The organizers of 2019’s all-over-the-place innovation gathering, the B.PHL Innovation, threw an event so live (think the meeting of TEDTalk and a rave with motivational speakers and tech-sector drivers rather than DJs) executive director Michelle Histand, and co-founder, Dan Whitzer, decided to do it again this year. The only thing to slow, but certainly not stop them and their party? Covid-19 and the threat of over 5,000 people (last year’s number) meeting, greeting and being in person, closely. So they did what every sane event maker has done in the last 6 months, and gone all-virtual for B.PHL Innovation Fest 2020, with special speakers such as “Insecure” auteur Issa Rae, actor-woodworker Nick Offerman, rapper and motivational speaker Pitbull, and noted Philadelphia celebrities and entrepreneurs Chill Moody, Marc Summers and M. Night Shyamalan.
Admission is free to each speech, speaker and event, though you have to register early (and leave a donation, please). And amazingly Histand (who just snagged Shyamalan for the fest as dosage MAGAZINE went to post) had but a minute to talk while preparing for her three-day tech-focused, inclusion and diversity-driven affair.
A.D. Amorosi: I spoke to Nick Stuccio at the Fringe Festival who stated that the entirety of 2020’s fest was already curated and booked before the pandemic? Where did B. PHL IF 2020 stand in relation to its events and speakers? Michelle Histand: In March, we had started the process of accepting applications for speakers this year. Then everything changed! We started to do more curating around topics that made sense for this year while still incorporating a lot of the submissions we did receive, since we aim to be really inclusive when we build the event. A lot of it developed after we made the decision to go virtual, which happened in May.
A.D. Amorosi: In regard to its live audience events for 2020, what sort of pivots were you and your partner forced to make and how was it getting live events to become virtual events? Michelle Histand: We tried to rethink what the experience would be like. We didn’t want to just take live stuff and throw it online. We thought about how people would engage and what else we could do for the audience. We ended up with a few things around town for people to go out and do because we still wanted that physical presence, and we built the virtual in a way that allows attendees to chat with each other and interact as much as possible, while still in PJs if they want to be.
A.D. Amorosi: Little to none of B. PHL 2019 was virtual, right? Please tell me about the advantages you believe you had going into 2020 of going boldly into the future of innovation – it being part of your name and all? And how you dealt swiftly with its disadvantages? Michelle Histand: None was virtual in 2020 so we really did have to practice what we preach, innovation-wise. Flexibility was the name of the game…we were open to all ideas and talked to a ton of partners about what made sense. The tough part was finding the right platform that could do what we wanted. But there is a huge advantage. Our goal was always to get a more national following, and virtual allows us to do that – something we thought we wouldn’t be doing until year three. We have a national audience set to tune in this year and even international – we have people registered from over 20 countries!
A.D. Amorosi: Please tell me about dealing with the “celebrity” speakers that you had or have. How were each of them (Issa Rae, Nick Offerman, Pitbull) amenable to moving forward with an organization or entity I’m gathering they had no advance knowledge of? And why those three?Michelle Histand: First and foremost, we wanted celebrity speakers who reflect the diversity and spirit of innovation and also of Philly. We wanted a range of who would appeal to various audiences and a cool set of topics. We also did our informal research and Issa Rae came up as someone people wanted to hear from. Nick Offerman is multi-faceted in that he’s a maker/woodworker in addition to acting, so that speaks to the creativity side. And Pitbull talking about education is a grand slam. We had great diversity last year but we felt we could have had better LatinX representation, so that was important to us this year.
A.D. Amorosi: Other than “PLEASE HELP GET ME OUT OF 2020,” what theme or themes, whether you created those arcs or not, are emerging for this year’s B.PHL? Michelle Histand: First of all, if there’s a way to get out of 2020, say the word! But we’ve had three clear themes emerge this year. First, Economic Recovery – how are businesses and people changing because of COVID. Second, Social Justice and Racial Equity – how can we be better allies and create equity in Philly and beyond. And third, Personal Creativity and Inspiration – how can people stay inspired during a difficult time like this.
A.D. Amorosi: Tell me about working with the Philadelphia Foundation in order to be free of cost, save for donations. And why do ‘free’? Michelle Histand: From the jump, accessibility was core to who we are. We want everyone to be able to attend B. PHL. In 2019, we had a badge price but gave a lot of badges away. In a year that’s economically difficult, we didn’t feel like it would be right to charge. But if people are looking to help, as many are, why not direct them to the Philadelphia Foundation and the PHL COVID-19 Fund to put dollars to work in our region?
A.D. Amorosi: I know that every part of this event is like your child, but, do you feel as if you have or you will have favorite moments and what do you imagine they will be? Michelle Histand: I like the festival better than my children! Just kidding… mostly. I’m personally most excited for the sessions on equity. I want people to walk away with actionable ideas on how they can be a better ally and make a change. To me, the best thing that can happen at B. PHL is people do something new, different, and better as a result of being with us.
A.D. Amorosi: I remember there being a real spirit of camaraderie at the last BHLPIF event. How do you think or how do you hope you can replicate such lively conviviality in a virtual realm? Michelle Histand: Thank you so much. That is the nicest thing you could say because we really want that feeling. We’re doing things like encouraging attendees to chat with each other throughout events. We’ll have speed networking each night – just you and another person in a “room” for 4 minutes with some silly questions to ask each other. We have team trivia each night, so you can jump on a team and exercise your brain. And our experiences around Philly are meant to get people out and moving, and then sharing on social to build a sense of “togetherness.”