The importance of entrepreneurship to the nation’s economy, and the vital importance of technology to the success of small businesses were the prevailing sentiments at the Small Business Tech and Social Innovation forum held on July 11, 2014 at Stevens Institute of Technology. The event was hosted by U.S. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), in partnership with The Internet Association.
In his opening remarks to 275 attendees in DeBaun Auditorium, Stevens President Nariman Favardin said Stevens was the appropriate venue to host such an event, considering that innovation is part of the university’s DNA. The founding family of Stevens, he remarked, was responsible for cutting-edge technologies in the railroad and maritime industries. Fast forwarding to 2014, President Favardin said Stevens continues this tradition of innovation, citing the fact that Stevens is among just a handful of universities requiring engineering students to take an introductory course in entrepreneurship.
Before introducing Sen. Booker, Bert Navarette, general manager of Tigerlabs, discussed creating a culture of entrepreneurship in New Jersey. Tigerlabs, a micro venture capital fund, offers budding entrepreneurs a collaborative co-working space, a range of workshops and access to a network of seasoned entrepreneurs with a record of success.
Appearing on stage, Sen. Booker joked that he intentionally did not wear a tie, so as to fit in with the less formal, non-traditional venture capitalist culture. As a member of the Senate Small Business and Entrepreneurship Committee and the Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Communications, Technology and the Internet, Sen. Booker underscored the importance of entrepreneurship to the nation’s economy, saying that small businesses account for two-thirds of the national job growth. The old axiom that business success depends on “location, location, location,” no longer holds true, he said, adding that today’s digital space allows business to be conducted from anywhere.
The senator, well-known for his social media prowess, shared with the audience his early media strategy when he was a newly-elected mayor of Newark. He recounted the humorous story of when he defended the city of Newark against attacks by late night host Conan O’Brien, with whom he traded barbs and videos, which went viral. The favorable and free publicity that followed for the city of Newark, he said, demonstrated to him the power of social media in today’s fractured media society.
This democracy we live in is not a “spectator sport,” he said. “Anyone who has more than two followers [on Twitter] is a media syndicator.”
The forum also featured a panel discussion, moderated by Michael Beckerman, president and CEO of The Internet Association, with some of the biggest U.S. technology companies: Facebook, Google, Yelp, and two New Jersey small businesses that use social media to connect with its customers – websignia and CardCash.com.
Carly Graham Garcia, head of Google’s Global Industry Relations, emphasized the importance of continually updating and monitoring a website, urging business owners to be “proactive and strategic” in their use of online tools.
But while there are many tools out there for small businesses to reach audiences, Bess Yount, manager of Facebook’s Small Business Program, advised entrepreneurs against using everything, and to try and focus on the tools they can manage well and effectively.
Echoing that sentiment, Eliot Bohm, co-founder and CEO of CardCash.com, a gift card exchange site, urged businesses against “spreading themselves too thin” in trying to engage a wide audience by adopting too many social media tools. It’s more effective, he said, to focus on two or three, and to do it well.
Darnell Holloway, senior manager of Local Business Outreach at Yelp, highlighted the growing prominence of online reviews to consumers. At Yelp, he said, recognizing and focusing on trends are essential to Yelp’s success, citing as an example the company's heightened attention to mobile audiences, which account for 60 percent of Yelp’s customers.
Steven Jones, CEO and Inventor in Chief of websignia, helps companies craft a marketing strategy to “tell their story in an out-of-the-box way.” The most important thing for a business, he said, is “to know your business and know your customer.” Reputation is everything when it comes to engagement, he said, so choosing the right tools to say the right thing is critical.
The forum attracted entrepreneurs, small business owners, as well as members of the Stevens community. Claire Griffin, a mechanical engineering student who will begin her junior year at Steven this fall, was pleasantly surprised to discover how relevant the panel discussion was to her career goals.
“I feel like students at Stevens don't give much thought to what they post on Facebook or on Twitter, and how those posts can potentially help them start a small business or in the future make their ideas known,” said Griffin.
Following the event at DeBaun Auditorium, breakout sessions at Stevens’ Lawrence T. Babbio, Jr. Center for Technology Management allowed for further discussions with panel members. Also, an exhibition featuring over two dozen organizations, including Uber, WebSwagger, Synergem, The Huffington Post and NJ Technology Council was held in the atrium of the Babbio Center.