essweek that his company’s “smart people” were the ones driving the entire industry: The ones who built a country-wide n­etwork for broadband. Who are making technologies that let you manage your house or watch movies or search the Internet on any screen you want. Who are launching something called X1 based on cloud technology, which, to quote video services VP Marcien J­enckes, is a more “social, personalized, mobile and eff­ortless way to watch TV—entirely di­fferent from anything you’ve experienced.” Who are turning your iPhone into your remote and your tablet into a movie screen, and working on new ways to power smart screens. And who are letting you DVR that Eagles game from the road, and letting you see your kids get home safely from school. These are those “smart people.”

Puneet Mashehwari

Inventor of DocASAP
So your baby’s screaming from an ear infection, and the receptionist says, “A week from Monday?” No more. Wharton grad Maheshwari, 35, developed DocASAP, an app that searches for nearby physicians with openings when you want them … who take your exact insurance. The Wawa-ization of health care? So what? “Whether you’re booking a flight, making a restaurant reservation or scheduling a doctor’s appointment,” he says, “you want more information and control.”

Evan Rosenbaum

E-reader wunderkind

Penn student Rosenbaum, 20, is reinventing reading. His EKR Media lets you author an online book that offers video and audio clips, allows reader comments, and is continually updated, so it stays “relevant and sustainable.” He already has a seed-fund deal. “To be a very creative person,” he says, “you have to be willing to throw out convention.”

Robert Cheetham

Software designer
Cheetham, CEO of Callowhill tech company Azavea, is a ci­vic-minded geek’s geek. On the cutting edge of Big Data since he worked with the Philly police department straight out of grad school at Penn, he has dreamed up digital solutions for urban analog issues like stormwater runoff, urban forestry and, most notably, crime.

Your program HunchLab predicts crime patterns. Is it just about getting the baddies? It’s about improving public safety, making police departments operate more effectively, and providing better data to public safety officials and the general public.

How did the idea develop? My first job out of school was to help start a crime analysis and mapping unit and introduce mapping technology to the police department. The job was just so incredibly fascinating and interesting and challenging.

Where would you like to see HunchLab end up? I hope it gets used in every police department in every major city on the planet. To actually be able to say, “Based on what we understand about the past, here’s where we think there are going to be problems”—this is a very important trend in policing. We’ve got some powerful tools to help s­upport that kind of decision-making process.

So what’s next? The next step is introducing this internationally. And we’re also working hard to introduce new forecasting techniques.

>> Click here to see the Smartest People in Philadelphia: Business & Economics

The Smartest People in Philadelphia

Business & Economics

Kristin Norris

The Anthropologie Auteur
As chief creative officer for Anthropologie and a founding creative spirit behind BHLDN, the company’s wedding line, Norris, 43, is a driving force behind the boho-chic brand’s knack for selling an entire aesthetic along with those $300 day dresses and whimsical throw rugs. Here, some of her guiding principles:

  • Innovation sometimes means reinventing the (perfectly fine) wheel. “We have such loyal customers that it can create an innovative dilemma,” she says: The brand must be familiar, yet always push forward. Hence Anthro’s endless collaborations with artists. The arty aesthetic stays; the specific artistry shifts.
  • Expanding the concept of competition. “For us, competition is the blogs our customer visits, the magazines she reads. It’s all those aggregators of inspiration out there, because we want to be her inspiration.” And so everything Anthro is designed to be “clever, whimsical, witty and op-timistic”—because it’s an inspiration jungle out there.
  • Creating an environment for the merchandise is just as important as the merchandise. “It’s this idea that the store should be a backdrop for what’s in it,” says Norris. It’s a whole world to desire.
  • Constantly show how the ordinary can be extraordinary. This goes beyond belts and jewelry, Norris says. Consider the floor displays: That larger-than-life unicorn made out of paper plates and straws? Those fabric flowers in the windows, dyed pink with beets? Extraordinary. Also: Clever, whimsical, witty and optimistic.

Richard Vague

The Economic Crusader
Financial heavy hitter Vague, 56, is many things: credit-card mogul, energy honcho, major patron of Philadelphia arts, creator of the eclectic blog, venture capitalist. But is he also our economic savior?

