The Conversation Issue: Can We Talk?

conversation-issue-nov-2014-cover-400x540This is the transcript of a chat on Slack — the intra-office messaging system Philly Mag uses — between editor Tom McGrath, senior editor Richard Rys and editor-at-large Christine Speer Lejeune.

TOM: We’re calling this the Conversation Issue. You two oversaw the whole package. Explain what we’re up to here.

RICH: A fool’s errand?

CHRISTY: Haha. For real. Proof that the art of conversing isn’t dead, despite Google’s and Apple’s best efforts. We wanted to have the city’s most interesting people talk to each other and see what stories came out.

RICH: I keep coming back to the idea that in this age of high tech, we’re communicating more than ever, but the art of conversation is often lost in all the texting and tweeting and Facebook-status-updating. This issue is a chance for folks to put their phones down — for the most part — and really talk to each other.

CHRISTY: Emojis can only go so far.
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ThinkFest Preview: Ajay Raju Wants Philadelphia to Be a World-Class City

Dilworth Paxson CEO Ajay Raju, left, will be interviewed by Philadelphia magazine editor Tom McGrath.

Dilworth Paxson CEO Ajay Raju, left, will be interviewed by Philadelphia magazine editor Tom McGrath.

Ajay Raju doesn’t think small. He has ideas about building his law firm, storied Dilworth Paxson, into something new and different on the legal scene. He and his foundation have launched a new initiative, the Germination Project, aimed at turning today’s most talented teens into Philadelphia’s next group of leaders. (Read more about the project here.) Mostly, he has notions of transforming Philadelphia into a city that is second to none. On the planet.

“I’m sure in my belief that what’s around the horizon is an opportunity for our city to reform and reshape the contours of our potential,” he told Philly Mag’s John Marchese in a profile published last spring. “Why can’t we? It’s a blank slate. If you can be a magnet to attract the best and the brightest, you have a real winning shot. I want Philadelphia to be the Ellis Island of the new global corporate community and City Hall to be the new Statue of Liberty.”

That kind of lofty talk has fueled speculation that Raju would one day like to be mayor. Whether he wants to be or not is an open question, but you can hear more of Raju’s ideas for Philadelphia at next month’s ThinkFest, where I’ll have the opportunity to sit down with him and talk about everything from art and philanthropy to why Philadelphia’s business community needs to become a stronger voice in our civic issues. Will some of what Ajay Raju talks about seem out of reach? Maybe. But our city needs dreamers – desperately – and this is a chance to hear from one of the most compelling voices in town.

Join us on November 14th at Drexel’s LeBow College of Business for a day of the city’s smartest people sharing their biggest ideas. Read all of our ThinkFest 2014 previews here, and buy your tickets today.

Grow Your Own: Ajay Raju’s Germination Project

ajay-raju-headshot-400x400When Ajay Raju moved from India to America as a teenager, he was struck by something odd: Unlike in India, where the smart kids were the cool kids, academic achievers here were at the bottom of the social pecking order, well below the jocks, cutups, ­bullies, even stoners. What’s more, Raju noted as he got older, future Chase Utleys had a built-in ecosystem to help them develop their talents — coaches, camps, leagues, professional scouts. Future Barack Obamas or Michael Nutters? Not so much.

Raju, 44, who co-chairs the law firm Dilworth Paxson and is occasionally mentioned as a future mayoral aspirant, now hopes to do something to help those young brains. This fall he officially kicks off the Germination Project, a program that will provide intensive mentoring to some of the region’s most promising teenagers — while also, Raju hopes, laying the groundwork for a future leadership class in Philadelphia.

How’s it work? High schools — there will be 10 in the pilot phase, a mix of public, private and parochial schools from the city and suburbs — will nominate sophomores they consider to be their most promising future leaders. A selection committee will then choose anywhere from one to three kids from each school to become official Germination Fellows. While some of the schools participating in the program will be in poorer areas of the city, Raju says the goal isn’t to reverse socioeconomic inequities; it’s simply to find the generation’s elite, no matter where they might be. “We’re not trying to build the Navy,” he says pointedly. “We’re trying to recruit and train the Navy SEALs.”

