Most of us have attended a conference. Most conferences have a purpose, format, and outcome. An UnConference is different. Its purpose is vague, its format is mushy, and the outcome is unpredictable.
I’ve had the honor and pleasure of attending both Emergent Ventures UnConferences thanks to being a recipient of an Emergent Ventures (EV) grant from George Mason University’s Mercatus Center back in 2018 for my work in community journalism. If I were to define it, the EV UnConference is a human exchange of global intellect, culture, opinion, talent, and wonder.
The first UnConference in 2019 had about 40 participants from across the globe. Because of COVID, there was no UnConference in 2020 but EV grants continued to be awarded. This year’s UnConference tripled in size to slightly over 100 people who traveled from lands near and far for a meet-up in Washington D.C./Arlington, VA.
Meeting and mingling is probably the best way to describe the EV UnConference. Tyler Cowen, founder of the Mercatus Center and the guy who determines who gets the grants, designs the UnConference weekend event to maximize opportunity for people to connect. Unlike a traditional conference with a set agenda, a keynote speaker, a bunch of subject matter experts, workshops and breakout sessions, the UnConference leaves it up to us to figure out what we want to discuss. What results is an outcome unique to each participant based on who you meet, what you discuss, and how good you are at deciphering accents specifically from India, Europe, London, and Silicon Valley.
The event isn’t totally chaotic, but close to it. After a very brief gathering for a welcome and ground rules, the first exercise on day 1 is to ‘build the wall’ with hand written Post-It notes plastered to the wall describing topics you’d like to lead in separate 1-hour discussions on ‘Your Ambitions’, ‘Your Production Function’, ‘Your Biggest Challenge’, and ‘Your own Adventure.’ The topics folks come up with are pointed, vague, funny, unreadable, intimidating, and mystifying. Within 10-minutes, folks decide the ones they want to join, find the room, and start talking. There’s nothing stopping anyone from jumping out their seat to join another discussion group and some discussions get commandeered away from the person supposedly leading the group by a more informed, interesting, or charismatic personality. It’s a true free-for-all of knowledge-slinging. No one knows what will end up sticking.
One feature of the EV UnConference is a consistent high level of noise. Everyone is talking to each other the whole time in group and 1-on-1 discussions. Sometimes it’s several group discussions in a single room or multiple group discussions in the hall, on the bus, or at the restaurant. All 100 people travel everywhere together the whole weekend so the buzz is unending. And, it’s exhausting.
There’s a lot of very young people at the UnConference whose energy is as endless as it should be. My favorite quote of the weekend was from a guy clearly in his mid-40s as we left the larger group gathered in the hall outside the conference rooms chatting it up while sipping coffee, eating popsicles and gourmet cookies. We bumped into each other at the elevator around 10pm both looking like we were about to pass out as we scrambled to find our room keys. He looking at me and said, “These kids…I feel obsolete but inspired.”
It’s impossible in this short article to describe the connections I made, but here’s a few of the most interesting:
S.M. from India, co-found Queen’s English, which teaches people from low income towns and villages how to speak English for $1 per student per class. He explained that learning the English language is the currency to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty in India. His company is scaling to teach as many as 1 billion people in that region.
P.M. from India, the developer of PLASCRETE, a high strength building material made from unrecyclable plastic waste that is 24-times stronger than concrete, 8-times lighter than concrete, and 4-times more cost effective than concrete. He brought small brick size samples of PLASCRETE. When I mentioned my city has a trash incinerator that burns a lot of plastic, he shook his head in disgust and said we’d be better off digging holes in our backyard to get rid of our trash. This 20-year old is one to watch.
W.Z. from NYC, is a senior in high school working on positive outcomes using machine learning. He’s already a cybersecurity expert and is leading a new venture for secure verifiable cloud based AI. I asked him if Facebook was good or bad for machine learning. His answer wasn’t really nice, but he did suggest I reach out to him on Twitter.
A.B. from India, a data scientist and co-founder of Infinite Analytics led a discussion on data democracy. Other data scientists joined the group and asked a lot of questions which had my head spinning. Clearly A.B.’s company was way ahead of the curve in this industry. Silly me asked how much does it cost to subscribe to his service. Let’s just say that thanks to A.B. becoming one of my best friends at the UnConference, he offered to pump out some data driven results for the 19013 zip code as a favor. That’s the only way I could afford it.
A.B. from Toronto, is co-founder of HelpWare who developed a wearable device that detects conditions leading to a stroke with almost certainty. He also works in the longevity industry studying what makes people age and reverses it. I asked him if he saw the movie ‘Death Becomes Her’ and if his results are the same. He hadn’t heard of the movie but he was probably 2 years old when it came out in 1992.
E.X. of Washington state created a sport called Word Golf. It was super interesting to me even though I still can’t explain it (word.golf). In my attempt to get more clarity, I made the mistake of calling it a game and he firmly corrected me and said it was a sport, not a game. I won’t do that again.
K.R. of South Africa is running fintech companies in London. Honestly, I never heard the term fintech until this weekend. As Kevin Hart says, ‘You gonna learn today!’ K.R. and I got to know each other on the bus ride to and from the field trip. I got to share all my fascinations with South Africa including politics, apartheid, Mandela, and the recent death of DeKlerk. We even talked about my favorite South African musical artists: Brenda Fassie, Mariam Makeba, and Jonathan Butler. I told him about my favorite British TV shows. His said he and his wife’s new favorite American TV show is ‘Mare of Easttown.’ How cool is that?
P.Y. dropped out of school to start a company offering highly trained virtual administrative assistants to the world. I guess dropping out of school is not a stigma when you’ve studied at Stanford and Oxford, was named a Thiel Fellow, and is an ex-researcher at Microsoft Research India.
And then there’s C.W. who invited folks to come listen to him talk about the World’s Fair. Curiosity got the best of me and I sat in on one of his sessions. “Wait-What?” This dude is really looking to stage the next World’s Fair. I didn’t know there hadn’t been one since 1984. If you hear a new World’s Fair is coming to a town near you, chances are this is the work of C.W.
Needless to say, being an Emergent Ventures winner is prestigious and has its privileges. I still am overwhelmed that this little blogger from Chester, PA was chosen along with some of the world’s best and brightest minds to be a part of this club. At the first EV UnConference, I asked Tyler Cowen why he choose me. He simply said that I’m the only person he knows that does what I do and it needs to be supported and duplicated across the globe.
I’d say that’s an endorsement to hang my hat on.