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The MTLC UnConference 2024 

Most conference and event organizers create agendas with a crystal ball in one hand and the fingers of the other hand crossed behind their backs. An agenda created three, six or twelve months out might have some major holes in it by the time the event occurs. Or it could spend entirely too much time on a topic that is no longer relevant. Not the MTLC UnConference (held at KPMG’s Boston offices on Friday, June 14, 2024.)  

The UnConference event concept offers the hottest, freshest agendas possible. The topics are suggested and chosen on the spot. Individuals, teams or groups pitch their ideas. Sometimes session ideas get merged or consolidated. Then the sessions’ names are written on colorful construction paper and taped to the wall. Once the agenda is full, the sessions begin. (Pro tip: take a picture of the wall/agenda, so you don’t have to keep going back to figure out your next move.) 

The basic rules of an UnConference include: 

  • The law of two feet, “If at any time you find yourself in any situation where you are neither learning nor contributing, use your two feet and go someplace else.” 
  • The people who are in the room are the right people. 

Sara Fraim, the MTLC CEO, kicked off the event and introduced the concept. Then she introduced David Chang to act as the pitch facilitator. At the UnConference, a facilitator ensures that the session is not a company pitch or commercial of some kind.   

This year, as you might guess, there was a flurry of AI topics (including GenAI Company Workshop, AI for good, Sales and marketing using AI; and AI Security) but we also had sessions on: 

  • Neurodiversity & entrepreneurship 
  • Funding more diverse founders 
  • Storytelling to better promote the MA startup ecosystem 
  • Managing relationships between the media and entrepreneurs (a case study style conversation featuring Scott Kirsner and Steve Fredette, one of the founders of Toast)
  • Community events 
  • Mentoring 
  • MA moonshots – free higher education, lowering housing costs; reimaging transportation 
  • Spatial computing 
  • Strengthening the MA innovation ecosystem 

Sessions

Neurodivergent Entrepreneurs

As a 3X founder who bought two more companies during the pandemic, I immediately headed to my first session, the Neurodivergent Entrepreneurs. (It felt right.)  After a brief digression on what a cocktail called the “Reverse Ben Franklin” might contain, we went around the room for introductions and shared why we were in the room. 

While many identified as having ADD or ADHD, others were interested in learning how to work with neurodiverse members of their team, founders or investors. Several people commented on feeling like they were the only person with these challenges and discovering others was comforting and helpful.  (Various studies over the years have said there is a higher percentage of neurodiversity among the entrepreneurs of the world.) 

We talked about how neurodiversity could be seen as a superpower. Some skills and work patterns can be helpful, or helpful in certain circumstances. People shared several resources and strategies, both personal and for their teams. Some teams use personality testing. Others openly discuss the best ways to interact. Others ask, “What would be the most helpful for you as you work?” It could be anything from being able to pick your specific spot to sit in the office to not having to worry about grammar and typos in internal emails as long as external emails are presentable.  

Suggestions for specific strategies included: 

  • Using Chat GPT as a devil’s advocate 
  • Having a “thought partner” to serve as a sounding board. 
  • Personality testing 
  • Books  
  • Having specific language or lexicon to use in moments of stress. (Specific vocabulary.) 

Managing Relationships Between the Media and Entrepreneurs

The second session I attended was primarily a conversation between Scott Kirsner, Boston Globe and Inno Lead, and Steve Fredette, one of the founders of Toast. The case study approach was designed to help entrepreneurs better understand how to engage the media and what reporters were interested in. 

Massachusetts moonshots and local innovation

After lunch (and more networking), I attended the Massachusetts moonshots session which was a continuation of a session from 2023. We discussed various options for “fixing” housing, and transportation in the Commonwealth. It’s always fun to share wild ideas and hear wild ideas from others. 

My last session of the day was a brainstorming session (and an occasional trip down memory lane) on how to strengthen the local innovation ecosystem. 

Thoughts on a unique conference model 

The UnConference events work best with a diverse group of attendees to get different perspectives. It’s also helpful when there is some continuity from year to year. Everyone needs to be willing to give up a day and be fully present right from the beginning. This isn’t the event to show up late. UnConference events are participant-led, and it’s important that the participants be prepared to do their share.  

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