A “just curious” Vague did a little research on debt in the U.S., and what he found turned into a paper co-authored with journalist Steve Clemons in July. The thesis? Personal and private debt—not government debt—is what’s sinking us all. If we want to fix the economy, they argue, we don’t need more government austerity or spending, but a focus on “re-jiggering and triggering private spending” and on restructuring problem loans. The paper hit the big time, noted in the Huffington Post and the Financial Times, and now Vague and Clemons have hit the road, taking their ideas to “policy-makers and regulators here and in Europe.”

“We can’t have a robust recovery because consumers are still overburdened with debt,” Vague, a Texas transplant, drawls. “That’s the key point. We can’t pretend we’re going to have a recovery like we did in 1970 and 1980, when private debt levels were well under 100 percent of the GDP. Now they’re equal to or greater than 150 percent. So this is a different moment. Something needs to be done. We’re doing what we hope are productive things to bring attention to one of the biggest problems in modern economic history—maybe the biggest.”

Josh Kopelman

The Venture Capitalist
Venture Fund Funded: First Round Capital
The Big Idea: The city’s been abuzz over FRC’s recent move from West Conshy to University City, because where Kopelman goes, Internet start-up su-ccess follows. “We want to be an entrepreneur’s first call,” he says. “The first call when they want to brainstorm an idea, the first call when they want funding, and the first call when they need advice.”

The Portfolio: Generally, “capital- efficient” companies—“which has historically led us to focus on software/Internet companies” such as Uber, Mint, Square, Bazaarvoice and Warby Parker.

Bob Adelson

The Venture Capitalist
Venture Fund Funded: Osage University Partners

The Big Idea: Investing in university start-ups as a “co-investment” vehicle with schools. OUP helps universities take advantage of their rights to finance in all investment rounds of start-ups built around inventions coming from the schools. OUP watches start-up activity and helps partnering universities invest in their own.

The Portfolio: University partners include Penn, Duke, Caltech and more. Adelson’s “incredibly talented” OUP team seeks out groundbreaking technology, well-known scientists, great business leaders and solid group investors.

Wayne Kimmel

The Venture Capitalist
Venture Fund Funded: Artists & Instigators

The Big Idea: Pushing innovation and companies that “re-imagine” the world—what Kimmel and partners call “the maker class”—into the venture market. One partner is Mark Ecko, founder of the billion-dollar lifestyle brand Ecko Enterprises; together, all A&I partners offer experience and “curation” along with cash.

The Portfolio: A&I looks for “macro-innovation and consumer- based businesses.” Some portfolio highlights? Fisker Automotive, NutriSystem and Seamless Web.

The Smartest People in Philadelphia


Jeremy Nowak

The Godfather of Grants
As the new head of the William Penn Foundation, Nowak, 60, has been putting serious financial heft behind the most innovative, experimental and exciting stuff happening in schools, the environment, media and the arts. “Organizations I’ve thrown my energy into—the Reinvestment Fund, Mastery Charter Schools, now the William Penn Foundation—are those that focus on civic change and ask big questions,” he says. “What’s the best way to rebuild a distressed city? How can you turn around the worst-performing schools? How can we redesign institutions for a new time?”

Glen Abrams & Howard Neukrug

The Water Guardians
New parks. Rain gardens. Green roofs. Porous concrete. The Water Department’s Green City, Clean Waters plan, led largely by PWD’s Abrams and Neukrug, is massive: a 25-year blueprint and testing ground for making the city (any city!), as Abrams puts it, a prettier, “spongier” place. More sponges—that is, sustainable green surfaces—m­anage rainwater, keeping the filthy urban runoff from dirtying our rivers and overflowing our sewers. Here’s a street view of some of what G.C.C.W. looks like.


 Susan Weiler

The Landscape Visionary
When Weiler, 57, looks at Philly’s skyline, she doesn’t see the buildings, but rather the spaces between them—the “connective tissue of open space.” And as a partner at renowned Olin landscape architecture firm, she’s been a major player in the transformation of the connective tissue along the Ben Franklin Parkway. Her goal? To turn the Parkway into “the biggest urban arboretum in the country.” Here, a look at what she’s done there, what she’s doing, and what she dreams about.

