The Smartest People in Philadelphia

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

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.”