Synapse Helps Itself And Florida To Evolve Towards More Inclusive Innovation

Ebony Grimsley-Vaz
Written by Ebony Grimsley-Vaz

It’s challenging to build an inclusive innovation ecosystem in a state that is 400-plus miles long with more than 21 million residents and almost 2.5 million small businesses.

Florida’s metropolitan areas and cities each have their own unique flavor and agenda. Many elected officials say they want to connect the innovation community, push the advancement of businesses and make Florida a competitive state for new businesses, but they struggle to lead the charge.

Factor in the hundreds of siloed organizations catering to entrepreneurs, and it becomes clear that the task of connecting the state will only come to fruition through a new resource dedicated to looking at the big picture.


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In 2017, various community stakeholders gathered to reflect on the results of research from a Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation grant.
The Kauffman Foundation works with communities and organizations to level the playing field for entrepreneurs who have been systemically left behind due to demographic, socioeconomic, and geographic barriers.

Some private-sector players decided to step up and help drive the conversation about innovation in the Tampa Bay area. Their efforts resulted in the Synapse Summit under the nonprofit Synapse Florida with founders Marc Blumenthal, (general partner at Florida Funders) and entrepreneurs Brian Kornfeld and Andy Hafer.

The conversation quickly scaled beyond focusing on just the Tampa Bay area. Now in its second year, the annual Synapse Summit attracts stakeholders from across Florida. Synapse 2019 was held Jan. 23 and Jan. 24 at the Amalie Arena in Tampa. More than 5,500 people registered to attend.

In its inaugural year, the 2018 Synapse event didn’t receive an A grade for inclusivity — a problem for a summit founded by entrepreneurs and investors looking to connect Florida’s innovation communities and companies.

The 2019 event was better.

Anderson D Prewitt of Prewitt Solutions

Dr. Anderson Prewitt, a data scientist and R&D consultant, spoke on a panel titled, “From Ideation to Incorporation: Can Your Great Idea Become a Great Business?” Dr. Prewitt recalls early conversations in 2017 about the need for Synapse. “A healthy entrepreneurial ecosystem is an essential part of the larger economic ecosystem of a region, and I believe that Synapse represents a unique opportunity to engage a broad spectrum of the community in the entrepreneurial process,” Prewitt said. “If Synapse works to bring together a diverse set of stakeholders here in Tampa Bay and throughout Florida, I am hopeful they will be able to contribute to increased representation and participation in the success of the local economy. “

Like many startups, Synapse has made mistakes and is turning them into opportunities for improvement. The inaugural event, also held at the Amalie Arena, was organized in less than a year and generated criticism. The speaker selection in 2018 lacked diversity. Some local community stakeholders elected to not attend while others did attend, but provided the feedback to organizers.

Like many agile startups, the Synapse team listened to the feedback of concerned leaders and focused in 2019 on being more inclusive. The list of speakers this year was clearly more representative of the Florida community. More women and people of color led discussions on the main stage as well as in the 111 breakout sessions.

Larry Quinlan, Deloitte

“Diversity matters. It makes teams stronger,” said main stage speaker Larry Quinlan, global chief information ifficer at Deloitte.

Beyond Quinlan’s talk, I helped moderate a panel discussion during a breakout session related to diversity, tech, marketing, and human resource leaders. The discussion was titled “Building Your Strongest Team: The Value of Diverse Perspectives”. Other moderators included Jennie Robles, founder of Intellectual Capital; Jackie Darling, senior director of diversity and inclusion at Jabil; Johanna Mikkola, founder of Wyncode Academy; and Erik Smith, managing member of Inclusivity LLC, (formerly Carlton Consulting, LLC).

A diverse audience eagerly listened to the panelist’s tips for building strong teams, underscoring the importance and concern about inclusion.

One of the questions to the panel was this:

It is helpful or counterintuitive to inclusiveness when groups form around sex or race within or outside of companies, such as Black Tech Women or Girls in Tech?

Erik Smith, managing member of Inclusivity LLC

Panelists all agreed that groups help build strength. “When groups form within an organization, it is a strong sign something is wrong, and leaders should look into their culture,” said Smith of Inclusivity LLC.

Mikkola, founder of the Miami coding bootcamp Wyncode, shared her experiences participating in conversations with all-male groups on the importance and strength these types of gatherings bring to organizations.

Darling provided insight into Jabil, a St. Petersburg, FL-based circuit-board assembly manufacturer. Jabil has created a purposeful intent of making sure new employees are acclimated to their company with regular check-ins. She credits this method with being able to retain candidates and ensure the company stays focused on inclusivity.

Jennie Robles, founder of Intellectual Capital

While many companies say they want to look at being inclusive, they must start somewhere. Robles shared how important it is to get a gauge on the current climate within a company and follow up by measuring progress. Robles’ company, Intellectual Capital, empowers women and underrepresented professionals to succeed.

The Synapse team took steps to ensure underrepresented professionals participated and attended the event. It paid off. Out-of-town summit attendees were enamored of the technology and friendliness displayed at the event.

Synapse Summit
Michelle Salvant experiencing Magic Leap’s spatial computing product at Synapse Summit 2019. Photo: LMichelleMedia.

Michelle Salvant came to Synapse from Tallahassee. “This was my first year attending the Synapse Summit and I was super excited to come, especially knowing Spatial Computing (particularly Magic Leap) was going to be a major part of it,” Salvant said. “I drove from Tallahassee to Tampa to be here. I was extremely impressed with how friendly many of the speakers and participants were at Synapse. It was also comforting to see other African Americans in tech participating in the conference. I felt like I was among family meeting many of them.”

Synapse Summit
Jamal Sowell, Florida Enterprise CEO. Photo: Above Promotions

Recently-appointed Florida Enterprise CEO Jamal Sowell also traveled from Tallahassee to be a presenting speaker at the event. He encouraged leaders from the main stage about the importance of creating businesses in Florida.

“The state of Florida has to become a startup state to both attract innovators from outside of the state and cultivate innovators already among us,”
Sowell said. He said he looks forward to partnering to “help make Florida a state of innovation.”

Jeff Vinik, esports investor, real estate developer and owner of Tampa Bay Lightning, was also there. “We live in a great place, there is plenty of money here and it’s going to grow more and more over time,” Vinik said.

More than 300 exhibitors and 400 speakers shared the message of connectivity and making Florida a place to start, grow and support innovation. In a state with conferences occurring on a regular basis, many are looking forward to seeing what will happen next from the Synapse Florida team. The Synapse Connect app was launched and will hopefully allow for relationships to be built between events.

Time will tell if Synapse becomes a catalyst to help move the needle.