1. Logan Circle: One of We­iler’s first Parkway projects renovated the landmark for the 100th anniversary of the Lewis and Clark Expedition in 2005. She used plants the duo brought back to Philly from their travels. Completed

2. Rodin Museum: The museum’s $9.1 million restoration, completed in July, was described by PMA director Timothy Rub as “a timeless melding of setting and collection.” Completed

3. Barnes Foundation: It was Weiler’s colleague and the firm’s namesake, Laurie Olin, who took the lead on the Barnes. “It’s a series of gestures that address both the museum landscape and the public landscape of the Parkway,” Weiler says. Completed

4. PMA Sculpture Garden: “It was a kick to do a garden on top of 442 parking spaces.” Completed

5. Sol LeWitt Garden: Weiler finally brought the artist’s conceptual landscape art, commissioned 30-plus years ago, to fruition in May. Completed

6. Italian Fountain: The revitalization of the fountain is part of a larger Olin project to create a new park behind the PMA. In the works

7. Dilworth Plaza: “There wasn’t a real front door or honorific plaza in front of City Hall,” says Weiler. “We knew right away that you had to get rid of the hole, bring it to street level and get rid of all those barriers, making it accessible and energetic.” In the works

8. Eakins Oval: A major flaw of the Parkway’s current design, Weiler says, are the traffic lanes separating the PMA from Eakins Oval. Eliminating them would be a step toward making the Parkway more pedestrian-friendly. Would love to do

9. LOVE Park: “Those stairs don’t need to be there. It needs to be brought back down to the pedestrian level of the city.” Would love to do

Paul Levy

The Urban Planner
Levy has been here forever as president of the Center City District, but is somehow still the guy behind everything new and cool. (See: Dilworth Plaza; Sister Cities Park.) “Successful places are dynamic multi-use places,” he says. “We’ve planned for that.”

Meryl Levitz

The Philly Promoter
Quick—name the first ad campaign to come from Philly that springs to mind. It’s the one for Philly, right? For “With Love, Philadelphia”—and for tapping into that untapped LGBT travel market 10 years ago, and for drawing 38 million visitors (and their cash) here last year—Levitz and team remain some of the brightest branding brains around.

John Fry

The Connector
As Penn’s executive VP, Fry spent the ’90s growing that campus and surrounding neighborhood. Now he’s back in University City as Drexel’s president, with another vision—a five-year, $500 million development plan that will drastically change the place forever. From high-rise dorms to block-fuls of new businesses, Fry, 52, wants a “high-impact university-community partnership that will lift Drexel and its surrounding neighborhoods to new heights.” We asked for his color commentary on some plan highlights.

1. The Papadakis Integrated Sciences Building, 2011, “This building arrived just in time, coincidentally, with our affiliation with the Academy of Natural Sciences. It brought life science and environmental science to the fore at Drexel.” Completed

2. The URBN Center of the Antoinette Westphal College of Media Arts & Design, September 2012, “I don’t know that there’s a space in Philadelphia that encourages creativity better.” Completed

3. The LeBow College of Business building, “It will be our largest academic building, and really connect to the corporate world just up Market Street in Center City. That it was made possible by the largest gift in our history, $45 million from alumnus Ben LeBow, is a testament to the quality and impact of a Drexel business education.” In progress

4. Chestnut Square, 19-story dorm towers anchored by retail and restaurants, “Our private partnership to build Chestnut Square represents a new model we’ll be using to develop student housing and retail, to increase the vitality of our campus and surrounding neighborhoods.” In progress

5. JFK Boulevard redevelopment, 30th to 32nd streets, “This ‘superblock’ is Philadelphia’s greatest untapped real estate opportunity. Drexel’s developed a compelling vision for an ‘Innovation Neighborhood’ of academic, residential, retail and commercial uses, anchored by 30th Street Station and serving as University City’s gateway.” On the horizon

