I spent last weekend in Crystal City right outside Washington D.C. with 130 mostly under 30-year-old individuals from around the globe. Being among so many international people at the conference definitely presents more than a few challenges for me, the only African-American at the conference. 

I’ve learned from my two previous conferences to expect the unexpected and assume nothing. My very first challenge occurred at the registration table when I introduced myself to two young people who were already donning the event name tag and chatting with each other. Forgetting my own advice, I assumed the young black guy was an America because his name was very basic, and it was easy to assume the white young lady’s name tag indicated she was probably not a native to America. I soon learned the guy was from Jamaica and the lady from Azerbaijan. Fortunately, the cameras weren’t rolling as I made several futile attempts contorting my tongue to say Azerbaijan in a recognizably audible fashion. I finally stopped embarrassing myself and went on to ask the other standard three questions all the attendees’ default to: What’s your name; What’s your project; and Where are you from? 

I’ve learned that trying to determine where attendees are from by attempting to decipher their accent is another trap not worth falling into. I admit to not having traveled much outside of the United States and find the need to turn on closed captions when watching Netflix shows like ‘Top Boy’ and ‘Peaky Blinders.’ The art of listening is so important at this conference because English is spoken in dozens of different accents during our many group discussions making it impossible to get used to any single one of them. 

The Unconference is put on by the Emergent Ventures program who are a grant-giving initiative by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. They aim to support innovative individuals and organizations working on novel solutions to pressing problems across the globe. Grantees, like myself, are selected based on the quality of their proposals and their potential to make a significant impact in their respective fields. 

The stuff these grantees work on is my other challenge. Listening to their elevator pitch sometimes forces me to want to get off the elevator on the first floor. Not only are their concepts outside my realm of understanding, I’m in awe when I hear it coming from a 17-year-old. I was selected for my community journalism work in Chester, PA. I often underestimate how important this work is to Chester but have a much better appreciation how vital this concept is in parts of the world where free speech is forbidden, illegal, and have put guys like me in jail and in the grave. 

Because much of what the Mercatus Center is about, many of the grantees are entrepreneurs seeking innovation in improving economic outcomes influenced by macroeconomic policy, regulatory policy, healthcare policy, technology policy and public policy. Because of that, totally unexpected to me was the huge response from these international attendees who learned that I am a candidate for Mayor of Chester, Pennsylvania. I was bombarded with questions about my candidacy and interest in Chester. Because many of them do work that affect government policy, I was like fresh meat by being an actual policy maker in my role as a sitting city councilman and potential mayor. When a lady whose vocation is shaping climate policy for India’s government spent our entire lunch period chatting with me about the challenges facing local government in Chester, I was overwhelmed with the interest. So many of them are ready, willing, and able to bring their talents to Chester. I can’t describe the honor to be among them. 

I was selected in the very first group of Emergent Venture grantees so attending the conference for a third time has the feel of an All-Classes-Reunion. It’s cool to reconnect with members of my first cohort to learn of their progress and new ventures. With close to 25 new cohorts of grantees joining the conference, there are plenty folks to connect with. 

Read my last review of the Emergent Venture Unconference if you want to know how an Unconference works. Here’s a few pix from this year…