Here’s Everything You Need to Know About Philly’s First Project NorthStar Conference

Two of the event’s leading organizers — Aniyia Williams and Francisco Garcia — tell BizPhilly what the three-day tech conference means for the city and what attendees can expect to gain.

Philadelphia’s inaugural three-day Project NorthStar tech conference will kick off on October 3. Courtesy photo.

At the start of October, Philadelphia will host its first ever Project NorthStar conference, an endeavor that seeks to make equity and inclusion in the tech community a priority for the city. Black & Brown Founders, Mayor Kenney and the city’s StartupPHL arm say the conference will be a means to help Black and Latinx people find pathways into an innovation economy that often leaves them out.

And big players like Microsoft for Startups, Comcast NBCUniversal, Bumble, the Kauffman Foundation, and Uber all support the mission — These organizations all are backing the three-day conference beginning October 3 that’s expected to attract about 500 people from near and far.

BizPhilly sat down with two masterminds behind the project — Black & Brown Founders executive director Aniyia Williams and Francisco Garcia, Philadelphia’s director of business development for innovation and technology. The two leaders explain what the conference means for the city, what attendees can expect to gain and why now’s the time to begin gearing up.

But before you scroll down to the conversation, be sure to check out the conference’s webpage here to secure your tickets and check out the impressive lineup of speakers, events, activities, perks, opportunities and more.

BizPhilly: What is the purpose of Project NorthStar and how’d it come to be?

Garcia: This project came about after the mayor had some experiences at other conferences and events around the country. [Following those experiences] he challenged us to provide a platform not only for discussing current issues in the tech industry, but also for getting people to think about ways to establish programs and targeted changes so that diversity in the Philadelphia tech community is not just an abstract thing.

BizPhilly: What are the conference’s goals?

Garcia: The conference has three main focus areas. They are providing business development opportunities for entrepreneurs, providing a path to tech careers for a pipeline of youth, and there’s also a focus on students to determine how we can retain the diversity and talent we have here. We want to bring the stakeholders in these three areas together.

Aniyia Williams at the Black & Brown Founders Hustle House during SXSW 2018. Courtesy photo.

BizPhilly: And how does Black & Brown Founders fit in with these goals?

Williams: After we did an event here last fall — the Black and Brown Founders Project — it was really clear that there was alignment between [Philadelphia’s] vision to pull together founders of color in the city and Black & Brown Founders’ focus.

Philadelphia is my hometown, and I’m dedicated to bringing what I’ve experienced in Silicon Valley back to a place where we can show how it can be done right. Everyone puts the Bay Area on a pedestal when it comes to technology, but I think there are quite a few things that they haven’t gotten right. With Philadelphia doing it in a way that’s authentic to the city, the opportunity is boundless. Entrepreneurship is Black & Brown Founders’ core focus, but as [Garcia] described, we’ll also be focusing on workforce development and how to get a job in tech. That’s not something we’ve done before, so we’re working with partners to curate those areas to ensure that everything is robust on both sides.

BizPhilly: Who are some of the partners you’re bringing in?

Williams: For programming on the career side, we have LaborX, whose founder Yscaira Jimenez, launched the program to help get people of color hired. She calls the process “linking in the linked out.” We are also partnering with Black Girl Ventures and their Pitch Black pitch competition. We’ve brought in REC Philly for some of the entertainment elements, like the local talent who will perform at the event. We’re also partnering with a number of other local organizations that are represented on our advisory committee like Coded by Kids and folks from the School District of Philadelphia. We are really excited about making this a community effort.

BizPhilly: The conference is taking place at the 2300 Arena. Was it your intention to shake things up by bringing the conference to a space that typically hosts sporting events and concerts?

Williams: I’m really happy with where we have arrived with this venue. Due to time constraints and the fact that this falls during one of the busiest times for conferences, a lot of the dream places we had in mind were unavailable. So we thought, “We’re going to have to think outside of the box on this one.”

Our friends at the CVB were super helpful and introduced us to the 2300 Arena, which was not on our radar. When we first heard of it we were like, “Wait. It’s a place where they do MMA fights and boxing matches. Is this the right thing?” But when we walked into the space, we could just see that it was actually going to be really cool. There is so much we can do in it, and we really like the idea of repurposing and refashioning something that has been used in different ways. We also like the idea that we are going to be building our own mini Wakanda in the least expected place.

Scene from a Black & Brown Founders Philly event. Courtesy photo.

BizPhilly: When Mayor Kenney attended SXSW, he blasted the conference for being “too white” and urged the city to create its own version, but one that’s representative of Philadelphia. With the way things are shaping up, do you think you’re hitting the Mayor’s concern? Who do you expect to attend?

Williams: I definitely think we’re hitting it based on what we have seen at our previous events and who’s already registered. We expect to see mostly millennials in terms of age and largely Black and Latinx folks. All of our past events have been entrepreneurship focused, so most [attendees] have been either people who have started a company or want to start a company and are particularly in the earlier stages of their journey as a founder.

