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Venture Café Philadelphia: Everyone Starts with a (1)

Each Thursday, the third floor of 3675 Market Street becomes a veritable sea of numbers; 1s, 40s, even the occasional visiting 140, and everything in between, that congregate in the café, in the various meeting rooms and corners, at the bar, or on a nice night, the patio.

We’re talking of course about the nametags each Venture Café guest wears to signal to others how many gatherings they’ve attended. Not for the higher numbers to boast or the lower numbers to feel singled out (no pun intended), but to allow the more seasoned to welcome and assist the more novice. It’s a natural conversation starter and after all, that’s what Venture Café is designed to do: connect innovators to make things happen.

“When we announced our partnership with the Venture Café Global Institute, a weekly event with multiple components from speakers, sessions, office hours, activations and more, it seemed ambitious to say the least. If Venture Café wasn’t so successful in the six other cities it existed in at the time, I might have even said impossible,” says Kristen Fitch, Director of Marketing at the Science Center. “I saw challenges in launching Venture Café not just in terms of developing unique programming each week, but from an audience attraction perspective given the robust programmatic offerings throughout the city and region. I’ve never been so proud to be proven wrong, week after week.”

Like its counterparts in other cities, Venture Café Philadelphia, which launched November 29, 2018, is accessible to all, free of cost and no strings attached; anyone can show up, any week they choose and stay for as long or as short as they’d like until the program ends at 8 p.m.

Unlike other Venture Cafés around the world (currently in 10 other cities with more to come), this one is powered by the University City Science Center, due mostly to its longstanding, established ties to the local innovation ecosystem we’ve served for over half a century.

And for the Science Center and our development partners, Wexford Science + Technology, Venture Café was a critical ingredient in elevating our campus at uCity Square into a world class innovation district.

As Geoff Mulgan, CEO of London-based Nesta writes in a recent blog post, “we would encourage developers and city leaders to make the curation of networks and social interactions a much more prominent part of plans for innovation districts of all kinds – ensuring that new districts are built not just around shiny buildings but also around a rich culture of insight and idea-sharing.”

Regulars have found a family of sorts here; friendly faces and an open and welcoming environment where you are encouraged to share and express yourself, but can just as easily sit back and take it all in.

And yet this is no exclusive club. The number of newbies, or “ones” remains strong week after week, as word continues to reverberate throughout the community.


of Venture Café Philadelphia participants are first-timers


have participated in 9 or more gatherings


are non-Caucasian

“I’m blown away by how far Venture Café Philadelphia has come in such a short time. Despite Philadelphia having a well-developed entrepreneurial community, we’ve seen the power of weekly, free programming validated by the impressive stats and anecdotal stories we hear from participants,” says Travis Sheridan, President of Venture Café Global Institute. “What’s happening in Philly is remarkable and I see it as a model for future Venture Café sites in cities possessing more established innovation ecosystems seeking opportunities to be more inclusive of its citizens.”

On the heels of Venture Café Philadelphia’s first birthday, let’s take a look back at some of the key moments and ingredients from year one’s special sauce.

Funding the Hustle

July 18th, 426 attendees

We can’t not start without this one. On July 18th, 426 guests were treated to a multi-media experience spanning two floors; a PhillyCam story booth, a WHYY listening station, a Made in Philly newsroom, pop-up WURD Radio station, LinkedIn headshots, a Generosity Marketplace and more. Sessions included Messaging Your Hustle, Scaling Your Hustle, Financing Your Hustle and Hacking Your Hustle. And if Venture Café Philadelphia was all still new to you at the time, you most likely recognized at least one of the many community partners and organizations that participated. The result? The most highly attended Thursday gathering to date.

Sheridan adds, “Funding the Hustle this past July encapsulates
engagement done right—energy, partnership, and, of course, hustle.”

Venture Café After Dark

October 26

Sixty representatives from Venture Cafés in 10 cities, spanning 6 countries, came to Philly for four days focused on building a community between the communities. Participants of the Venture Café Global Gathering were treated to several days of activities around the city and a very special Thursday Gathering, Philly-style. Activities included a revolution- themed Beyond the Bell tour exploring the alternative history of our country and the LGBT and African American heroes and trailblazers we don’t always see in the history books. The week culminated in a Thursday Gathering that segued into the first ever Venture Café Philadelphia After Dark. The collaboration with GLBL VLLG turned into a community jam-session of improvisational singing, poetry, rap and anything else participants felt compelled to do in the moment, all set against the new backdrop of Quorum that came alive and remained energized late into the night.

