Editor’s note: Dr. Sarah Glova covered Venture Connect 2022 for WRAL TechWire, providing previews and breaking news from the Cisco campus where the event took place. Glova offers her analysis on the event. Glova is the Founder & CEO of the award-winning digital media firm Reify Media, and she is an international public speaker who has spoken from California to Qatar on topics ranging from business and entrepreneurship to tech trends and Smart City initiatives. Sarah has a PhD from NC State in Instructional Technology and previously taught technical writing to engineer and business undergraduates. She serves on the Board of Directors for Innovate Raleigh, an organization dedicated to making Raleigh one of the top five centers for innovation and entrepreneurship in the country.
Startup Spotlight is a regular WRAL TechWire feature, published regularly as part of our Startup Monday package which includes our Startup Guide updates, calendars of events, a guide to Triangle meetups and a week in review of startup ecosystem headlines.
RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK – Last week, CED Venture Connect Summit swarmed the Cisco campus for a conference that featured “new and fun experiments,” as CED CEO Kelly Rowell put it.
Cisco’s Building 5 was packed with almost 800 participants—entrepreneurs, investors, sponsors, volunteers, and community supporters.
As one of them, I fought my way down high-traffic hallways, enjoying an event that both felt like something new and something familiar.
During one hallway trek, I was treated to a snapshot of our ecosystem, passing side conversations and making new connections as I tried to get from one stage to the next.
I passed Anita Watkins, Managing Director of Rex Health Ventures, and Bill Spruill, Co-Founder and President of GDC, as Watkins congratulated Spurill on the recent GDC exit announcement.
I bumped into serial entrepreneur and investor Scot Wingo, remarking with a quick hello that it was nice to see him in person rather than just on Twitter.
I met new people, like Carrie Heinonen, CEO of the Museum of Life and Science, who said she was attending to mine the entrepreneurial culture and innovations for future exhibit ideas.
I reunited with folks I haven’t seen in a while, like founder Brandon Kashani, CEO of TraKid, a 2021 Triangle Tweener List startup, who told me excitedly that he’d be pitching in the afternoon.
And I talked with event speakers like Karen LaVert, Partner at Peppas Capital, who was kind enough to let me interview her as she walked to the lunch hall.
And that was just one hallway.
Months ago, I would have questioned whether an event like this could happen—so many people in one space. Could it be possible? Could it be safe?
But as we fist-bumped and hand-sanitized our way through the day, I couldn’t help but notice the smiles, the energy, and think—We needed this.
An experiment that worked
I spoke with Rowell and Jay Bigelow, Head of Entrepreneurship at CED, before the event. Bigelow told me to expect that the event would be different.
“I’ve been at CED 10 years, and we’ve been at the convention center for 10 years,” said Bigelow. “So just, physically, being in a different place, things aren’t where we’re used to having them, and, you know, Cisco is a good corporate partner, but it’s not really set up to be a convention center.”
Rowell also said the new venue was part of an event experiment.
“You know, as we move towards a more hard hybrid workforce and more and more real estate becomes available,” said Rowell, “is there an opportunity to create these new experiences year over year, that are different from the next?”
And there were strains, to be sure. Often, the rooms were standing-room-only. At the CED help desk, I heard volunteers get asked again and again and again, “Where’s the Rock stage?”
Certainly, the event was a large-scale event that was smushed into a corporate building.
But, it also worked.
The rooms were standing-room-only because people were too busy to sit, as they hopped between three different stages and popped in and out of sessions.
The hallways were a bit long, and maybe less straightforward than a traditional conference center—but they twisted in ways that allowed for side conversations and new connections.
In many ways, I think part of why the event worked was the unconventional venue. Since it wasn’t held at a traditional conference hall, we all explored a new space together, and there were more opportunities for us to bump into one another, to say hello, and to learn something new.
It almost seemed to level the playing field for folks who were attending for the first time, or who were looking to create new connections at the event.
“CED’s Venture connect 2022 was the ideal, high-energy event our ecosystem needed,” said Bigelow, after the event. “Great to see so many people making so many connections!”
