What I did with my two-year term on Philly Startup Leaders

In late summer 2017, Bob Moore asked if I’d join the board of Philly Startup Leaders. I’d spent most of my early reporting career covering the nonprofit, and my organization Technical.ly had launched not long after that one.

Our organizational histories were quite co-mingled.  I had conditions and requests, all of which were in sync with Bob’s own plans in his new role as board chair. I began participating in an advisory role that fall amid considerable change, and I joined the PSL board formally in January 2018 for a two-year term. I came with my own plan and this month my formal term will conclude.

I’ve always found the organization important, a gathering of founders of companies in a city in need of just that. Here’s a review of how I believe I contributed to this nonprofit in my short tenure.

There was a time when it would have been inappropriate for me to join the board of a nonprofit that Technical.ly reported so regularly on. By late 2017 though, I was far removed from our daily reporting, including of that specific organization, and I had recently stepped into our CEO role. I can’t stress this enough: though I run a news organization, I am not involved our daily editorial (a core function of how an independent newsroom works) so this feels appropriate.

I had joined other boards, too, and I found the work personally and professionally productive. Like other endeavors, I believe I contributed positively to the organization, and that my time on nonprofit boards improved my skills as a first-time CEO. I’m particularly proud of the work I did for and with PSL, so I’d like to recap it here.

Generally, my charge was to support the executive director and board chair. I offered my expertise and experience, both specific to the Philadelphia landscape and more broadly in comparing to other cities, markets and trends in economic development. I felt I played an important role, being both a founder and grounded in the work of a mission organization tied to economic growth.

Here are other examples of experience I got in my two years.

Exposure to crisis communications

For most of its history, PSL was a volunteer-only organization. A well-meaning but busy board of startup founders had added a full-time staff member. That eventually resulted in complex organizational dynamics, which my news organization had to report on frequently. Though I recused myself formally from both our coverage and further decision-making, I took a lot of lessons from the experience, and offered as much guidance as I felt appropriate on both sides. I feel as though I contributed meaningfully to that difficult situation’s positive resolution.

Selecting a new Executive Director

With a vacancy in the organization’s leadership, Moore led the effort of finding a replacement. I was honored to be involved in the reviewing of finalists and selecting the remarkable Kiera Smalls, pictured above mid-dance party with me at the 9th annual Philly Tech Week Signature Event (alongside Mariah Schmidt of 1776).

Kiera is someone I feel personally invested in and close to. The process of getting there and the result we ended up with as a board felt like a real success.

Incorporating Diversity, Equity and Inclusion

It’s always puzzling to me when issues of equity are delegated to some far-off subcommittee or aimed to be addressed through ineffective tokenism. That makes these core issues worse. Instead, we know that those who are first and most responsible for DEI issues are those with existing privilege and power, and among tech entrepreneurship, that means white men.

I never have, and never will, suggest I am any expert, nor particularly culturally competent. But throughout the last two and a half years of more formal work with PSL, the issues of DEI, of membership and programming and staffing and outreach was a priority. I’m proud to have been part of that overhaul of the organization.

Updating Mission, Vision and Values

I took a leading role in a subcommittee that was formed to update the organization’s mission, vision and values. This was built on excellent work and considerable leadership, but I’m proud of the role I played to get this done. See the newest version of this here.

Board recruitment

In fall 2017, before I was formally a board member, I served in an advisory function and was eager to be part of engaging and vetting prospective board members. For years, PSL had been kept alive by a coterie of committed tech entrepreneurs, something Technical.ly routinely reported on. The group never had demand for board membership. But the group’s work had been elevated, and it had just gone through a relatively high-profile challenge to its cultural sensitivity.

Sitting with several of the longtime and crucial board members, including then-outgoing board chair Rick Nucci, I remember playfully betting we’d have an outpouring of interest in being new board members. That proved true, and it’s part of the reason why it makes sense for me to step aside.

In my early board meetings, I felt like I could play a unique role. Though I was a new board member, part of a board overhaul, I had been very close to the organization for nearly its entire existence. I felt like I could be a mix of new blood and institutional memory. Now that the level of engagement is high, I feel like my transitional role is complete.

I can return to a place where this is one of many important groups Technical.ly reports on and tracks amid economic change.

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I’m glad for the opportunity. Thanks to Kiera and new Board Chair Jenn Maher for taking over this next stage of leadership. Thanks to people like Rick Nucci, Danielle Cohn, Bob Moul and Brock Weatherup for their volunteer tenures over PSL and thanks to people like Chris Cera, Tracey Welson-Rossman and Blake Jennelle for launching the organization in the first place.

More specific to my experience, thanks to Bob Moore for his untold effort in overseeing this enormous period of transition for an important organization and for including me in that work.