Garcia: This year I attended Black & Brown Founders’ Hustle House day of programming at SXSW, and I brought two old friends with me who both live in Austin now. One works at Facebook and the other at Samsung. These two young men of color in tech were blown away, and said they had never seen anything like that. So now we’re asking and trying to address, “Why can’t we have this type of gathering in Philadelphia?”

Williams: And I want to emphasize again that the content is told from the perspective of and is specifically targeted at Black and Latinx people. But, it is open and welcome for any and everyone who wants to come. If you want to come and learn about how to build a startup when you’re broke or how to get a job in the tech industry, there will be valuable information for you and you should come. If you come into the space with love, you will get love in return.

BizPhilly: Last fall’s Black & Brown Founders conference brought a lot of outsiders into Philly from places like Portland and Maryland, for example. Will this be the case with Project NorthStar?

Williams: Right now, there is a mix of registered folks who are local and from outside. Most of them are from that [Mid-Atlantic] corridor. And then we have been talking to some of our community partners, folks who are just general friends or speakers, about what we are calling “delegations.” I know that Portland has a mind to send some founders out again, and we’ve been talking to folks in San Marcos outside of Austin who are interested in sending a group of people. A lot of them are thinking, “We want people who are driving decisions in our city to attend so that they can have an example of what something can look like in our market.” I’m not sure what our final day ratio is going to end up being, but I do expect that we will have a good group of folks from out of town.

BizPhilly: Though Philly will be the site of the conference, how are you all making sure that Philadelphia itself and its tech community are represented?

Williams: We’re making sure Philadelphia is represented through our partners and the advisory committee members that we have. The advisory committee is made up of all Philadelphians who are running organizations that work in the ecosystem. We’ve had multiple conversations with most if not all of the people on the committee to talk about how their work can be amplified through [Project NorthStar]. Some of our programming partners are Philadelphians and others are not. If they do not have a direct tie to Philadelphia, then we are bringing something that we think will allow Philly to further blossom.

On the speakers front, we did a call for entries and got somewhere between 140 and 150 applications to speak at NorthStar. There is so much talent there, and a majority of these entries came from Philadelphia or the greater Philadelphia area.

BizPhilly: Is Project NorthStar being modeled after something else that’s already out there or is the conference really in a league of its own — a model that doesn’t currently exist?

Williams: I want to say both. There is a lot of inspiration coming from other events happening in this space. Black Wall Street: Homecoming, for example, is one of those events, and it’s taking place in Durham the week before. Generally, I’d say there’s so much value in the gathering of people who look like us and have similar ambition to really take part in this innovation economy. We are so separated from each other, kind of in silos, so just bringing everyone together is so valuable. A differentiating factor for NorthStar is that we’re interested in helping Black and Latinx folks learn how to make money. At the end of the day it’s about closing the wealth gap and the redistribution of wealth. Technology is really the most promising tool that we have for that.

Scene from a Philly Black & Brown Founders event. Courtesy photo.

BizPhilly: Can you give our readers a rundown of how each day of the conference will be organized?

Williams: We are going to have two tracks. The first is entrepreneurship and the idea behind that is how people can go from zero to one when they’re working with modest resources. We’ll be talking about getting funding, and obviously the thing that everyone talks about — getting money from investors. But we will also talk about alternative forms of funding. We are going to talk about marketing and sales, and hopefully we will have some room to talk about design. I would also like to do some legal basics since everyone always has questions about corporate structure and intellectual property.

Our second track is careers, which will be split into three subcategories. One will be focused on people who are already working in tech and are trying to figure out the nuances of navigating the system as they continue to level up. That track will run mostly during the first two days.

The second category for the careers track will feature content for people in the position to hire others into tech jobs. This content will focus on evaluating talent, building infrastructures for entry-level talent, and opportunities to bring more black and brown people into these workspaces.

The third category will focus on job seekers, people on the outside looking in who are curious about what it means to work in tech. This content will fall on day three, and that day will be free to attend. We’re expecting youth — kids in high school and college — to come through on day three to learn about future opportunities.

BizPhilly: Can you talk a little bit about the Mayor’s Summit taking place the day before the conference?

Garcia: The Mayor’s Summit will bring together business and civic leaders both from inside and outside of Philly who will look at data around the conference’s three focus areas (business development, pipeline development, and business & talent retention) and discuss best practices. We’re bringing in national folks because we want these leaders to talk about best practices in tech from around the country. We want people in the room to say, “Hey, we had this problem in my city and this is how tackled it.” We want these leaders to determine how we can make the conference’s three focus areas successful and how we can measure these things over the next year and every year that we do NorthStar.

BizPhilly: How can registrants begin gearing up for the conference now to ultimately get the most out of it?

Williams: First and foremost, connect with people. We’ll be launching a conference app where you’ll be able communicate with other attendees before the event. Connections are so huge and so valuable.

I’d also ask each person to come prepared with whatever thing they think is holding them back. Come prepared to ask questions about it. Also come ready to take advantage of mentorship opportunities that we’ll have onsite. We’re setting up a system that will allow people to start making appointments with mentors before the start of the conference.

And be ready to have some fun, too! We’ll have a couple of happy hours and a larger performance, but I can’t say who will be performing yet.