6. 34th Street and Lancaster Avenue mixed-use development: student residences, entertainment amenities and retail space, “Lancaster Avenue has the potential to be University City’s ‘Main Street,’ drawing not only students and neighbors, but people from across the city and region.” On the horizon

Alex Gilliam

The Child-Labor Advocate
Through his Tiny Works Project Administration, architect Gilliam aims to improve Philly via “tiny” projects conquered by local kids, like the pop-up playground in Rittenhouse spearheaded with PHS last month. “My mathematical equation for Tiny WPA is: Teens plus power tools plus the initiative for improvement in their communities equals great civic engagement and innovation.”

Scott Gordon

The School Savior
Gordon—a product of Cherry Hill East and Yale business school—opened his first Mastery Charter School 11 years ago. Eleven successful charters—many of them turnarounds of the most violent, lowest-performing spots in the Philadelphia school district—and nearly 8,000 students later, Mastery has become a national model for public-school reform.* “I believe it could happen at every single Philadelphia school,” he says. Here, more of Gordon’s vision:

  •  “A great school is about great teachers. We’ve invested a tremendous amount of energy and time and resources into what we think is a national model for supporting great teachers.”
  • “Running a school is like running any other high-performing organization. You need clear goals. We have performance-based pay, so high-fliers get paid more, and folks who don’t, get the feedback that can lead to improvement. That’s very unusual in the world of schools.”
  • “We’re looking for our kids to graduate from college at twice the national rate, which is about six times the Philadelphia rate.”
  •  “Poverty is not an excuse. It may be an obstacle to overcome, but poverty is not destiny.”
  • “We sweat the small stuff. Often, low-performing schools have unruly environments because students don’t believe the school will follow through with its rules. Sweating the small stuff means that a school does what it says 100 percent of the time.”
  • “We’re beginning a pilot of what’s called ‘blended learning’: We have our math students in one of our schools getting the initial lesson from the computer in a self-directed fashion, then working in small groups with teachers and applying the learning to projects, to make sure they really learned it and can apply the information. It’s pulling apart the classroom and hopefully putting it back together in a way that’s much more effective.”

*The Gates Foundation is currently working to install the Mastery Teacher Effectiveness Program in school districts across the country.

Brian Phillips

The New Architect
Phillips, 41, built a prototype for a green rowhome in East Kensington that only cost $100,000. He created “quick and cheap”—albeit h­andsome—dorms at Temple out of prefab boxes. Now he’s working on a nearly-zero-energy construction project in Camden. “Professions evolve in times of crisis,” he says. “Architects need to think differently.”

>> Click here to see the Smartest People in Philadelphia: Food & Booze

The Smartest People in Philadelphia

Food & Booze

Martin Brown, Jeffrey Ziga & Pete Angevine

The Ice-Cream Renegades 
How do you make something as beloved and familiar as ice cream seem … different? Start with what co-owner Ziga calls “a strange brew of self-determination and ice cream”; dream up new flavors for your small-batch offerings (birch beer and vanilla bean!); drive an ice-cream bike instead of a truck; open a Fishtown store with an aesthetic inspired by “neo-realism and Pee-wee’s playhouse”; make some weird commercials that go viral; and be sure the ice cream tastes really, really good. It’s working for Little Baby’s. As is the pizza ice cream, believe it or not.

Audrey Taichman

The Culinary Powerhouse
Taichman, 43, harnesses Philly’s star-chef power for forces of good: Her annual benefit Feastival features food from half the chefs in town and raises boatloads of cash for the arts, while her new school, Cook, headlines those same chefs on a nightly basis to teach us non-food-stars. See? Good. Very good.


