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.
“A lot of what you’re able to pull in is based off of prior experiences — you learn from each event that you do, and you take what went well, use that in next year’s event, or you tweak something that maybe didn’t go as well and you do it differently the next year,” Wilkins said. “This was very much a blank slate in the sense that we weren’t pulling from a previous experience.”
Uncertainty around the pandemic drove some attendance down to 250 participants from the average 500 in recent years. NewBoCo had staff and a small group of community volunteers managing Zoom rooms for sessions, and select staff at their headquarters troubleshooting attendee technical problems.
“Especially for a first-time virtual event, it was probably nice to have a smaller [audience] to manage that,” Wilkins said.
Organizers preserved some space throughout the day to encourage one-on-one conversations, which have been commonplace over coffee at the physical event in past years.
“Being able to utilize [Mixtroz’] technology in a virtual setting was a great opportunity for us to be able to put some groups of people together. When you’re in a virtual setting, you can’t necessarily wander around the room and join a group in conversation,” Wilkins said.
The merch bag didn’t disappear for attendees, either: EntreFEST mailed individual packages to all 200 attendees with local snacks, coloring cards for brain breaks and that plastic hand-clapper to keep traditions alive and attendees engaged at home.
Of course, a few glitches were bound to occur. Last-minute software updates changed a few controls as the event went live, but organizers were able to pivot to “plan B and plan C” to keep events running. Keeping distractions to a minimum wasn’t fully in the staff’s control when attendees are based at home, so organizers tried to work with the interruptions by keeping sessions shorter.
“This gave us an opportunity to try something that we may not have tried otherwise, and I think it really opened up some possibilities to what EntreFEST could be in the future,” Wilkins said. “[It] provides opportunity in that virtual space — the ability to expand our reach by not having to focus on a geographical region, additional opportunities for EntreFEST-type events throughout the year. … There’s a lot for us to be able to take from this.”
EntreFEST is working to upload video of all the sessions so attendees can view sessions they missed during the conference. That’s a feature organizers will consider bringing back in future years, Wilkins said.
“We really appreciated all of the partners, all of the speakers, all of the attendees that came along and joined us last week,” Wilkins said. “The ability for us to still have EntreFEST, still have this great group of people come together was really important. We’re really appreciative of everyone for being a part of this.”
Looking at hosting your own virtual conference? Wilkins shared what worked well for EntreFEST:
- Live events instead of prerecorded sessions: “The fact that everything was still live — our keynotes, breakout sessions — there was opportunity to still interact with each other and ask questions through our app.”
- Encouraging participants to keep their web cameras on, which encouraged active participation.
- Scheduling intentional breaks between sessions to help attendees refresh and get at-home distractions out of the way. “We included a few dance lessons that people could enjoy to move around. [Zoom] can be draining after a while,” Wilkins said.
- Multiple backup plans in case technology being used is updated or disconnected.
INSIDE THE SESSIONS
How the pandemic influenced underserved entrepreneurs
Pre-pandemic, Iowa businesses and nonprofits had set out to build regional networks to support local underserved entrepreneurs who didn’t know where to turn for help as they launched their businesses. When COVID-19 shut down business statewide, barriers for these entrepreneurs were amplified. Anthony Arrington, Sarika Bhakta, Joy Brisoe, Maurice Davis and session moderator Quinn Pettifer led a Friday panel to highlight some of these challenges.
“Most minority businesses have no idea how to contact the SBA or any of those organizations. It’s not for lack of intelligence, it’s just for lack of being in the know and knowing who to call,” said Anthony Arrington, managing partner at the talent acquisition firm Top Rank in Cedar Rapids.
“We take for granted things like access to the internet, and the speed of word of mouth. What I find with the folks that we work with in our program is that they don’t have those things,” said Maurice Davis, program coordinator for the Jane Boyd Cedar Rapids Entrepreneur Program. “The power that comes from my program is not the classes. … What we provide you is a network. … When you need to try to get a contract, we can help open those doors in whichever direction and make those connections so that you can get there much faster.”
Advocating in policy
Once the COVID-19 pandemic spread, policymakers started releasing new resources so quickly that both entrepreneurs and advocates were learning the new guidance at the same time.
“I know that for me and probably so many others out there, it was very daunting, very emotional,” said Sarika Bhakta of Nikeya Diversity Consulting, an immigrant entrepreneur who grew up in the Midwest. “When Iowa came up with the Iowa Small Business Relief grant, I was excited because it was a grant, not a loan, and it was ranging from $5,000 to 25,000.”
As she kept looking through the criteria, she learned businesses with two to 25 employees were qualified to receive the grant — leaving Bhakta and her business out of help.
“That was a gut-wrenching moment for me. I think I just curled up and cried, cried, cried. … You can’t get any smaller than one sole proprietor,” Bhakta said.
Bhakta began emailing every representative she could, introducing herself as a certified targeted small business. Iowa soon came out with a targeted small business sole operator relief fund.
“I have power to impact change if I want to. … That was something that I will never forget,” she said.
Joy Briscoe, talent acquisition and outreach specialist at the Waterloo Community School District, said many entrepreneurs in mid-March were so overwhelmed with the impacts on their business and communication from the state or federal level that they were reluctant to apply for aid.
“[They’re] trying to deal with the mental stress of what is happening,” Briscoe said. “We had a lot of entrepreneurs who were like, ‘We just can’t put anything else on our plate.’”
“There are economists that believe that this process with COVID, and everything that is happening, will be a reset moment in our economy where it provides a lot of opportunity for entrepreneurs,” Davis said. “Many of my entrepreneurs were new. … For more than half of them it delayed their ability to start, but COVID-19 didn’t create an environment for them that was a heavy impact on their ability to stay open.”
“If a business can make it through a time period of COVID-19, that business will be stronger and better off on the other end,” he added. “As far as underserved entrepreneurs, if we can make sure they’re getting the information that they need in order to navigate and get connected to the resources … that’s how we can help set them up for success.”
Entrepreneurs who can look at how their business addresses new, post-pandemic needs will find strong footing, Briscoe said: “For a lot of entrepreneurs, this is the moment to look at the product that I wanted to offer — how can I pivot? It’s a great opportunity.”
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 priceline.com, 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.”