If that suggests rigor, that’s the point. The mentoring portion will include more than just hints on how to write a thank-you note; kids will work with executives at institutions like Comcast and Jefferson to implement potential solutions to some of Philly’s biggest problems. And participation in the program won’t end once the kids have graduated. Raju imagines that the Germination Project will in time become a network of local super-achievers. The only catch? To remain a Germination Fellow, participants need to return to Philly after college and contribute to the improvement of the city.

Most intriguing may be the Germination Project’s website, where we’ll be able to follow participants’ lives and careers over time in what Raju says won’t be all that different from a reality show. “This isn’t a short-term thing,” he notes. “This is a 50-year love letter to the region.”

See Aju Raju discuss the Germination Project at ThinkFest, November 14th at Drexel’s LeBow College of Business.

Originally published as “Grow Your Own” in the November 2014 issue of Philadelphia magazine.

What It Was Like to Be the First Runner on the Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk

Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk | Photograph by Laura Kicey

Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk | Photograph by Laura Kicey

Last Friday, I got the chance to walk on water. And it was awesome.

All right, technically I was running—and it was over water—but you get the idea. I had the pleasure to be the first (maybe? I think?) person ever to run on the brand-new Schuylkill Banks Boardwalk, which has its official opening tomorrow and hosts a sneak preview 5K tonight at 6:30 (sorry, it’s sold out). Why me as the ceremonial First Runner? Well, Philly Mag is working on a big package about running in Philly, and the powers that be at the Schuylkill River Development Corp. were nice enough to give us access to the Boardwalk to shoot some photos. Yeah, sometimes it’s cool to work at a magazine.

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Best of Philly 2014: Behind the Scenes

best-of-philly-2014-logo-400x400One recent afternoon, associate editor Joel Mathis — who covers media, politics and other Important Stuff for our website, Phillymag.com — had an experience most investigative reporters would undoubtedly relate to: He met a confidential source at a restaurant in town for a secret exchange of materials. The handoff went well — the package Joel received led to a nice scoop for us — but there was one part of the encounter that was maybe not so All the President’s Men.

Joel arrived at the clandestine meeting having just gotten a chest wax.

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The Most Powerful Man in Philadelphia

Brian Roberts Comcast

Photography by Adam Jones

The last time we ranked the most powerful people in Philadelphia, in November 2009, Brian Roberts came in at a solid but not spectacular number 11. The book on Roberts was that he used his clout to run his company and not necessarily to influence life in the city.

So what’s happened in four and a half years that’s vaulted him to the top of our list? Simple: Comcast is vastly larger, more powerful and more ambitious than it was then — a reflection of Roberts’s growing vision for the company.

Since acquiring control of NBC Universal in 2011, Comcast has become one of the world’s most prominent and profitable media conglomerates, with interests in everything from Internet service and home security to movies, TV production and theme parks. And its momentum shows no sign of stopping. In February the company announced its intention to buy Time Warner Cable, which — if the sale is approved by the FCC and the Justice ­Dep­artment — would give it control of 30 percent of all U.S. cable and Internet markets. Perhaps more importantly for Philadelphia, the company also announced plans to build a second office tower in Center City — this one designed by renowned architect Norman Foster. (Ground will be broken this summer on the new building, which will bring 6,300 temporary construction jobs and 2,800 permanent positions to Center City.)

Philly Mag editor Tom McGrath talked with Roberts, 54, about the state of the company, plans for the new building, and how Philadelphia’s fate is now entwined with that of its most high-profile corporation.

With the focus on innovation and technology, your new building seems to be a statement about where Comcast is headed as well as a major commitment to Philadelphia. Does it feel that way to you? It does. Initially the project was started by simply … we’re out of space, which is hard to imagine. We’re always careful not to get ahead of ourselves, but we have a thousand employees who work in downtown Philadelphia who don’t have an office in the Comcast Center. And so the project began purely out of space needs. Once we started to discuss what we would build, that’s when I felt we should try to think about what the company’s needs are going to be. Where is the growth coming from? And a lot of that growth is around innovation and technology.

And that raised the question: Should we build that in Philadelphia? And the answer is, we think we can successfully recruit and attract the talent, and retain the talent, and do something that perhaps no one is doing anywhere in the country — build a vertical campus, and have the newest part of the campus be completely different from the last building and give it its own personality and sense of purpose.