Future of Food

May 9th, 379 attendees

A main tenant of Venture Café Philadelphia’s mission is to create partnerships. Our collaboration with the Makers Meetup during Philly Tech Week 2019 was a feast of food and drink samples by local vendors that showcased innovation in food tech. Plant-based sliders, vegan nachos, eggless omelets and “chicken” cheesesteaks were just a few of the dishes guests got to try and speakers also led sessions addressing global challenges like hunger, animal welfare, the environment and sustainability. It was a feast of food and a feast for the mind.

JETRO Takeover

June 6th, 263 attendees

The BIO 2019 International Conference came to Philadelphia this past year and so did the world. Numerous international delegations visited the Science Center, and to cap it off, Venture Café Philadelphia partnered with the Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) for a takeover night. Discussions, food and decorations celebrated Japanese culture, the similarities and differences in our countries’ innovation ecosystems and our relationship with sister city, Kobe.

The Business of Cannabis

April 4th, 217 attendees

Perhaps one of the more progressive nights at Venture Café Philadelphia, was the exploration a topic that’s quickly transitioning from taboo to mainstream: cannabis. Investors relied on the sessions, such as lightning talks from startups, as a resource to learn more about the industry. Philadelphia Eagles Riley Cote and Todd Herremans, along with Olympic Basketball Player Dozie Mbonu, were in tow to table for their companies and to take part in a panel on the relationship between cannabis and professional athletes. Cannatunes showed off their fascinating EKG technology, which harnesses the vibrations from plants to play select instruments, which were later mixed into songs; and a host of startups in the cannabis industry, including ic@3401-member GrowFlux, demoed their technology.

Some of our team’s favorites:

  • An Entrepreneur’s Journey, or a Wizard of Oz Tale: A fashion show presented by local business, Princess Crochet Boutique, before officially launching their website.
  • Designing the Doctor of the Future: An interactive design- thinking exercise led by industry experts that addressed important questions about the future of healthcare.
  • The Future of Driving night: A collaboration with the Philly Autonomous Vehicle Enthusiasts meet up, centered around innovation towards self-driving vehicles. A VR self-driving simulation, and an autonomous vehicle live race track where key features.
  • 10,000 White Women: A critical and reflective discussion on race hosted by the Opt-in Podcast hosts Aurora Archer and Kelly Croce Sorg (in conjunction with B. PHL fest).
  • Founders over 40, a series in collaboration with CreateXChange and CIC Philadelphia that brings together encore entrepreneurs featuring Karin Copeland of CreateXChange and Aurora Archer of Bellatrix (in conjunction with B.PHL fest).

A few other memorable experiences; guests relaying a “love virus” in conjunction with BioArtist Heath Dewey-Hagborg’s Love Virus reveal, Robin Hood Ventures holding elevator pitches in the actual elevator, and a VR vs. analog art therapy experience where Drexel professors streamed and observed positive feelings amongst participants in two different locations.

You Have a Say

The community is central to the planning of Venture Café Thursday Gatherings. By design, our goal is to co-create content that is responsive to community interests and needs.

The content ideas collated by Venture Café Philadelphia for our 2019 monthly themes were sourced directly from the community through think tank sessions. And 2020 themes were sourced at Venture Café’s first birthday on November 21.

Funding the Hustle embodies this approach. The July 17 gathering was designed to explore non-traditional pathways to capital with an emphasis on those that don’t have formal training in business or a traditional entrepreneurial background. Much of the program was informed by feedback received during capital month, where the perspective of investors and entrepreneurs led the discussion.

At least 50% of our programming is initiated by community members. For example, last week we piloted curated demo tables by Mel Lamarre’s “Blactivate,” Black-owned businesses showcasing before Black Friday. Venture Café has also been a platform for community takeovers such as Backstage Capital, Women in Media, and NextFab.

Regulars have their own stories of important connections that came out of Venture Café including internships, job offers, new clients and business ideas. Often times they can recall one session or interactive experience that made a lasting impression on them, or a panel that opened their eyes to a different perspective. And sometimes you simply receive good, practical advice and pointers from thought leaders that have “been there” and want to share their learnings so you can avoid the same mistakes.

If you haven’t been to Venture Café Philadelphia yet but are considering becoming a “(1)” remember that you are free to weave in and out of the multiple sessions happening concurrently, taking away from the experience whatever is valuable to you. Our Rules of Play are underpinned by respect and inclusivity, the rest is up to you.

See you on Thursday!