Photo Credit: Stephen Kraus of
Asinches closer, we hope you’ve had the chance to scope out the and sign up for some amazing talks, presentations, and networking opportunities taking place at from September 20-22.From what we can tell after our interview with Kenny Chen, Thrill Mill’s Program Director, this year will be one for the books.
Kenny joined the Thrival crew earlier this year and has been coordinating the innovation programming – most of which takes place in our auditorium. Prior to his role at, Kenny dreamed of working at a startup accelerator and built up his resume with innumerable experiences that made him irresistible to Pittsburgh’s premiere startup spot. We’re thrilled to partner with such an inspirational group for next week’s festival. Read on to see what Kenny has to say about Thrival 2016.
A: I took on my role as Thrill Mill’s Program Director earlier this year, but before that, I think I might have had a reputation as that nosy neighbor that shows up everywhere. I’d known the team for a while, and would run into Bobby, Dan, or Stephan all over the place. Before long, I started getting responses like “Of course Kenny would be here!” I really hope that’s a good thing.
Working at a startup accelerator has long been a dream job of mine, and the opportunity came up a bit earlier in my career than I’d expected. My biggest professional interest has always been in facilitating cross-sector collaboration, and to that end, I’ve spent the last several years intentionally gaining work experience across the realms of research, education, nonprofits, philanthropy, business, startups, and both local and federal government. This took me from Las Vegas to Berkeley, DC, San Francisco, Taiwan – and in August 2014, I left a job in Hong Kong to come to Pittsburgh for the Coro Fellowship in Public Affairs, to expand upon my experiences in a part of the US that I’d never been.
Thrill Mill hired me to essentially continue what I’ve been doing over the past two years – identifying opportunities, building relationships, and creating programs to activate as much potential as possible in the city. My main focus so far has been around curating the Thrival Innovation experience, but a major part of my job moving forward is to explore how we can be an asset and resource to more people and organizations throughout Pittsburgh, and have more year-round, collaborative programming.
A: This may be the first Thrival I’m running but it’ll actually be the third that I’ve attended. Thrival 2014 was the first big event that I attended after arriving in Pittsburgh. Some friends took me to the outdoor concert in Bakery Square, and I loved the vibe. It was there I learned that I missed the entire week of Innovation program that preceded the concert, and I really regretted missing out. FOMO aside, Thrival represented a turning point in my perception of the city, as a new transplant. I was already growing to love the city and the people within it, but Thrival really jolted me with a sense that there’s something special here worth staying for, and it’s at the cusp of taking off.
Fast forward to Thrival 2015. This time, I was ready, and I blocked out my entire week so that I could go to as many of the panels and thought talks as I possibly could. I loved that every day of programming was held in different location/neighborhood (12 sites total). It was probably a logistical nightmare, but it encouraged me to check out a lot of places I’d never been before. I made it to all but a couple of the 30+ talks, panels, and events, and was so gung ho about it that I recorded more than 17 pages of notes on a Google doc and shared them with the Thrival team and other people who missed sessions. Yes, I was that kid in school.
So, now we’re at Thrival 2016, my first time behind the scenes. It has definitely been a whirlwind, that’s for sure. I run over 100 events each year but Thrival is by far the biggest production I’ve ever been a part of. We’ve got more than 70 speakers coming this year, and more than 60 companies and organizations that are taking part on our first-ever exhibit floor and outdoor Innovation Playground. I’m really glad we’ve got such a great team, and an awesome group of partners that are making all of this possible.
A: That’s a really great question, and I think it’s one of the most unique and exciting parts of Thrival. I love Pittsburgh and I’ve gotten to know a ton of people across all sorts of different circles. And within those circles, you often hear the same complaints about what keeps the city from maximizing its potential: Pittsburgh is siloed; people don’t talk to each other; territoriality impedes collaboration; bad blood and burned bridges stunt innovation and growth.
I see part of Thrival’s mission to be cutting across as many of those lines as possible – industry, sector, geography, age, etc. shouldn’t matter. Our goal is to gather as many different exciting elements of the whole Innovation ecosystem as possible and present them to local communities as well as the national and global arena. Everyone belongs in these conversations because they’ve all got something to learn and to share, from middle school students to CEOs. So we’ve curated an experience where you can engage in conversations about music, technology, arts, entrepreneurship, food, medicine, design, transportation, community development, and cultural identity all in the same space but not with the same familiar faces that you would see in groups built around any of those individual topics.
In our efforts to make our programming as accessible as possible, we’ve made sure that our speakers and panelists don’t dive too far into the complex or technical sides of their work, but rather speak to the significance that it holds, and leaving the audience with a sense of why they should care. Ultimately, the way I’ll determine the success of this event is to see how many people come to Thrival and say, “Wow this is Pittsburgh? This is so cool.” We want to help create a culture and environment where young professionals, entrepreneurs, and people new to the city can find the opportunities and resources to chase their dreams in Pittsburgh rather than to take it somewhere else
A: OK, I could talk for days about all of the incredible people doing amazing work throughout Pittsburgh, and it’s a privilege that I get to work and collaborate with so many of these companies, organizations, and initiatives. The North Side is an especially exciting epicenter of a lot of great initiatives, with organizations like the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, New Sun Rising, One North Side, and many more, driving impact throughout the region.
Of course I can’t leave out Nova Place. You guys have seriously been incredible. I got to know Mike (Woycheck) while Alloy 26 was under construction, and ever since it opened, I’ve been bugging him with different events and referrals every week. Mike’s been very gracious, and has helped make at least a couple dozen events I’ve been involved with a reality. It wasn’t until I started working on Thrival that I got to know more of the Nova Place team. Brad, Gretchen, Rebecca, and everyone else have been a lot of fun to work with. It’s certainly been a roller coaster ride, but I’m glad everyone’s been a champ about it.
A: I’m really excited to start sleeping again, ha ha. Joking aside though, I really can’t wait for this to just happen. It’s been so many months in the making and I’m eager to see what it feels like when all these worlds collide into one big immersive experience.
I’m also really curious to see how people respond to this narrative that we’ve created through the various themes for each day of Thrival Innovation, which delve into our collective past, present, and future. The first day, “Lost and Found” looks at how we can rediscover, reuse, and reinvent what already exist in our proximity. The second day, “AuthentiCity” explores what it takes for Pittsburgh at this point in time to develop its own identity as an innovation hub utilizing its own unique regional assets as opposed to blindly following the trends set by San Francisco and New York. And the last day, “The Ripple Effect,” centers around how small actions can create big changes, and also how we can help the impact of an event or interaction propagate as far into the future as possible.
Throughout the Thrival planning process, we’ve stayed aware of the question, “What comes next?” What will this Thrival experience mean for our participants the day after it all ends? How about a month or a year afterwards? Will we hear mentions of “that Thrival talk on (blank)?” Will we run into startup cofounders who met at Thrival? Will we find people who found new passions or changed careers because of something they learned at Thrival? Time will tell.
At the very least, I can also say that we’re committed to ensure that Thrival isn’t limited to just this one week of programming out of each year, but that there is consistent activity and engagement for the other 51 weeks out of the year. I’ve already had conversations with a lot of our partnering organizations about what kinds of collaborative programs we can pursue and how Thrill Mill can expand its resources to a wider population and geography around Pittsburgh. You can look forward to a lot of great things to come, and I’m sure that Nova Place will continue to be at the center of it all.