Ten years ago, Comcast was mostly a cable company. After the NBC Universal acquisition, you became a cable and content company. How do you see yourselves going forward? We’ve thought about that question a lot, and with the help of [chief communications officer] D’Arcy Rudnay, we have a real definition. We view ourselves uniquely at the crossroads of media and technology. We are helping to create news, entertainment, sports, broadband, connectivity for homes and businesses, new advertising platforms. There are other news and sports and media companies, and there are other cable companies, and there are people who only focus on phone and wireless. Our company has the opportunity to touch all of those spaces here and, hopefully in the future, around the world.

Chris Wheeler is Leaving and I Feel… Sad?

Chris Wheeler out as Phillies broadcaster

Illustration by James Boyle

For the last few decades, I’ve counted myself among the, oh, 500 million or so Philadelphians who loathed Chris Wheeler’s broadcasting of Phillies games. Because, honestly, wasn’t there just so much to loathe? The droning. The whining. The tedious breakdown of why, on the road, with two outs and a runner on third and a left-handed Cuban refugee on the mound and your stepdaughter having missed her 11 p.m. curfew, you never want to throw the ball middle-in to a right-handed power hitter. If a guy talked like that while sitting next to you at the ballpark, you’d stick his nachos up his nose.

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How to Succeed in the Startup Business Without Leaving Philly

start up roundtable Vague Moul Gupta Bookspan

Photo by Danielle Alvarez

Philly’s start-up universe has grown tremendously in the past half-dozen years. So what, exactly, is the state of the scene right now? And how can a would-be entrepreneur add his or her own creativity to the mix? Philly Mag’s Tom McGrath and Ashley Primis sat down with four leading figures (identified below) in the start-up world to get some answers.

The Panelists

Richard Vague: Entrepreneur and managing partner of Gabriel Investments, an early-stage venture capital group.

David Bookspan: Founder and chairman of e-commerce company Monetate and founding partner of DreamIt Ventures, which provides seed capital to fledgling businesses.

Bob Moul: Tech entrepreneur, CEO of Artisan Mobile, Inc., and president of Philly Startup Leaders, the most active start-up community in the city.

Apu Gupta: CEO and co-founder of social media analytics firm Curalate.

Let’s start by talking about the zeitgeist. In the past few years, start-ups have become sexy. If you’re 25 and you don’t have a start-up idea, you’re missing out.
Bob Moul: If you’re 12 and don’t have a start-up idea, you’re missing out. [laughter from the group]

 

Exactly. What’s going on culturally?
David Bookspan: When I was in college, the people who were cool were the people who had the band or were actors or were athletes. On campuses right now, the people who are cool are the ones who have their own companies. But also, how inexpensive it is to start a company has led to people just trying stuff a lot earlier—and the success they have found has led to more people wanting part of that.

Richard Vague: I think the bad job market has a lot to do with it. In the 1950s and ’60s, the U.S. economy was growing five or six percent per year. Exxon and DuPont and GE were hiring everybody they could hire. Today you have almost the opposite of that, and folks are finding it hard to find meaningful careers out of college. You’re more inclined to take a risk if the alternatives aren’t that great. If the string’s already been cut, you’ve got to start flapping your arms pretty fast.

Apu Gupta: Yeah, but I think there’s also a cultural change, right? You know, when I was coming out of college—my freshman year in undergrad was 1993, the first year the Mosaic browser came out—I knew I needed to be doing something with the Internet. But it was not acceptable for a 21-year-old to start a company. Culturally, we’ve changed. VCs are willing to invest in 20-year-olds now. Because otherwise, you’ve got to sit in some big building and ride an elevator and look like a chump, and why would you want to do that when you’re 20?

 

What one word describes the entrepreneurial scene in Philly right now?
Bookspan: “Evolving.”

Gupta: “Exciting.”

Moul: “Tenacious.”

Vague: “Nascent.”

 

Interesting mix. Bob, what do you mean by “tenacious”?
Moul: It’s a very scrappy bunch. Despite a perceived lack of venture capital here, people are building businesses, bootstrapping businesses. It’s a greedy bunch—they work hard, they hustle, they figure out how to get it done one way or the other.