I caught up with Hunter Young. Head of Capital at CED, after the event as well, and he described an “overwhelming sentiment” of excitement as people reconnected in person.
“While there are always a great deal of official organized one-on-one meetings that take place throughout the event,” said Young, “I’ve also heard some pleasant anecdotes about people bumping into someone new in the hallway, usually after their pitch, with one party offering to help the entrepreneur by putting them in touch with one of their contacts.”
The connections continued after the pitches as well. Bigelow called the evening celebration—which featured local bourbon, beer, BBQ, and live music—part of the CED “reinvention” of the summit.
“Doesn’t sound like the CED of my grandfather, that’s for sure,” said Bigelow.
Young said the evening celebration was well-received.
“Universally, I received countless comments from out of region attendees, and local as well, about how much they loved the NC barbecue and local drink options at the afterparty celebration,” said Young.
Not just older white guys
At the start of the event, as I was walking through Cisco’s campus to get to Building 5, I noticed something right away.
I saw women.
I saw people who looked younger than me, and people who looked older than me.
I didn’t just see white people.
At the risk of sounding a little Sixth Sense, I was seeing all kinds of people—and I think that speaks a lot about how the event itself has grown.
The landscape of the startup world is changing—too slowly, for sure, but there is progress. Ecosystems are amplifying more women and people of color in entrepreneurship, in funding, in community leadership. (Finally, and again, too slowly, but it’s happening.)
I saw it in the hallways. Students who might not have attended the high-ticket-price conference were attending volunteers, trading a few hours of free labor for a free ticket (and a coveted CED t-shirt).
I saw it at lunch. Looking out at the sea of people, I would have struggled to stereotype the group. It felt, to me, like a good representation of a lot of different communities—something our region desperately needs.
And I saw it on stage. I saw serial entrepreneurs who looked familiar, but I also met new entrepreneurs.
Kathryn Dunn, founder of The Nurtured Nest, was one of the 88 startups who pitched at the event—and it was her first time pitching. Ever.
She told me after her pitch that she appreciated the platform that CED provided for her startup.
“Fitting the full story of your business in five minutes is a daunting task for someone so invested in all components of her business,” said Dunn, “but the creation process helped me hone my message and reflect on the amazing things we’ve done so far.”
Dunn, who’s Holly Springs-based startup is a semifinalist for the 33rd NC IDEA SEED grant cycle, said that the event pushed her to finalize some important partnerships and business plan models so that she could share those updates with investors and other attendees.
“By Thursday’s event, I was so excited to share all of these exciting milestones with the Venture Connect attendees,” said Dunn.
Certainly, there’s still work to be done. An in-person event presents certain barriers to folks who can’t make the trek to RTP, or who don’t feel safe doing so right now. A high ticket price could mean that certain community members feel excluded, and, perhaps, not everyone is able to volunteer for a ticket. There were certainly enough familiar faces and suits to give parts of the event an intimidating, or even exclusive, feel. And, just because a startup founder has the chance to get to the stage doesn’t mean that he or she will have equitable access to attention from investors.
All that said, it certainly felt like a step in the right direction.
We’ll see how many of this year’s experiments make it to next year’s Summit. Personally, I vote that CED continue the student-volunteer program—I met with so many students who said the event was eye opening and motivating.
When I caught up with Rowell after the event, her message was one of gratitude.
“I am reflecting today and feel grateful for our partners that came together to make Venture Connect possible for our entrepreneurial community,” said Rowell. “Our startups who worked hard to prepare a ‘live’ pitch. Our local and out of region investors and along with our business community who has continued to support this program year after year. And lets not forget our media partners who have helped us share with the broader community.”
She also mentioned CED’s partnership with Cisco, sharing that their partnership played a “major role” in bringing Venture Connect Summit back in person and in the park.
“Their support enabled the CED team to create an inspiring, unique venue for attendees to reconnect after a two year hiatus,” said Rowell. “A special thank you to all of teams involved in coordinating this effort within Cisco.”
Attendees who want to share their own opinions about the event can do so—CED launched an open survey for feedback: https://forms.gle/rPktvDkatHyF445x6