Alliance Blog

SoCal Leaders ‘Unplug’ for a Full Day Workshop To Tackle Shared Challenges

On November 11th, a group of fifty (vaccinated) SoCal ecosystem leaders gathered at the Spectrum Terrace conference center in Irvine for a professionally facilitated workshop to collectively tackle shared challenges and opportunities and most importantly, to re-connect after a long hiatus due to the pandemic.

Thank you to our lead sponsor, The Irvine Company for hosting us at their recently built state-of-the-art conference venue — it was the perfect setting for the workshop. We are also very grateful to our other sponsors who all played key roles in the event: Amazon, Verizon, and Annenberg Tech | Annenberg Foundation.  

The day’s focused discussions were designed by the Alliance in coordination with our facilitator, Val Wright, to drive a common understanding of the issues, best practices for addressing gaps in our ecosystem and the accompanying accelerants and decelerators that impact adoption of the best practices. The content was captured visually by Michelle Boos-Stone, our graphic recorder, who created the hand drawn images in real time during the workshop. 

The day’s program began with a rousing welcome from Andy Wilson, Executive Director at the Alliance and then the group was invited to participate in an interactive exercise called Asks + Offers where they each listed via post-it notes their “Asks”  (what they need or are looking for from the community, e.g. Mentors to support portfolio companies) and “Offers” (what they can give/offer to the community, e.g. speak about alternative funding at founder-based events). This framework helps drive relevant connections between attendees. 

The remainder of the program was divided into three primary conversations of which the second and third were mostly explored through breakout groups led by subject matter experts. The attendees self-selected which breakout group they would participate in. 

Conversation 1: Emerging from the Pandemic: What’s Changed and What’s Next?

All attendees participated in unstructured small conversations related to the seven ‘spectrum’ topics placed throughout the room. More detail below.

Conversation 2: Funding the next wave of SoCal startups

  • Group 1: Alternative Paths to Growth Beyond ‘traditional’ VC funding e.g. Opportunity Zones, SBIR/Non-dilutive grant funding, Crowdfunding, Debt Funding, Corporate Partnerships. Discussion led by Stacy Cumberbatch, Managing Director of Blended Impact.
  • Group 2: How a funder finds its fit: building a holistic and authentic approach to effectively expand the funding aperture. Discussion led by Natalie Charney, Chief of Staff for Clocktower Ventures.
  • Group 3: Promoting Funding Equity and Access to Capital: Leveraging public data, philanthropic partnerships, and non-dilutive funding to create a more equitable innovation ecosystem. Discussion led by Calvin Selth, Program Manager for Annenberg Tech, Annenberg Foundation.

Conversation 3: Creating compelling innovation communities that attract (and retain) talent

  • Group 1: Engaging talent in Higher Education: best practices for connecting employment, investment, and IP creation at centers of higher education and research. Discussion led by Ron Blanchard Solutions Manager, E2W & Marianna Holliday, Global Lead of Academic to Workforce Solutions, Amazon Web Services
  • Group 2: Community-based recruitment and retention of talent: engaging the broader ecosystem to attract top talent. Discussion led by Mark Percy, President and Jasmine Pachnanda, SVP at CLA – OC
  • Group 3: Improving representation of women and underrepresented minorities in the innovation ecosystem workforce and leadership roles. Discussion led by Donald Grant, Executive Director at Mindful Training Solutions and DEI advisor to the Alliance for SoCal Innovation

Here’s a quick summary of the first conversation highlights to get a sense of what we learned from that highly interactive session:

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For the first conversation, we surveyed the attendees to rate themselves along seven key areas and challenges (e.g. Attending/hosting in person events) with the answer choices presented as a spectrum (e.g. Difficult -> Normal -> Easy). Attendees were instructed to write their name on the spectrum in the location that best represents their answer; note they were instructed to only rate the factors that were applicable, so some have fewer responses than others (e.g. Access to Investment only relevant for some roles/organizations and not others). See image below for the artist rendering (the names have been replaced with people icons in this rendering). 

The seven spectrums (with answer ranges): 

  1. Physical Return to Office (100% back in office, A few days a week, All/Mostly Virtual)
  2. In Person Events (As many as I can, Selectively, Never)
  3. Innovating with New Products and Services (Endless innovation, Steady state, Super challenging)
  4. Ability to Hire Key Talent (Easy, Normal, Difficult)
  5. Retaining Best People (Easy, Normal, Difficult)
  6. Corporate Culture (Better than ever, No Change, Concerning)
  7. Access to Investment (Better than ever, No Change, Concerning)

Key Insights from Conversation 1

  • It’s no surprise that attendees continue to mostly work remotely but many are gradually spending a few days back in the office. We’ve been told that the attendee clustering is slightly more remote than the general workforce across all sectors. 
  • Remote work and market disruption have enabled opportunities for innovation with new products and services yet those same forces are having a negative (or at least ‘concerning’) impact on corporate culture. It is uncertain whether these organizations will be able to sustain this high level of innovation if the culture — typically built on collaboration, trust, and transparency — is irreparably eroded by reliance on virtual tools versus in-person interactions.
  • Hiring and retaining talent is very challenging which is consistent with reports about talent shortages and the “great resignation” experienced nationally. Given that most attendees represent ‘tech’ employers, the retention is slightly less difficult than reported nationally but talent shortages remain a drag on the innovation economy in SoCal. 
  • Access to Investment remains at record levels for most of the respondents (to note almost none were startup founders or VCs) but a bunch are finding it more difficult to fundraise. Anecdotally, these are primarily non-profit and ecosystem support orgs relying on in-person interactions (e.g. incubator cohorts, events) which continue to lag in the overall recovery coming out of pandemic.
  • We were encouraged to see so many people emerging from the comfort of their home office/bunkers/nests for an in-person event. This was reflected in the spectrum answers clustered mostly around “selectively” and up to “as many as I can”. We are grateful to those who ventured out for our event despite proclaiming they “never” go to events.

Here are a few additional highlights from the rest of the day including Conversations 2 and 3:

  • Virtual gatherings were essential to keep connectivity during the worst of the pandemic but they are often a suboptimal substitute for in-person relationship building and real-time collaboration.
  • The uncertainty around Covid partially clouds what’s next for SoCal even though some key bright spots have emerged such as increased innovation/pivots from region’s founders and innovation leaders plus a significant increase in funding for regional startups, but primarily based on larger investments per deal rather than a lot more deals often leaving diverse communities underserved.
  • Attendees report continued optimism in the region’s attractiveness to attract talent and investment based on continued growth and diversity of innovation industries; challenges remain the sheer size of geography and escalating cost of living that offset attractiveness of lifestyle and employment options. 

The conversations and connecting spilled over into a wine and cheese reception hosted by the Irvine Company that capped off a sensational day for a steadfast group of SoCal leaders who enjoyed a day of “unplugged” human interaction which, at the heart of it has been the largest shared challenge we’ve all faced in the region this past year.