 

Richard, “nascent” suggests there’s not much there.
Vague: I think compared to San Francisco or New York or Boston, that’s absolutely correct.

Bookspan: It’s really interesting, because the words that we each picked reflect what we each do. So you know, Richard is doing A-round [early-round] financing—and is very, very passionate about Philadelphia and working with the companies in Philadelphia—but the A-round is a really tough area, and there’s not that much activity in Philadelphia. My word was “evolving,” and that’s because I think we’re starting to see some momentum at the earlier stages, pre-A-round, and that’s what I do at DreamIt. And Philly Startup Leaders—I don’t think you can really give enough credit to what PSL has accomplished for the community. You know, they started basically as a group of five or six guys—

Moul: Getting beers one night.

Bookspan: And to be able to attract someone like Bob into what was basically a frat house, to add a level of professionalism and leadership, that is really commendable. And how many members are you up to now?

Moul: Well, we don’t know for sure, but the listserv has more than 1,800 people on it, and we track probably 300 to 500 start-ups.

 

Apu, your word was “exciting.” Does that reflect the state of your company or how things are growing here overall?
Gupta: I think [our success] certainly contributes to it. We’re based in Philadelphia, we have 300 of the world’s most well-known brands working with us, we have venture capital from the biggest brand-name VCs you can get, and we did it right here. We’re not trying to be Philly-big; we’re world-class. That’s what’s happening, and that’s what you can do in Philly.

 

I love that phrase, “Philly-big.” Is there enough of that world-class attitude in town?
Vague: There are a lot of highly qualified new ideas and great energetic people here, so I have every confidence that this community will continue to grow. What Philly doesn’t have, and Bob kind of alluded to this, is a lot of resident capital to fund it.

Gupta: Richard, I’d love to bounce something off of you on that. Why does the capital need to be here? I feel like we’re in a world where there’s so much competition for deals in the Valley and in New York. Aren’t we at a point where the money has to go to good ideas wherever those ideas are?

Vague: No.

Gupta: No? You don’t think so?

Bookspan: The money, particularly in various parts of the country, is still very, very provincial. We run accelerators in Austin, New York, Israel and Philadelphia, and the companies that are coming out of Philadelphia are every bit as good as the companies that are coming out of the other cities. But they have a harder time getting capital.

 

What would it take to get more capital in this city?
Bookspan: It’s a virtuous circle that develops around start-ups. You know, at Monetate we have 170 employees now, and things are going really well. If Monetate has an exit, there are going to be 170 people who have been trained in that start-up and evolving path—that leads to more start-ups. From a capital standpoint, unfortunately, until recently the city was ringed with capital, but none of it was in the city itself. And you really need to have that coffee-shop interaction by having all of the pieces clustered together.

 

Can the city accelerate the process?
Moul: First off, kudos to the Mayor and the administration for StartUp PHL. For the first time in history, we have a seed fund in Philadelphia—a $6 million seed fund. There’s also a $500,000 idea fund—if you have an idea on how to improve the start-up ecosystem, there are grants available to help implement those programs.

So I think you’ve got to give a big shout-out to Mayor Nutter and his team for jumping in here and helping—because it’s been proven to work in other cities. We spent time in New York City. New York City five years ago was not New York City today. But Bloomberg stepped in, they put a seed fund together up there, and now they have half a dozen seed funds, at least. They subsidized space, so they made space more affordable. On the grander scale, they’re building the new tech institute out on Roosevelt Island. And Bloomberg personally gets involved, and our mayor is doing this as well. He’s in my office, in Apu’s office.

Bookspan: Richard, I don’t mean to put you on the spot, but I will. People talk frequently about taxes, and I think that people do follow the financial incentives, for the most part. Last year, Philadelphia clarified an ambiguity in the law with respect to whether venture funds would in essence be double-taxed if they were in the city. If that had not changed, would Gabriel still be based in the city?

Vague: That was big, and I think we very well might have moved.

Bookspan: My hypothesis is that people aren’t going to go from Philadelphia to Chicago because there’s a tax. But what they will do is go from Philadelphia to City Line. And the diaspora of the components of the start-up community is what works against its success.

Moul: Yeah, now you can walk down the street, have coffee with somebody, talk about the business and what’s going on.

