Anchors and Diversity: Lessons From Philly at Madison’s Forward Fest

Archna Sahay was hired as the city of Philadelphia’s director of entrepreneurial investment in early 2015, after she had spent more than a decade working in investment banking.

During her term, Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter and other city employees worked to make the city a place where more entrepreneurs would want to start and grow companies, Sahay said. One example is Startup PHL, an initiative aimed at helping people start new businesses and raise money for existing ones. Startup PHL launched in 2012, and nearly 1,000 new companies were formed during the first four years of the initiative, Sahay said.

Given her background working in finance, Sahay thought that elevating Philadelphia’s profile as a city that fosters successful startups would come down to allotting more money to programs like Startup PHL, she said. However, looking back on her time as a city employee—she left the job in July 2017, but still lives in Philadelphia—Sahay said the formula for startup success is more nuanced.

Sahay discussed Philadelphia’s startup ecosystem earlier this week during an event at Forward Fest, an annual entrepreneurship-focused conference in Madison, WI.

Here are two takeaways Sahay shared with the audience, and how those lessons might inform people and groups in Madison seeking to spur local innovation.

1. If more people are moving to your city, take advantage. Philadelphia’s population has been on the rise for the past 11 years, following decades of decline, Sahay said. The metropolitan area is home to expanding student and immigrant populations, which has been a boon for startup activity, she said. Philadelphia has organizations dedicated to supporting women, people of color, veterans, and people with physical disabilities who are interested in entrepreneurship, Sahay said—and that’s only a partial list.

Why it matters locally: Madison is in Dane County, which accounted for nearly 80 percent of the state’s net population growth in 2016, according to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel report. But even with more people living in the area, some leaders argue that more should be done in and around Madison to ensure that the dream of starting a company is as attainable for members of underrepresented groups as it is for everyone else.

2. Get anchor institutions involved. During her time working for the city, Sahay started a program called Post a Pilot, with the goal of having a Philadelphia-area startup and a large, local “anchor” institution work together to address a challenge the bigger organization is facing. For example, Philadelphia Gas Works used Post a Pilot to solicit help creating software that would let the utility break out information by ZIP code and display the information to customers.

Why it matters locally: Recently, there haven’t been any high-profile programs matching startups with anchor institutions in the Madison area. However, last fall, leaders at one of Wisconsin’s largest companies, Milwaukee-based Northwestern Mutual, provided information to entrepreneurs about areas the insurer was seeking to improve in, such as acquiring sales leads. Then, as part of a “reverse pitch” competition organized by Startup Milwaukee, Northwestern Mutual evaluated proposals for addressing the issues. The winner of the first competition was Socialeads, a Milwaukee-based startup developing software to mine social media feeds and flag posts where users indicate they recently made a major financial decision.

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