Tampa Bay Startup Week fosters connections through conversation, community building

Did you attend Tampa Bay Startup Week? What was the highlight of the week’s more than 80 events, spread across five days in mid-February? 

Was it the moment at Monday night’s kickoff party when Mayor Bob Buckhorn joined DJ Dayve on stage behind the booth at District 3, a re-imagined brick warehouse in downtown Tampa, to spin a tune? 

Was it the next night, a crisp and chilly Fat Tuesday, when entrepreneurs and business professionals crowded together at Ferg’s Live near Amalie Arena in the Channel District, posing for photos with Emoji-inspired face masks? 

Was it, perhaps, the mid-week 1776 Challenge Cup, at which 19 promising up-and-coming startup businesses pitched their ideas before a panel of judges for an opportunity to move onto a regional round in New York City and potentially a national round in Washington, D.C. where they could win venture capital and cash prizes?
Was it Friday’s Never Have I Ever ‘Everything Local Market’ at Chase basecamp, featuring a food truck lunch and local wares for sale? Or was it during the closing ceremony, when a group of entrepreneurs and employees of Tampa Bay WaVe known as SoundWave performed at the Rialto Theatre on Franklin Street in Tampa’s ‘yellow brick row’ district? 

Whether the standout moment from Tampa Bay Startup Week took place on stage or during a panel discussion, there was no shortage of selections for attendees.

Making connections at Tampa Bay Startup Week 

Back in 2015, Chase Bank piloted a trial event – Startup Week – in a handful of promising entrepreneurial cities across the country, including Tampa. In 2016, Startup Week came back to Tampa Bay in full force, with Chase representatives attending many of the week’s activities and sponsoring several panels on accounting and funding for small businesses. 

Michele Grace, Chase Southeast Region Executive Sr. VP, took the stage at the kickoff ceremony for Tampa Bay Startup Week to thank sponsor partner Techstars and to praise volunteer efforts. 

“This is really an example of people coming together in their communities to help the community, build the community, and really support our entrepreneurs,” Grace said.

Many local sponsors signed on to host events and facilitate conversations. The week was broken down by track, or subject area: 13 different topics allowed attendees to select from a variety of events that took place in the downtown Tampa core during Tampa Bay Startup Week, February 8-12.

Track captains led attendees in morning workout sessions; facilitated conversations on credit building and bootstrapping; and took the stage to speak about fashion marketing or craft beer or coding with Ruby. 

Lead organizer Gracie Stemmer praised Hillsborough County for signing on as a gold level sponsor, calling the government economic development action a model for other cities and counties. 

At a mid-week event, local Creole restaurant Roux joined NHIE and local beverage startup Tidal Boar Ginger Beer to create a craft cocktail hour, where attendees helped to vote for the next drink to make it onto the South Tampa mainstay’s cocktail menu. Turns out, voters loved the ‘Driving Miss Daisy,’ a combination of Old Forester Bourbon, Dolin Dry, Tidal Boar Ginger Beer, chamomile syrup and lemon juice; look for it on the Roux menu during your next visit.

Interactive events offered at Chase basecamp - like the daily fitness classes, mentoring sessions and business headshots from a professional photographer - brought a crowd to the room even between panel discussions. Free Wi-Fi and a daily happy hour, powered by Pepin Distributing, were also available at District 3 all week. 

Stemmer says the organizing team emphasized making connections as the focus of Tampa Bay Startup Week 2016 because they wanted to relay “something specific” to the crowd. “We know, at Tampa Bay Startup Week, that a single connection can change the course of you as an individual or your business.”

Florida State University graduate Edwin Espinoza traveled from Orlando to attend the Startup Week kick off ceremony because he says it seems like a valuable resource for networking. 

Students from the University of Tampa and University of South Florida were also present at Tampa Bay Startup Week events.

“Get out there and collaborate,” Stemmer urges. “Make the connection.”

Beyond Tampa Bay: Startup Week’s national impact

“Think about where we were six years ago, where this city was, where our tech community was in Tampa, Florida,” Mayor Bob Buckhorn told the crowd at the kickoff ceremony. “The brain drain was a one-way street out of the state, out of this city. We were at risk of losing all of our best and brightest kids.”

Instead, Buckhorn said, Tampa vowed to change its economic DNA: “We’re not going to be a call center economy any more. Think about how we have risen from the ashes of the wreckage of that recession – and it’s the emergence of the tech sector that’s driving a lot of that recovery. Tampa Bay has created more jobs in the last three out of the five years than any place else in the state of Florida."

“Some of those jobs are your jobs. Some of those companies are your companies,” Buckhorn said. 

Later, he took a spin on the DJ booth.

One of the most anticipated events of Tampa Bay Startup Week was the 1776 Challenge Cup, a local round of a global pitch competition backed by venture capitalists 1776. The winner of the regional competition: Tembo Education, a startup mobile application that 83 Degrees profiled when the young business was competing in the Hult Prize finals in December 2015. 

The team, led by Phil Michaels and Ulixi Hawaii, helps parents in urban slums become home educators through a standardized education protocol that is delivered via SMS text messaging.

The 1776 Challenge Cup second place winner was car sales platform UpValet, developed by Tampa entrepreneur Ty Mathen, and third place went to Tesser Health, a Miami-based pharmacy price comparison application.

Organizing an event like Tampa Bay Startup Week is “crazy; it’s like a whirlwind of things happening all at once,” Stemmer says. “But it’s really rewarding. And when you get to see these people here, actually here making connections and becoming friends with each other, and collaborating with each other, it really puts into perspective the whole tech community.”

Please share your favorite moments or take-aways from Startup Week Tampa Bay in the Facebook comment section below, or by Tweeting @83DegreesMedia.
Enjoy this story? Sign up for free solutions-based reporting in your inbox each week.

Read more articles by Justine Benstead.

Justine Benstead is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.