Techweek, the tech and startup conference headquartered in Chicago, has had an interesting last few years.
After shouldering criticism that the event was sexist and disorganized, last year Techweek announced Katy Lynch, formerly of SocialKaty, would be taking over the event. Less than a year later, Lynch announced she would be stepping down from CEO and Techweek said it would transition to a public benefit corporation.
What’s up with the changes? We sat down with Amanda Signorelli, the new CEO of Techweek, who breaks down what’s ahead for the conference, including launching a media business, transitioning to a public benefit corporation, and making Techweek more inclusive.
Chicago Inno: Last month there was a bit of a Techweek shakeup. You took the place of Katy Lynch, who was the previous CEO, after she was on the job less than a year. Tell us about the leadership change.
Amanda Signorelli: Absolutely. For me it was just an awesome experience to work with Katy for the last year. She’s a great leader and a fantastic entrepreneur, she’s done so much in the community. The other piece…[is] that as an entrepreneur you always have passions that are really driving you to these different directions. While she was at Techweek, she realized she was really passionate about edtech and actually there was a startup that caught her eye in Chicago. So she is transitioning over there, working on that business. And that was the opportunity for me to say I’m going to carry on the mission that Katie set up.
In less than a year you joined Techweek and ascended to its CEO. Tell us about what that experience is like–joining a company and becoming its CEO in less than a year–and what are your goals for tech week?
When I started, I pretty much started out as a sales rep. I was just on the ground talking to customers and saying you should come to our trade show. Then it was coming up with bigger activations for presenting sponsors. So I did a little on the sales side, then I switched to [operations], then I went to the startup competition because I liked meeting entrepreneurs, then I went over to the financial side. So by the time I ended up in this position I had done nearly every function I could get my hands on here at Techweek. That gave me a good understanding of how the business worked when I was lucky enough to be in the opportunity I am now.
Looking forward to in 2016, whats especially exciting is the media business. Normally what you saw in 2015, was almost this drop-off effect. People would say, we love Techweek but you’re really only here once a year. What happens the rest of the year? We said…let’s actually continue the stories we have and lets take this insider look, aggregate all the tech news in any given market. We’ve officially launched Techweek.ly Detroit, and we’ll have all the other markets live in the next two months. So that’s my biggest focus right now is making sure we have the media business really amplify everything we do at the conferences themselves.
Another big change: Techweek switched to a public benefit corporation. What exactly does that mean and why did you decide to make that change?
I think the first thing is: what is a benefit corporation? A public benefit corporation is a specific type of corporation that can still be a c-corp or an s-corp, but it still has a dual mandate that’s focused both on public benefit and profitability. As opposed to something like a b-corporation which has gone through a whole certification process has worked with b-labs, is really focused a lot on the environmental impact, which is why you see a lot of manufacturers do that. For us, we’ve shifted to a [public benefit corporation]. That’s really a requirement on us to be thoughtful about: how can we continue our mission, really further that through all the communities that we’re in to deliver a specific public benefit that will matter to our shareholders, our employees, and our community.
Why did you decide to do that?
A lot of it has to do with the media business to be honest. There were two “aha” moments for us in 2015, the first one was the launch of Techweek Kansas City. That was a really unique partnership, where we actually went in with the city of Kansas City itself. They are giving out funding to startups…to receive the funding it’s contingent on staying in Kansas City for two to three years to build your business. We actually had a couple startups from Chile [move] to Kansas City, are now building their startups there and are now contributing to the local economy.
Once we saw that come to light, we realized there’s something really special here. We want to pursue that, but the problem is that there’s sometimes a constraint on profitability. As a business, we are required from a fiduciary standpoint to just care about the bottom line and we didn’t want to do that anymore. We wanted to care about both the public benefit that we saw was possible, and the profit, because we’re still trying to make money for our shareholders and this was the way to do it.
Another big part of Techweek moving forward is expansion. In 2016 you’ll be in eight cities, you just added Dallas and Toronto, you also had a conference in Cuba last year. What is your expansion strategy going forward and where do you really want to see Techweek?
Cuba was awesome. For us it was a crazy experience, we had no idea just how difficult it would be frankly, but that was also part of the thrill. For the next piece it’s, we really want Toronto and Dallas to be a great success the same way as in Kansas City, so let’s focus on that.
Then in 2017 we turn around and say what are other markets that are interesting? DC could be one that’s interesting, Colorado–should we look at Denver or Boulder? There are a lot of cities that are on our radar.
This is interesting to hear because in the past Techweek has been known for not as positive things. There were some issues with sexist marketing materials and programming. What are you doing to make sure its a more inclusive event going forward?
I’m saying all this with the understand ing that I wasn’t there at the time, so I can’t speak for them, but what I can say is that the board took it so seriously that they put in measures in terms of there is no longer a central marketing team. Everything is owned by a product team that says I really care about content and I’m managing the communication throughout the entire piece to execution. The other element is you had this change in leadership and the employees that are here. Now you have a group where most of the employees are female–we care a lot about inclusiveness.
One of our topics has always been women in tech, but we’ve expanded it to be more central around diversity in tech because we recognize there are all these other people we need to be considering. Then look forward to Techweek Detroit, where 95 percent of our panels have representation from women. That’s something that we’re really mindful of, because as a startup we made a major mistake and it was important for us to understand that, admit it, and turn around and say now we have a new team that cares a lot about it.
Note: this interview has been edited for length and clarity.