September 15, 2021
The B.PHL Innovation Fest returns for its third year in Philadelphia at the end of September, a three-day event filled with nearly 90 interactive workshops and speaker sessions that revolve around this year's theme of rising through collaboration.
Set against the disruptive backdrop of COVID-19, the evolution of B.PHL has been a case study in precisely the kind of adaptation and growth the event aims to foster in its programming. Proven leaders from Philadelphia and beyond lead topical presentations that explore the seeds of innovation across multiple industries and social ventures.
In B.PHL's first year, prior to the pandemic, the innovation festival was entirely in-person and spread out with events across multiple Philadelphia communities. The second year swung in the opposite direction with an all-virtual event necessitated by the state of the public health crisis last fall.
This year? B.PHL is capturing the best of both worlds, offering free access both virtually and in-person at a central event space in Philadelphia's Callowhill neighborhood. Registration is now open.
"The biggest change is that we are doing a hybrid festival this year," said Michelle Histand, executive director of B.PHL Innovation Fest. "One of the things we learned last year is that having that virtual presence was really fantastic. It really jumpstarted our goal of getting people from around the world to look at Philadelphia as an innovation hub."
When Histand was first charged with organizing B.PHL, the festival's focus was cultivating a strong community of partners and participants in Philadelphia, with an eye toward expansion in subsequent years. The local buy-in was immediate in year one, but the all-virtual event in 2020 wound up drawing attendees from 37 countries and 49 states, a leap in visibility that has put the festival ahead of schedule and elevated Philadelphia's profile.
"Innovation is interesting to everybody," Histand said. "I think what we've been able to do well is have something for everyone. We called this a festival intentionally, not a conference. We really wanted to feel like this is something for everyone — and we've always been focused on equity and inclusion, making sure anyone who wants to attend can do so. That is in the DNA of this event."
An exciting group of speakers in 2021 includes CNN anchor Don Lemon, Grammy Award-winning artist Eve, Philadelphia 76ers President of Basketball Operations Daryl Morey, and Villanova University basketball coach Jay Wright, who will join writer Brad Inglesby, the mind behind HBO's "Mare of Easttown," for a discussion about cross-collaboration in the sports and entertainment industries.
In-person and virtual B.PHL attendees in 2021 will have the freedom to access a wide selection of sessions across the landscape of business, health care, technology, arts & culture, psychology and social justice, among other topics.
"We try very hard to make everything that we do relevant," Histand said. "We want people to feel like — 'Wow, I'm really walking away jazzed with something that I needed."
Many of the planned topics in this year's festival were submitted by attendees themselves, who have helped shape the direction and agenda of B.PHL in its early years.
Among the kickoff events planned for the morning of Wednesday, Sept. 29 is a virtual workshop called, "Driving Racial Equity in the Workplace Forward," which will be led by Independence Health Group CEO Greg Deavens and Merck executive chairman Ken Frazier.
"One of our top categories is around social justice equity, both from an individual lens and also a business lens," Histand said. "We know that's where a lot of people's minds are and should be. We also know that diversity is what leads to innovation — and that means true diversity, equity and belonging. Not checking a box. A lot of our sessions focus on that because we know that's what businesses need."
Another workshop Histand highlighted is called "All Dreams, No Nightmares," an examination of risk-taking and how the coronavirus pandemic has inspired people to bet on themselves to find personal and professional fulfillment in new areas. Histand pointed out the story of speaker Wendell Holland, the former "Survivor: Ghost Island" winner who pivoted his career into the furniture industry and now hosts the HGTV series "Hot Mess House," coming full circle back to the entertainment world.
Most B.PHL sessions will be structured in the form of a 30-minute conversation, whether it's a panel or a fireside chat, followed by 10-15 minutes of audience Q&A.
"We have that set up so that if you're watching at home, you can submit your questions and we'll make sure speakers see those," Histand said. "If you're in the audience, you can ask your questions during that time."
The in-person version of the B.PHL Innovation Fest will be held at Location 215, an event space at 909 Spring Garden St. that was recommended by festival partner Arts & Crafts Holdings. The Philadelphia development firm has played a vital role in reshaping Callowhill's business and residential community in recent years.
Histand touted the vibrancy and innovation in the area around the venue. Triple Bottom Brewing, located across the street, is active in preventing recidivism by hiring people who are looking to turn their lives around or are experiencing homelessness. The festival's official coffee partner, Win-Win, is a Black, women-owned business that has made collaboration the heart of its brand.
"You see all this activity in that area and it made it feel like a really good home for B.PHL," Histand said. "As we go forward and think about the future of the festival, it's thinking about how to build out an even bigger footprint and more of that village feel. These are the types of places we would want to do that, where we have all of these entrepreneurs in the area."
Those who attend B.PHL in person will be required to show proof of vaccination for COVID-19, which provides peace of mind and enables mask-wearing to be optional among attendees. The venue also has outdoor spaces that will facilitate networking in a socially distanced way.
Virtual attendees will be able to access streaming sessions through an online hub after they officially register for B.PHL. They will have the ability to create a bio and connect with other attendees by requesting a 15-minute virtual chat.
"I think people should take advantage of that function, because it's a neat way to connect," Histand said.
Everyone attending B.PHL in 2021 is advised to take time to look through the full schedule of events and plan out which sessions they'll be viewing or participating in on-site. This is particularly important for in-person attendees, who may have limited access to certain events with especially high demand.
On Friday night, Oct. 1, the festival will conclude with a 9 p.m. concert and celebration at the co-working space Rec Philly, located at 901 Market St., Suite #2120, in Center City.
As Histand anticipates this year's festival and looks forward to the future of B.PHL, she's encouraged by the lessons learned from the first few years of organizing the event the festival under challenging circumstances. It may have been the impetus to strike the perfect models for attendees and speakers, locally and beyond, to get the most out of their experiences.
"From a B.PHL perspective, I think we will always have a hybrid approach," Histand said. "I can't see a world where we go back to only in-person, and certainly not only virtual, since everyone has some fatigue there. I think what we're seeing, not just in events, but in our lives, is it's kind of about choice and flex. Where am I on a given day? What do I want to be doing and how do I want to be engaging and working and connecting?"
Most of all, Histand encourages everyone who participates in B.PHL to take advantage of the opportunity to meet other innovators, build relationships and celebrate Philadelphia's spirit of innovation and collaboration.
Register for the 2021 B. PHL Innovation Festival here.