RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – CED’s Venture Connect Summit is returning as an in-person conference for the first time since 2019. Venture Connect will run on April 6th and 7th, hosted at a new venue—the Cisco Systems Campus in RTP.

According to Council for Entrepreneurial Development CEO Kelly Rowell, the venue isn’t all that’s new about this year’s summit. 

“The thing I’ve loved the most about this year’s event is that it’s completely different,” said Rowell in an exclusive interview with WRAL TechWire.

“New venue, new space. New challenges to tackle because we’re in a corporate office building versus a massive convention center that’s set up to do massive events. So a lot of different unique challenges to think about, but opportunities to create new and fun experiments.” 

The summit will also include a new evening celebration featuring live music, local BBQ, and local breweries. 

New Venue 

The event will spread across multiple levels of Cisco Campus 1 (7025-1 Kit Creek Rd), in a building that Rowell said had become mostly vacant due to COVID. 

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“They’re hoping to potentially bring it back online as a community resource,” said Rowell. “So we’re somewhat of their pilot project to see how that works.”

She said her team was not afraid to experiment with new formats given the new location.

“We’re really intentional on how we’re trying to set up the levels and utilize the different departments, and so a lot of experimenting happening,” said Rowell. 

She shared that her decisions about the event are focused on the needs of the startup ecosystem, as part of her customer-focused leadership style. 

“I have always been a customer advocate,” said Rowell. “I think my leadership style is to make every decision that is based on customer needs. That’s what we’re trying to do. We want to create an experience that is going to have the biggest impact on them and give them the most opportunity to accelerate their growth, which is why we’re all there, right?” 

A focus on in-person connections

Rowell said she likely would not have considered a virtual conference. 

“We were either going to probably pause for another year or do in person,” she said. “I think that, definitely, people have given it a really good shot to try to make virtual one-on-one interactions impactful, but you just can’t replace in person. You just can’t. Because there are so many interactions that are unplanned and organic.” 

Rowell said the decision to double-down on in-person, one-on-one interactions helped to shape this year’s event format. 

Summit attendees will be able to connect with other guests before the event, schedule meetings, and even book rooms for one-on-one meetings. 

“One of the primary motivators to attend this conference is the number of private meetings you can have in one given day,” said Rowell. “It’s very beneficial to all different members of the crowd, right, members of the audience.” 

The pitches will also be live.

“For the last three years, we have pre-recorded all of our pitches, and so we’re actually returning to what you would consider a traditional pitch conference.” 

A total of 85 companies will be pitching on three different stages. Rowell described this year’s ​​company field as “exceptional”, citing the variety of stages and types of founders. 

“Some of them are asking for capital,” said Rowell. “Some of them are asking for, you know, different types of resources—customers talent, strategic partners, mentors, advisors, board members. And so the ask is for a variety of resources, not just capital.”

The celebration 

Rowell said that she hopes the new “celebration” portion of the summit will continue to evolve in the next few years. 

This year, the celebration will kick off at 4:30 pm on April 7th. The outdoor event will feature live music, beer from local breweries like Raleigh Brewing Company and Trophy Brewing Co., and BBQ from Durham-based Backyard BBQ Pit.

Tickets for the summit and evening celebration start at $499 ($249 for startups). But there is also a new registration option—a ticket just to attend the evening celebration for $199 ($99 for startups). 

Rowell said her team created the celebration ticket option with the goal of “trying to make it affordae, to encourage the community to come and celebrate.”

“If you look at the story of how SXSW was created, there’s a single person that is identified as the ‘creator’ but he refuses to take any responsibility or recognition for what it has become,” said Rowell. “Because the philosophy is that the people of the region determine the culture. He just gave it a place for it to come out and be celebrated. And, and that’s what I want for this region.”

Rowell used SXSW as an example but says she wants North Carolina to be itself—not to try and be Austin. 

“I want us to all come together annually and celebrate what makes North Carolina North Carolina,” she said. “We’re not trying to be the next Austin or the next Silicon Valley. We’re trying to be North Carolina and uniquely positioned to support and grow big companies here. And we’re doing that well already.” 

Scaled back to two days—for now

The two-day summit kicks off April 6th. The first day is exclusively for investors, with traditional summit agenda content on April 7th, followed directly by the celebration

“With all intentions of bringing it back up to a three-day conference as we safely move out of the pandemic,” said Rowell.