#StartupsEverywhere Profile: Kiera Smalls, Executive Director, Philly Startup Leaders
This profile is part of #StartupsEverywhere, an ongoing series highlighting startup leaders in ecosystems across the country. This interview has been edited for length, content, and clarity.
Philadelphia: The City of Brotherly (Innovation) Love
In 1776, Philadelphia played a crucial role in the American Revolution as a meeting place for the Founding Fathers who signed the Declaration of Independence. Fast forward to 2018, the city of Brotherly Love is hosting a different revolution -- for innovation. Kiera Smalls, Executive Director of Philly Startup Leaders (PSL), is leading the charge as she builds a strong entrepreneurial ecosystem for innovators to thrive. The Philadelphia startup community is partnering with lawmakers to ensure it is reflective of Philadelphia’s diverse population. While there is still room for growth, lawmakers have made diversity and inclusion a priority for Philly’s entrepreneur community.
Tell me about you.
I joined PSL in March after three years at Bicycle Transit Systems, the startup behind Philly’s bike share program, Indego. I was part of the launch team, overseeing marketing, partnerships and sponsorships. A critical part to my role was to make the bike share industry equitable. That work included building a ridership that was reflective of the demographics of the city, lowering the barrier to entry when determining costs and payment processes, while growing the system in tandem with community stakeholders.
In addition, I am a co-founder of City Fit Girls, a fitness and wellness community that aims to make group physical activity more accessible and inclusive to all women regardless of race, pace, body type, socio-economic status, etc.
Can you tell me more about PSL?
PSL was created about 10 years ago when a small community of Philadelphia founders decided to meet-up on a regular basis to help each other through the challenges of building and scaling their companies. They came together to share resources, education, and support. PSL has grown into a community of thousands of Philly entrepreneurs who are looking for a community to help them through every step of the way. The way we look at it is that we can find solutions to problems together. No one has to go on their journey alone.
PSL has now grown to a 501c3 non-profit organization with three full-time staff and serves as an organizer and representative for Philadelphia’s startup and innovation economies. As the largest network for emerging tech entrepreneurs in the city, we have a unique opportunity to help a lot of founders achieve success. I would say that 40 percent of our network are seasoned vets - entrepreneurs who’ve seen failure, successes, etc., and want to give back. The other 60 percent are emerging entrepreneurs who are very new to the startup world or in the early stages of building their company. We want PSL to be looked at as the entry point to the entrepreneurial ecosystem in Philadelphia. We encourage members to use our network to get off the ground or get to the next level. And then give back to help others coming up after you.
What are PSL’s signature programs and activities?
Let’s start with the most popular one, Entrepreneur Expo. This is the largest tech and startup showcase in the city. We host close to 100 early-stage startups and 1500 attendees. We like to call it a “trade show with less suits and more fun”. It’s a great opportunity to showcase the city and the growing startups doing great work here. Attendees range from government officials to investors, students to corporations - all from both inside the city and out. Other events we host (or co-host) include Founder Factory, PHL Innovation Picnic, and Diversity Dinner.
We also have smaller but mighty specialized programs. For example, we have an annual Accelerator that works with eight to ten early-stage startups during a 12-week period. This program ends with PSL Pitches, a celebratory event that gives each founder the opportunity to tell their story, pitch their business, and share what’s next for building their company in the city. We cover everything from legal to scaling, raising capital to culture building, etc.
Finally, we have a very robust online community. There’s a Slack channel, private CEO list, public networking Google group and a newsletter.
What’s your personal role in the Philadelphia startup ecosystem?
I view my role as a connector for founders to get the tools they need to grow and succeed. I meet with them or shadow them to understand where they are and what they need. I also make myself available to answer any questions they may have. While we are a small but mighty team at PSL, we most likely know where to point people to for answers.
You spend a lot of time shadowing startups. What do they need? Are there trends?
There are three main trends of what startups need - mentorship, a network, and access to funds. These trends may sound simple but they are very unique to each individual and their company.
What’s the most exciting or important development that has happened to the Philadelphia ecosystem in the last year?
The emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion and building the next generation of innovators. This ecosystem is thinking critically about how to practice what we preach with regard to access. This includes underserved groups and youth. We all agree that it’s important and we are seeing an increase in resource-sharing reflect that sentiment.
What is the biggest challenge the Philadelphia ecosystem still faces?
We cannot ignore that 26 percent of Philadelphians are below the poverty line (The Pew Charitable Trusts). Of that population, about 70 percent are black and brown individuals. But don’t lose hope, I believe we are constantly working to do what we can as an ecosystem and city to combat the odds.
The first is lowering the barrier to entry to STEM for both youth and adults. The second is ensuring that this ecosystem is reflective of the city. This means putting resources behind the efforts we see day in and day out by community organizers and advocates.
How involved are lawmakers in your ecosystem?
Lawmakers support the ecosystem through providing resources and having presence at events. It’s great to see our lawmakers keep a pulse on how startups are doing in the city. They have prioritized the entrepreneurial ecosystem as a key part of the city’s economic development.
From a policy perspective, do you have any wishlist items for your startup ecosystem?
I wish that there was more funding to support tech and innovation in Philadelphia. Minority Business Development Agency announced $11 million in grants to support innovative projects seeking to promote and ensure the inclusion and use of minority enterprises. In addition, the U.S. Economic Development Administration announced $21 million in grants for regional innovations. What could innovation in Philadelphia look like if we have more of these opportunities become available?
Startups may see New York and California as shiny solutions if they can’t get the funding here. We aren’t saying you can’t move. We just want it to be because you’ve exhausted all the resources not because there aren’t many.
What are some startups to look from Philadelphia?
Roundtrip is a startup that provides non-emergency medical transport. It is like the Lyft of the healthcare industry. What’s even cooler is that you can pay through public assistance, making it accessible regardless of your socioeconomic status.
ORAI is an app to improve your presentation skills. Using AI, it provides prompts to practice with. Never feel nervous about how you show up in conversations or at presentations again.
Wearwell is a personal shopping subscription service that makes it easy to buy clothes while supporting the causes you care about. It’s all about social impact.
Onyx Valley provides students with hands-on training and guidance to get started creating a professional User Experience (UX) portfolio. Making tech accessible to underserved populations.