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A Glimpse Inside Venture Café Philadelphia

Imagine a space – a kind of assembly hall for innovators – where entrepreneurs, scientists, researchers, students, investors, makers and all others can mingle, share ideas and learn. A place whose mission is to connect innovators to make things happen. Where free, weekly Thursday gatherings present high-impact programming designed to expand and support Philadelphia’s innovation ecosystem.

That place now exists. The Venture Café Philadelphia, at the newly-opened 3675 Market Street, the new headquarters of the University City Science Center and at the heart of the emerging uCity Square campus, is the seventh outpost of the Venture Café Global Institute.

“The power of Venture Café is the simple concept that innovation is for everyone and giving innovators a weekly place to call home, to gather, connect, network and learn benefits everyone,” says Tracy Brala, the Science Center’s vice president of Ecosystem Development.

About 200 attended Venture Café Philadelphia’s inaugural Thursday gathering on November 29. There were lessons in orchestrating leadership with Jeri Johnson, conductor of the Black Pearl Chamber Orchestra (“part of creative leadership is trusting your team”), startup standup with Rubi Nicholas and Travis Sheridan (president of the CIC Venture Café Global Institute) and more.

Richard Florida, the prominent urbanist, gave a simultaneously rousing and sobering assessment of Philadelphia’s position on the world economic stage. “You’re one of the great success stories,” Florida said, noting the city’s assets and growth. But while many smaller cities are falling behind, successful cities increasingly struggle with growing income equality, a diminishing supply of affordable housing and a drop in mixed-income neighborhoods. “I’m getting worried,” he said, “but Philadelphia may have the time to address this.”

To help find solutions, the Science Center, Drexel University and Thomas Jefferson University have named Florida as the inaugural recipient of the Philadelphia Fellowship, a year-long research project focused on pressing urban issues including affordable housing, gaps in human capital and the role of large-scale, local institutions in identifying potential solutions.

The Café also hosted a panel discussion titled “So we didn’t get [Amazon] HQ2, what’s next?” There were mixed opinions about whether the Amazon news was good or bad for Philadelphia. But there was consensus that the bidding process was, as Bruce Katz of Drexel’s Nowak Metro Finance Lab put it “a paradigmatic shift in terms of narrative and collaboration.” Or as Brigitte Daniel, executive vice president of Wilco Electronic Systems, said, “we gained a new story for ourselves.”

It’s this type of smart talk that Venture Café will bring to Market Street every Thursday.

The “Thursday gathering,” Sheridan told me in January, “is the foundation and lynchpin of the Venture Café program, contributing deeply to all other aspects of the organization’s work. [It] combines opportunities to network and a variety of high-impact educational sessions … In each market [besides Philadelphia, there are cafes in Boston/Cambridge, St. Louis, Miami, Winston-Salem, Rotterdam and Tokyo] the Thursday gathering quickly becomes the point of entry into the innovation ecosystem; on average, one-third of the attendees each week are there for the first time.”

Over 150,000 people have attended the Thursday gathering globally; sessions in established communities frequently attract 500 or more. Topics have ranged from discussions on raising capital for a startup to using design-thinking principles to address sex trafficking. “It’s not uncommon to sit in a room and listen to a moderated conversation between an attorney and an acrobat as they discuss the role of risk in each of their industries,” Sheridan said. “We believe innovation happens at the adjacencies of life and each city, every week, curates programming to foster new thinking, new ideas and new opportunities.”

Want to get involved? Venture Café is looking for volunteer “ambassadors” – bartenders (no experience necessary), greeters, photographers, connectors, etc., says Brala.

Venture Café Philadelphia will leverage and complement the Science Center’s long-established Quorum, which will open its expanded new home, including a free, ground-floor, drop-in lounge, at 3675 Market next month.

“Our vision,” says Brala, “is simple: to become the heart of the innovation community in Philadelphia.”