The Barroom Progressive
By now, most people know Lêe’s Hop Sing Laundromat, and how he cultivated both an inspired drink menu (are those dried roses in your cocktail?) and an air of mystery that’s rare in the Philly drinking scene. But not everyone knows Lêe the inventor, the fella who imagined better ways to do just about everything, including …

  • The Liquors Ladder: Lêe had a library-style wheeled ladder custom-built to reach the ceiling-high shelves. Note the wraparound cage to keep bartenders from falling, and—more importantly—the handy bottle chute to prevent droppage.
  • The Cocktail Cart: Carts—complete with custom ice carvers, wells and garnish trays—allow servers to make drinks tableside, keeping bar traffic down. “It took us five versions before we settled on the final model,” Lêe admits. “It set us back a month.”
  • The Bartender’s Bar: Lêe designed custom wells to hold his vast selection of spirits, and cutting boards that fold beneath the bar when not in use. “I wanted our barte­nders to minimize their movement and not turn their backs to our guests. I built everything with this in mind.”

Yael Lehmann

The Veggie Activist
When Lehmann, director of prolific nonprofit the Food Trust, launched the first Pop-Up Night Market—a sort of block-party-meets-farm-market—on East Passyunk to showcase “accessible” local fare, “We ran out of food halfway through—we didn’t know people would come.” Eight magical markets later, people are begging Lehmann to pop up in their ’hoods.

Michael Solomonov

The Iconoclast Chef
Solomonov, 34, made an Israeli place that serves duck hearts a national draw, brought Texas barbecue to South Street, turned Korean fried chicken and doughnuts (“world-class doughnuts,” insists the New York Times) into a fun duo of foodie worship, and just opened Merion’s Citron and Rose, destined to be Philly’s only glatt kosher hot spot. We can’t even guess what’s next. Which is how we like it.

>> Click here to see the Smartest People in Philadelphia: Medicine

The Smartest People in Philadelphia


Carl June

The Cancer Slayer 
Without the Vietnam War, Carl June never would have cured cancer.

June, 59, only joined the Navy because he didn’t want to get drafted. They put him through med school, then gave him a lab at Bethesda Naval Hospital. He wanted to study cancer, but that was only being done at the National Cancer Institutes. So he picked AIDS instead, trying to regenerate the T-cells that HIV kills off. Sure enough, he found a way to grow immune systems in the lab.

In 1999, Penn hired him away from the Navy. And he decided to try using what he’d learned about T-cells to turn them into “serial killers” for cancer. He would employ a disabled form of the AIDS virus that had been genetically reprogrammed with bits of DNA—from humans, mice, cows, even a woodchuck virus—to infect T-cells and stimulate them to create an antibody-like protein that would bind to a protein found on cancerous B-cells and kill them. In 2010, after years of safety trials, June harvested T-cells from patients with terminal leukemia, exposed those cells to the altered AIDS virus, and froze them. Chemotherapy then destroyed patients’ remaining T-cells, and they were re-infused with the frozen ones.

Then June waited. The patients got sick—really, really sick, with fevers of up to 105 degrees.

What June didn’t realize—what nobody realized—was that the sickness was part of the cure. The transplanted T-cells were proliferating in the patients, multiplying 10,000-fold, overwhelming the cancerous B-cells and wiping them out. Completely. As in: Cancer, cured. What’s more, the altered T-cells remain in the patients, ready to pounce should the cancer recur. “It worked much better,” June says understatedly, “than we thought it would.”

What makes this such a radical breakthrough is how simple it should now be to reprogram T-cells to attack brain cancer, or lung cancer—or ovarian cancer, which killed June’s first wife in 2001. “You don’t have to go back to ground zero for each different cancer,” he says. “It’s cut-and-paste. It’s a game-changer.” Which is why drug giant Novartis is building him a $20 million research center at Penn. So if June’s gene therapy cures your loved one’s cancer someday, you can thank the Vietnam War.

Jeffrey Brenner

The Health-Care Revolutionary
Brenner—physician and founder of Camden Coalition of Healthcare Providers—has worked for 10 years to get better care for the underserved in his city. His group’s focus on primary-care reform, home visits and “health coaches” for the chronically ill has drastically lowered medical costs in Camden.

