At the morning keynote on June 4, NewBoCo Executive Director Eric Engelmann sat down at his computer with a plastic toy hand-clapper and gave it a good shake. The session’s “pre-standing ovation,” an EntreFEST tradition, would go on as planned — even over Zoom, with a sea of audience microphones muted. 

Keeping conference attendees engaged in the age of virtual events is a challenge — especially for a conference like EntreFEST, which is known for seamlessly integrating local businesses and the downtown Cedar Rapids map into the event experience. 

EntreFEST’s organizing committee had redeveloped the festival’s entire schedule and format since mid-April to go totally virtual once they decided the pandemic wasn’t going to pause in its global spread in time for a safe live conference, events director Jill Wilkins told the Business Record this week. 

“The spirit of EntreFEST is very much part of the community, embracing the community, utilizes the businesses that are there and brings people together,” Wilkins said. “Being able to think about how we can still infuse as much of that spirit and community piece into a virtual setting was definitely a challenge, and it was something that we spent a lot of time thinking through how to bring that to a virtual event.” 

Below, catch a glimpse at a few of the event takeaways from June 4-5, and watch for this week’s innovationIOWA e-newsletter to read the Business Record’s conversation with Wilkins on transitioning a conference to a virtual event. 

Find the place that wants your business 
When Kerry Schrader and Ashlee Ammons began the founders’ journey with their business Mixtroz in 2014, they had a few odds stacked against them. Quad outsiders, as they called themselves in the Thursday keynote — both black, female nontechnical founders of a networking startup. Schrader and Ammons are also a mother/daughter team. 

“If you’re a mother/daughter founder team and you don’t have a bakery, people get very, very confused,” Ammons told the audience. 

Schrader and Ammons would become the 37th and 38th black women nationally to raise $1 million for a startup in the U.S., but the process involved slow initial fundraising, meticulous budgeting by Schrader to stretch $200,000 over three years, a breast cancer diagnosis and the onset of depression as the two women rearranged their lives to make their business happen in Nashville, Tenn.; yet the community wasn’t responding to them, and Schrader and Ammons reached dead end after dead end in funding. 

“The ‘Nashville no’ is a thing,” Ammons said. 

Mixtroz joined the Gigtank Accelerator in Chattanooga, and in 2017 at the Collision Conference — catching attention with neighbor-made shirts that read “Black Female Founder – Fund Me” — the two founders connected with the director of the Velocity accelerator in Birmingham, Ala. 

Birmingham was home to the plantation Schrader’s paternal family’s ancestors were enslaved at — she recalled going to visit her grandmother and watching her father put a pistol on the dashboard as they crossed the state line to Alabama. But after joining Velocity, Birmingham was also the city where Mixtroz won $100,000 during a pitch competition at the Rise of the Rest bus tour, and where the mayor told the two women, “Not only do we want you here, but we support you 100%,” Ammons said. 

How John Deere is using artificial intelligence in agriculture
On a John Deere agricultural sprayer, 400 sensors are out in the field every time the machine is deployed, taking measurements of ground speed, humidity, terrain levels and hundreds of other factors. Thirty-six cameras on the boom distinguish row crops from weeds, directing the sprayer to deliver herbicide on a plant-by-plant basis, which John Deere digital strategist Sona Raziabeegum says can reduce herbicide use by 90%. 

“Land is [farmers’] legacy. This is an opportunity where they can use a fraction of what they previously used and get the same or better results,” Raziabeegum said. 

Automation is the next frontier for agricultural equipment engineers, and the field is often compared to players in the automotive industry such as Tesla. In automotives, engineers are only concerned about transporting the vehicle safely on its own. 

“In agriculture, you’re moving, but you’re also executing a job and working with things above and below ground,” Raziabeegum said. “So much goes into training that it does add a higher level of complexity.” 

Ag developments to watch: 

  • 5G connectivity, which would enable producers and their equipment to send and receive data from the cloud while in the field, instead of waiting to park near Wi-Fi in the farm shed.
  • Following connectivity, real-time automation will allow AI farm equipment to make decisions during operation in a field — raising or lowering a boom depending on a topographical reading by the equipment, for instance.

Sales and uncertainty
Is it possible to sell your business product during a global pandemic? Scott Case, the co-founder and current CEO of Upside Business Travel and the founding CTO of, said yes. 

“We never went to zero as a travel company,” Case told EntreFEST on Thursday. 

The keys are being organized with clear metrics, and staying sensitive to the message. Case didn’t have a lot of good things to say about marketing emails outlining how companies are handling the pandemic for themselves — “I don’t care,” he said flatly. “The key for your messaging is to be sensitive to the relevance of the marketing to your customer.” 

Case acknowledged that entrepreneurs will naturally want to shrink down some business operations in times of uncertainty, but “You can’t cut your way to success,” he added. 

“Most people have a misconception, [where] they take one risk at the beginning of the business, and the rest of their life is about de-risking the business,” Case said. “We’re making choices along the way to optimize the outcome. … A good mistake is one you can learn from. The best of us do the same thing on our wins.”