Those of you who know me well, know that I’m kind of a strong critic (see: curmudgeon). I’m not easily impressed, and always think we can do more and better.
With that disclaimer, Upswell was unlike any conference I’d been to, and I loved every minute of it.
I loved it so much I didn’t even have time to set up SocEntHotSeat interviews like I wanted! I didn’t get to see some of my local social entrepreneur friends in Los Angeles because I didn’t want to miss a minute of this conference.
And Upswell was all a bit of an experiment. It was the first time Independent Sector had held this type of “conference” so everyone in attendance wasn’t exactly sure what to expect. But it was the best conference I’ve attended this year, maybe ever.
So, what made Upswell different and awesome?
Diverse and Engaged Attendees
You know how you go to an annual conference and you see all the same faces you’ve always seen? Most people go to fulfill some obligation to their employer, or receive professional development credits. Well, Upswell was different, and full of diverse and engaged attendees. I mean diversity of all kinds, not just race and gender. Attendees were from different sectors: government, corporate, nonprofit, social enterprise, foundations. And from different stages of the business life cycle: start up, growth, failure, closing. Attendees were genuinely engaged - wanting to learn, share experiences, not settle for status quo. I think the “ground rules” set during the opening session helped to shape this expectation for the rest of the week. The ground rules were:
Learn and grow
Plus, you’ll see that on the bottom of the screen it says “This is about a growth mindset.” That was the caption because every main stage session had live captioning! Thanks to World Institute on Disability for making these sessions accessible!
Rather than staring at the same beige conference room walls all week, Upswell included immersive experiences in the Los Angeles area to understand challenges faced by the local community.
I had the pleasure to attend a tour of Little Tokyo, just a few miles from the conference hotel in downtown Los Angeles. Our tour guide, Scott, from Japanese American Cultural and Community Center (JACCC) was incredibly knowledgeable and engaging, leading our group of 20 on a walking tour through the Little Tokyo neighborhood. We learned about the waves of displacement of Japanese Americans throughout the decades and the impact of zoning decisions and community development in that area. We finished the tour back at the JACCC with a bento box lunch and Japanese calligraphy class with a local artist.
By starting the conference with this experience, it helped to not only connect with people right away from the tour group, but also stay grounded in the real world challenges, not just bask in the glow of idealism.
Ample Space and Time to Genuinely Connect with People
Most conferences these days have concurrent sessions: 4-5 workshops per 90 minute time block. Upswell was different, by holding different types and styles of sessions so there was always something happening.
Spark Talks: These were super short 10-minute sessions with a guest speaker and 20-30 attendees. It was really intended to be a quick glimpse into a topic, with the idea to follow up after the conference to learn more. I really liked this type of session, but only attended one spark talk, about the Royal Society for Public Health initiative in the UK. This group measured how healthy communities are and what types of businesses contribute to good health and well-being. Shoutout to SDG 3 and 11! Really interesting stuff, and not what you would assume to be the most “healthy” for the community. Read the report here.
Focus Groups: These were called “Focus Groups” but it was actually a group discussion about a topic (not a “focus group” in the traditional sense, as a market research method). The two, 30-minute focus group sessions I attended were not very informative, but I can see how this format would be really great with the right facilitator and group size. The focus group sessions were not limited on size, so I think the goal was to be 8-10 people but one of the sessions was over 30 people! Both the focus groups and spark talks were around the perimeter of the main ballroom, so there was some ambient noise as well. I would definitely be interested in leading a discussion topic around social enterprise business planning in this format.
Workshop Sessions: Each workshop session I attended was interactive and informative. The best session was Ann Mei Chang’s lean impact session (more about this below). In this session, our group focused on creating solutions to improve voter turnout, especially among young voters.
And the physical space itself was designed to invite connection. For example, the main ballroom was essentially standing room only with the speaker’s stage in the center of the room. High top tables were scattered throughout and chairs became more available as the week went on, but this open set up allowed for more roaming and connection than the typical set up (rounds of 10 where everyone is just glued to their smartphone). I know you’ve seen that at conferences before.
Some of My Personal Upswell Highlights
Meeting Ann Mei Chang
Ann Mei Chang is the author of Lean Impact. I saw her speak at SOCAP17 and really enjoyed what she had to say, so I wanted to make sure I attended her session at Upswell. The Lean Impact method follows the lean start up principles and applies them to social impact. Her workshop session included working time with a group of 10, to identify a problem, goal and target audience, as well as a possible solution to test within the next week. The type of rapid prototyping allows social entrepreneurs to create potential solutions, test them immediately, get feedback, and revise as needed.
Meeting the Team from Convergence
Convergence is possibly one of the most critical nonprofits in the United States today. Their stated mission on their 990 is “to foster collaboration among diverse groups on critical national issues.” That means, inviting individuals representing very differing viewpoints on a subject to find consensus on a topic. Topics have included health care, education, federal budget process, and criminal justice reform. Hefty issues, eh? When we feel divided and like the “other side” is wrong, we can always try to find common goals, even if our methods of getting to the solution are very different.
I mean, come on, what other conference has a drum circle and ukulele class? This class was just plain fun!
As the teacher Ukulenny said, “Who can be upset when you’re playing the ukulele?”
NAMM Foundation provided ukuleles during the class session, held on the hotel terrace under the California sunshine. I enjoyed this class so much, I bought a ukulele the next day when I got home to Minnesota. I’ve played every day since and am developing some nice calluses on my left hand.
If you’re planning events or conferences in 2019, this is the conference to model.