  • On the goal: “To fix health care in Camden. To make Camden the first city in the country to bend the cost curve and improve quality at the whole-city level.”
  • On the scope of this thing: “This isn’t a problem of fixing poverty. This is a problem of stopping making excuses for an expensive, poorly run health system. And hey, everyone: It’s not just Camden—you’re all getting disorganized care.”
  • On methods: “We’re deep in primary offices, helping them rethink how they deliver care. Things like building electronic registries of all patients, so if Mr. Jones hasn’t been back to deal with his diabetes in six months, you know about it. It triggers reminders, so you’re managing the population of patients. And group visits: Instead of a doctor running from room to room in 10-m­inute increments, you can bring 15 diabetics together in one room and spend an hour and a half with them.”
  • On the model: “I don’t think there’s the Camden model; I think there’s the Camden philosophy. We have values, a mission, and try to focus on active problem-solving. I don’t want the message to be that it’s a one-size-fits-all thing. Data-based, local problem-solving is what people need to do.”

Zeke Emanuel

The Health-Care Revolutionary
Emanuel—oncologist, renowned bioethicist, Penn professor, son of a pediatrician, brother of Chicago mayor Rahm—has worked for the National Institutes of Health, written prolifically on health care in this country (among other topics), and helped craft Obama’s health-care reform act.

  • On patient expectations: “We train doctors to rule out everything that could possibly be wrong. We have every piece of technology that can scan your body 27 times. It becomes a little self-defeating. Who sets patient expectations? Who’s advertising on Route 1 in New Jersey, telling you that you must have the robot doing your prostate surgery? Patients get their guidance from the health-care system.”
  • On what really needs to happen: “We’re all going to have to hold hands and give up a little. We’ll have electronic health records that will follow us, and doctors who have good quality metrics.”
  • On the elephant in the room: “Ten percent of the population uses about two-thirds of the health-care dollars: patients with chronic illness. Preventing the di­abetic from getting an infection that turns into gangrene that requires an am­putation—that’s going to be the key. Keeping them from becoming ‘frequent fliers.’”
  • On the relentless finger-pointing: “When I ask, ‘Who’s at fault for the American health-care system?,’ I hear: Drug companies. Insurance companies. Trial lawyers. Demanding patients. There’s plenty of blame to go around. We need to be more open to creative solutions. ”

Paul Offit

The Vaccine Inventor 
If you’ve had a kid since 2006, you should really thank Offit. The infectious-disease doc at CHOP co-created a vaccine called Rota-Teq that safeguards kids against rotavirus—a very common diarrheal di­sease that each year kills more than half a m­illion children under five worldwide. The good doctor went on to draw fire from anti-vaccine groups for his 2008 book Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine and the Search for a Cure—but, undaunted, is working on a new book about “the sense and nonsense of alternative medicine.”

>> Click here to see the Smartest People in Philadelphia: Culture

The Smartest People in Philadelphia


David Devan & Mike Bolton

The Opera Operatives 

  • Act I: The Idea. Devan, general director of the Opera Company of Philadelphia, and Bolton, head of community programs, see a YouTube video of a “flash mob” glee concert in Italy. “I tell Mike, ‘We have to make this work for opera,’” Devan says. “‘It’ll be way better, because it’s even more unexpected.’”
  • Act II: The Trial. A surprise rendition of La Traviata in Reading Terminal in 2010, to the sheer delight of cheesesteak eaters and whoopie-pie buyers. The video replay gets, says Devan, “a trillion hits on YouTube.”
  • Act III: The Growth. The buzz lands the opera a place in the Knight Foundation’s “Random Acts of Culture” program, which has since led to more pop-ups: Mozart at Ikea, Verdi at Geno’s, Orff at 30th Street Station.
  • Act IV: The Results. “Awareness. Our social-media connections have gone through the roof,” Devan says. “And it’s excited philanthropy. We want people to love what we do. All you have to do is look around to see it’s making people happy.”

Jonah Berger

The Twitter Whisperer
Cat videos. Hop Sing Laundromat. Obama Girl. Why do some things go viral while others die on the vine? That’s what Wharton prof and national media darling Jonah Berger researches and teaches to Penn’s burgeoning business brains. It’s also the topic of his upcoming book, Contagious: Why Things Catch On. Berger thinks his theories will let people and companies “use word of mouth to help products or ideas or behaviors catch on and become popular.” It won’t hurt your Twitter feed, either. Book’s out March 5th. Here’s a sneak preview.