Could the Next Steve Jobs Come From Philly?

Photo by Jonathan Pushnik.

Photo by Jonathan Pushnik.

On a cheery, sun-filled Friday in midsummer, I’m standing inside the offices of PeopleLinx—a Center City start-up dedicated to maximizing the awesome power of LinkedIn for companies and their employees—and watching as a group of bright-eyed PeopleLinxers teach a dozen new instructees the finer points of creating a LinkedIn profile. There is, alas, one hurdle: Half the instructees can’t read. Now, before you begin bitching about the sorry state of the American educational system, I should point out that several of them are only three and four years old, an age at which you’re more likely to be flipping through Spot Goes to the Farm than devouring Tom Peters’s In Search of Excellence. Nonetheless, that hasn’t stopped the PeopleLinx employees—who, yes, are these kids’ parents—from pulling out some paper and crayons and helping their offspring create their “profiles.” Oh, and business cards, too.

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” one dad asks his son.

A moment of thought. “Firefighter,” the kid says. It’s duly written down.

We are midway through what amounts to PeopleLinx’s version of Take Your Kids to Work Day, an endeavor the company—which was spun off a few years ago by some ex-LinkedIn employees and recently landed $3.2 million in A-round financing—is calling Junior Entrepreneurs Bootcamp. Its purpose? Well, in addition to letting the kids see where mom and dad go every day, it’s to show them how business works and, perhaps, plant the seed that they, too, might one day be enterprising start-up dudes and dudettes.

If Mark Zuckerberg ran a Montessori program, I suspect it would look something like this. The morning began with circle time, with the kids introducing themselves, then playing a game of Simon Says that culminated with an adult leader proclaiming, “Simon says start a business!” Ice successfully broken, the kids—ranging in age from toddlers to 10-year-olds—got down to work: a start-up lemonade venture in front of the company’s Market Street office building (with proceeds going, sweetly, to Alex’s Lemonade Stand).

First up, naturally, was securing seed capital. After explaining the concept of borrowing money from the bank, one dad stood to the side of the circle with a fistful of dollars and handed them out to the kids so they could buy supplies. But he made clear he was no chump giving out charity; like any sharp angel investor, he expected a return—$1.50 for each $1 he gave out.

From there, the kids marched to the other side of the office, exchanged their dollars for supplies, then headed to the production facility—a.k.a. the office kitchenette—to mix up some lemonade. After a brief break to create those LinkedIn profiles—you can’t sell if you can’t network!—they head outside and start pushing product.

Business is slow.

So slow, in fact, that I begin to wonder if some members of lemonade-stand management, huddled a few feet away from me, might be considering a pivot—switching to chocolate chip cookies, maybe, or developing an app that aggregates where all the lemonade stands are. (Note to self: not a bad idea.) But then someone realizes it’s a simple marketing problem, and a few of the kids move further out onto the sidewalk and begin flagging down customers. Bingo! Business picks up instantly, and the dollars pour in.

I don’t stay for the whole thing, but that afternoon an email pops up in my inbox from Liz Coleman, PeopleLinx’s vice president of client engagement and one of the organizers of the day. “Thanks for coming by, Tom!” she writes. “The kids raised almost $300 this morning for Alex’s Lemonade Stand Foundation, so we are very proud of our 1st class of Junior Entrepreneurs.”

She makes no mention of an IPO, though I suspect the future firefighter, in particular, might be looking for an exit.

Lu Ann Cahn’s I Dare Me Chronicles Her Quest to Do Something New Every Day

Photo by Gene Smirnov.

Photo by Gene Smirnov

Your new book chronicles how you did something new every single day for a year. Midlife crisis?
I was just in a bad place, and I really didn’t know what to do about it. There was so much change around me at work that was really overwhelming. And life changes—my daughter had gone off to college. And all this technology was coming along that I hated.

It’s not like your life had lacked for challenges. You lost your large intestine at 33, had breast cancer at 35 and kidney cancer at 45. … You weren’t content to just put your feet up?
I want to live passionately. And I think I just hit a wall. It went on for about a year where I was really upset and angry. I was waiting for something to change around me, and nothing did. And I realized: I’m going to have to make the change.

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