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January 21, 2020 | The Philadelphia Citizen
What do you get when you mix one contractor, one massage therapist, an emergency medic—plus 308 other Philadelphians in wide-ranging professions—as well as food, alcohol, and expert speakers together in one West Philly venue?
You get Thursday night at Venture Cafe Philadelphia.
Allow us to explain.
Venture Cafe Philly is one in a network of nearly a dozen worldwide Venture Cafes—from Tokyo to Warsaw—whose mission is to educate, connect and nurture innovators of all kinds.
Every single Thursday, from its super-mod headquarters at the Science Center, the local branch opens its doors at 3pm to anyone, for free, for five hours of A-list programming, networking, drinks and fun (a game room—which technically belongs to another occupant of 3675 Market, the co-working space CIC—is open during Cafes and features foosball, Jenga, and video games).
In the year since it debuted, Venture Cafe has welcomed 200 to 300 people every single week, about 40 percent of whom are repeat guests, and about 40 percent of whom are people of color. As anyone who’s been involved in any aspect of event-planning in this city can tell you, that is no small feat.
At its first get-together of 2020, even blustery winds didn’t stop a steady stream of 311 guests from making their way, in jeans and in suits and in sweats, to hear from speakers and to participate in workshops on “growth-hacking” and design-thinking.
In every way—age, race, income, professional level—the crowd was diverse; 45 percent of attendees were people of color. Guests’ computer-generated name tags have a number signifying how many times they’ve come; on this particular night, 41 percent of people were first-timers, and many others were there for their 30th or 40th sessions.
There was Melissa Beauvery, a massage therapist who’d come for her first time; a spoken-word artist and ceramicist, she was hoping, that night, to spread the word about her show at Philly Art Collective to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti, from where her ancestors came.
She’d arrived with Mario Saint-Fleur, a recent Drexel grad whose college mentor had told him about the gatherings; running his own online marketing business, MonoDestination Designs, he’s hoping to ultimately land a full-time tech job. This was his sixth time attending a session.
“I’m confident that if we get you in the door, you’re going to keep coming back, because it’s a great product, it’s a great community,” says Tracy Brala, the Science Center’s VP of Ecosystem Development.
A Villanova and Wharton grad with 30 years of marketing experience in innovation at Philly institutions like Comcast and Campbell’s, Brala says her 18-month tenure at Venture Cafe has been the most rewarding work she’s ever done. “If you create a very safe space where people feel like they’re welcome, then we’ve found that people are coming back repeatedly.”
Graduates of Camden youth tech training program HopeWorks’, for example, often attend Venture Cafe, and Brala is always moved to hear that they feel truly embraced. “There are no barriers to entry here,” she says.
Venture Cafe launched in November 2018, inside of 3675 Market, the 14-story glass tower that houses the Science Center, as part of an evolution in the organization’s mission.
The nonprofit Science Center was created over 55 years ago by Penn, Drexel, the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science (now known as USciences), Presbyterian Hospital, and Temple University, as a neutral place for researchers and entrepreneurs to collaborate and make advances in science and technology. It has since branched out to focus on commercializing innovation, nurturing the STEM talent pipeline, and convening people.
In 2000, the Center opened its first incubator, the Port, followed in 2008 by DreamIt Ventures, a competitive startup program that brought entrepreneurs in from around the country to help them grow their businesses—and, hopefully, set up shop here.
Firsthand Lab is a state-of-the-art lab with microscopes, power tools, soldering stations and DNA analysis equipment that, in seeking to fulfill the Science Center’s mission of nurturing STEM talent, has welcomed nearly 2,500 students from 14 local middle and high schools. And in 2011, it opened Quorum, an “entrepreneurs clubhouse.”
The success of the Thursday meetup, Brala says, is largely because of strategic partnerships and volunteers. For an event dubbed “Funding the Hustle,” about finding capital for your small or minority-owned creative business, last year, for example, the Cafe partnered with media collaborative Resolve, The Enterprise Center, West Philadelphia Promise Zone, and Sustainable Business Network of Greater Philadelphia, and did a radio promo on WURD. “At the end of the day, it was a lot of different folks that were coming together to collaborate, and I think that’s why it was so special,” Brala says.
Another recent Thursday focused on using innovation to solve the opioid epidemic, and was held in partnership with Penn. “That’s not a typical ‘innovation’ topic,” Brala says. “We had artist Jeffrey Stockbridge doing a pop-up gallery and a talk, and ER doctors and safe-house proponents and something to bring in people from all angles.”
And for all events, countless volunteer greeters circulate to make sure that everyone feels included.
Still, classic networking events can be awkward. Or dead-ends. But, perhaps helped by the free drinks (there is a three-drink maximum), the vibe on a recent Thursday night is decidedly collegial; groups who are chatting so comfortably they could be mistaken for long-term colleagues reveal that they have only met this evening. Nearly everyone talks about positive, tangible outcomes from the meetups.
Ryan Jamison, a former contractor looking to pivot to tech, says that his first visit to Venture Cafe was to hear urban studies guru Richard Florida—with whom he ended up talking one-on-one later that night. “Every time I come here, I meet at least three people who I actually stay in contact with,” he says. “It’s really laid back. You can come and just be yourself, and people will be so welcoming. I love the sense of community.”