  • Knowledge is your capital. “Remember, people like to share things that make them look cool,” Berger says. “Just as money buys us things, knowing cool information makes us look good. That drives people to talk.”
  • Flash not required. Word of mouth doesn’t only happen with the high-tech or super-cool, Berger says: “Anything can have social currency.” To demonstrate, he pulls a roll of toilet paper out of his desk. It’s black. “I guarantee, you see black toilet paper somewhere, you will tell someone about it.”
  • Go public with it. Specifically, Berger says, “Take private things and make them public.” He points to Movember, which matched donating money for prostate cancer (private) with a national month-long mustache-growing event (public). Since its inception, more than 1.9 million Movember enthusiasts have generated about $300 million worldwide in cash for an otherwise under-the-radar charitable cause.

Ivan Barias

The Music Producer, Promoter, Pioneer
“There’s a new wave of Philly energy now,” says Barias, 38. What he doesn’t say is that he’s part of it. Yes, he’s half the Grammy-nominated producing duo Carvin & Ivan, but he’s also a GPTMC cultural ambassador and the president of Philly’s Recording Academy chapter and a branding brain whose pay-by-Tweet campaign with artist Curt Chambers was a stroke of genius. He is, in short, creating whole new avenues for spreading that new Philly energy.

Sarah Van Aken

The Manufacturing Evangelist
Innovation often begins as problems that need solving. So it went with Van Aken, 36, who started S.V.A. Holdings Corporation in 2006, manufacturing uniforms in Bangladesh. Then came 2008, and with it, skyrocketing fuel prices and increasing guilt about her outsourcing’s environmental impact. So she moved S.V.A. to Chinatown. “We had two big orders when the Chinatown company said, ‘We can’t finish, because all our sewers left.’” Van Aken ended up buying all of the shop’s equipment and moving it into her digs: “Suddenly, I was a manufacturer.” Turns out that worked so well that she also launched a fashion line, SA VA, with a Sansom Street storefront, and has teamed with Philadelphia University to help make Philly “an incubator and model” for lots more local (and sustainable) manufacturers. “It could have a big impact on jobs and the environment if we start looking at things a little differently.”

Doogie Horner

The Master Chart Designer
Horner, graphic designer, illustrator, author* and stand-up comedian, sees the world a little differently than you or I. First, he sees it funnier. (Remember his comedic stint on America’s Got Talent?) Second, he sees it in diagram form. Horner is, to borrow words from Fast Company, “a Mensa-level serious artist” whose art form is charts that break the world down into a series of interconnected phenomena, whether it’s the American Dream or “things to say during sex.” “Stand-up and charts are similar in that they’re good at taking a big idea and organizing it in a simple way,” he says. “Both of those are falsifications, just like fiction is a falsification of the real world. Life isn’t like the movies. But when you watch a movie and then you go back to the real world, you understand it a little better.”
*Of the totally engrossing book Everything Explained Through Flowcharts

David Clayton & Dan Schimmel

The Air Artists
As soon as Clayton and Schimmel learned that the crown lights of the PECO building would be upgraded to full color in 2009, they began petitioning the energy company to let them use the space for more than just signage. “It’s basically a giant video screen,” Clayton says. “There should be art there.” PECO agreed, and the duo’s digital initiative, Art in the Air, launched in 2010 with monthly showings of 30-second animated shorts by local artists. The now-weekly F­riday-night shows are re-defining public art. “It’s not something you can tell your friends every day,” says Clayton “‘Oh, by the way, my artwork’s going to be on top of a 30-story building.’”

Quinn Bauriedel

The Thespian
When Swarthmore grad Bauriedel, 40, co-founded Pig Iron Theatre Company in 1995, he just wanted an experimental troupe that was fresh, on the edge and playful. More than 15 years in, Pig Iron has won awards all over the world and has debuted a one-of-a-kind school to teach others to do the same. Next up? “Underground children’s theater,” says Bauriedel. “Speakeasy-style.”

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