The Right Conversation, At the Right Time: Our Brexit Startups Event

Brexit Event Photo 9

The announcement that the majority of Britons voted to leave the EU shook and shocked the world five weeks ago. But with several global tragedies snowballing throughout July, and with our embarrassingly short attention spans (thanks to technology and an unapologetically short news media cycle), the announcement of Brexit five weeks ago feels more like it happened five months ago.

This, it turns out, was a crucial, unexpected point that contributed to the success of our event, “War of the Roses: Brexit and Its Effect On the Global Startup Community,” last week.

In the immediate aftermath of the Brexit announcement, as I watched the chaotic decline of the markets, and the litany of “experts” explain the unexplainable (like why everyone missed predicting Brexit in the fact of empirical data to the contrary), I knew that I would have to do an event about this for the New York startup community. There were too many questions unanswered and a global gut reaction that caused us all to recoil in agony at the idea of massive changes coming to our global family — a messy divorce that would affect everyone.

Instead of doing the event immediately after Brexit happened, I scheduled the event almost one-month to the day of Brexit (thinking the conversation would be just as hot and relevant 30 days later).

I continued to plan the event, getting incredible guest speakers (all thought-leaders) to participate on the panel including:

  • Pru Ashby (Vice President for London & Partners, the Mayor of London’s official promotional company, based within the British Consulate in New York)
  • Yalman Onaran (Senior Finance Reporter & Analyst, Bloomberg News)
  • John Frankel (Partner, ff Venture Capital)
  • Joyce J. Shen (Global Director, Emerging Technology Partnerships & Investments, Thomson Reuters
  • Spencer Mahony (Exec. Vice President, OCO North America, formerly with UK Trade and Investment and the UK’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills)
  • Steve Faktor (CEO of IdeaFaktory, author of EconovationForbes & HBR, WSJ writer)

We enlisted the generous support of companies to sponsor the event and share it with their communities. All of the event “To Do” boxes were checked off well in advance of the event.

And then, life (and social media) moved on. As the weeks passed, I watched the RSVPs roll in from members of the tech, startup, and finance community. The interest in this event was palpable. We were more than pleased.

But, by the time the actual date of the event arrived, news of Brexit and any conversation around it felt very old. Cooler heads prevailed. The panic and fear that gripped us one month earlier eventually gave way to measured concern and even caustic optimism at opportunities inherent in any changes that may come — and Theresa May had quickly been elevated to the new Prime Minister of Britain (sparing the UK and the world months of uncertainty and political turmoil over who would lead the country into Brexit). These updates did not go unnoticed or unmentioned at the event — and they actually caused a bit of concern.

Guest speaker, John Frankel (Partner at ff Venture), said in no uncertain terms on the panel that he wondered if having a conversation about Brexit now (one month later, and now that nerves had been calmed) was even necessary. He wasn’t the only one to express this sentiment. Guest speaker, and my friend, Steve Faktor (founder of Idea Faktor and host of The McFuture) asked me on two separate phone calls whether there was enough to discuss about Brexit now, and whether the audience would be disappointed at the lack of substantive conversation we could have about it at this point.

My answer to him was:  I’m not worried. We’ll have plenty to talk about.

I’ve learned that often-times, people have more to say about a given topic than they think they do. Our event was packed. We had a full house of people who were at least still interested enough to have a Brexit conversation that they came out, on a blisteringly hot and humid Summer evening, in a city where everyone has an events-calendar that rivals royalty in England. This was the first sign that, yes, people still wanted to talk about Brexit. But, we still had to deliver on our promise to make the conversation compelling and engaging.

Below is the livestream (done by the Internet Society) of the entire panel (including John Frankel’s pre-panel conversation with Steve Faktor). If you watch even half of the video, you’ll see that not only did we talk about Brexit and how it will impact startups for the entire the event, but you’ll see a very passionate discussion where panelists and audience members shared ideas and concerns that was, at times, surprising and, at other times, seemed to offer us relief.

From the question presented by an audience member who introduced himself as a Muslim student in New York working at a VC firm, who asked panelist Pru Ashby (New York representative for the British Consulate) why he should want to launch a business in London with the racism and anti-Muslim sentiment on the rise there, to the informal poll taken by John Frankel  who asked everyone in the audience who is an immigrant to raise their hands — eliciting gasps of surprise when almost every hand in the room went up in the air — we not only discussed Brexit, we realized that still felt emotionally conflicted by Brexit. See the tweets from the event hashtag (#BrexitStartups) HERE (and tweet highlights at the end of this post).

The audience stayed through until the end of the event and, afterwards, many people (including panelists) thanked me for having the event and expressed how much they got out of it. It turns out that doing the event one month after Brexit happened, gave us all much-needed perspective and clarity in order to have a truly thoughtful, intelligent conversation where our emotions punctuated our personal viewpoints, instead of overwhelming them.

What does this all mean? Had I gaged the relevancy of the my event topic by the news cycle, with news outlets long-since dropping Brexit from headlines and their social media chatter, I would’ve never had the Brexit event. But I believed that people still wanted and needed to talk about it. It turns out that the panelists and the audience had far more to say (and to learn) about Brexit than even they thought they did. It was a pleasant surprise for us all.

Let’s stop allowing the news media and social media to dictate the conversations we have in real life. Yes, trending topics are always going to be great event content, but with global events unfolding through our technology far faster than we are able to digest and understand them before being swept away by new events, maybe we should look at discussing “older events” in our live events to better understand how we’re evolving because of the event.

In a day and age where technology and social media tells us we need to stay obsessively focused on what’s next and what’s trending, let’s not forget the value of and importance of looking back to process the impact of what’s happening.



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