Cathy: ALLEYCON 2018
What it was like to put on Columbia's first ever startup conference.
Everything that happened at ALLEYCON was a joint effort and I couldn’t have been more thankful to work with teammates who are just as passionate as I am in growing Columbia Business School’s Tech community. This article is my way of documenting this amazing journey with a few behind-the-scenes stories.
How it all begins
I knew I wanted to focus in Tech before coming to Columbia Business School, and so I’ve been very active in Tech activities on campus from the beginning. However, in my first year, I was running around attending other business schools’ conferences or conferences on campus but not from CBS. Pedro Barata and I were volunteering at BRITE and were both frustrated that there’s not a platform where Tech enthusiasts at CBS could comfortably share ideas and make connections. Therefore we teamed up, created VP of Conference roles for ourselves at Technology Business Group, TBG.
Of course not.
There are dozens of conferences at CBS every year organized by students and faculty. Why should we run another conference to cannibalize the existing ones’ audience, funding and resources?And what’s so special about this conference? Someone said to us this is just another conference when we were going around pitching for resource and funding support.
But the entrepreneur inside us decided to run the conference. It became clear in the begining that four major Tech clubs at CBS - Technology Business Group (TBG), Columbia Entrepreneur Organization (CEO), Venture Capital Club (VCC) and Data Analytics Club (DAC) - would co-host the conference. To strengthen club synergy and prevent silo communication, we created a conference committee that runs independently yet backed by the clubs. Members from the committee are VPs and AVPs of Conferences through structured election process from clubs.
In our first committee meeting (there were several club meetings beforehand), we shouted out the things we didn’t enjoy in conferences — a panel of speakers passing along mic answer one question in similar way, one keynote speaker talks for one hour who might have lost audience’s attention halfway, cold lunchboxes (ugh), paper flyer or handouts (I personally love everything paperless)...etc. We also talked about things we like and want to make it happen at our conference — How I Built This live recording session, having famous speakers like Arianna Huffington or Satya Nadella to speak, tech-enabled check-in and live audience interaction, great food, startup experience area…etc. It was a lot of fun brainstorming with Prateek Jain and other teammates.
Conference name and theme
ALLEYCON was decided as we have a big dream. We don’t want this to be “another Columbia conference”, and we don’t want this to be limited to Columbia Business School students (In fact, we made only one tier of pricing for student tickets at regular price. We had to limit discounted tickets to CBS students because most of our funding came from the community). We want to promote the tech community in Silicon Alley, and we want to bring practioners from all industries and students from all schools to join the conference, inspire each other and make good things happen. We want to be THE conference on the East Coast.
The conference program was segmented into three sections: Launch, Scale and Reinvent. It was because we found that students who care in Tech do not join one single Tech club but are broadly interested in entrepreneurship, investment and big Tech. The program was also a carefully crafted theme as we aim to take audience on a journey of how an idea was transformed into a venture, a growth-stage company, to an IPO company.
I soon changed our slack channel #general description to: let’s shoot the moon. It was intimidating aiming the moon. It was back in October 2017: conference was six months away, we had no money, no speakers lined up, and no precedence. It was also exciting aiming the moon. We populated a speaker wishlist and started reaching out. I got to email my favorite Podcast host Guy Raz and got a response (I’m still here Guy, and we are still hosting conference next year!), I shook hands with WeWork Miguel McKelvey and invited him, I wrote emails to Squarespace Anthony Casalena, Vimeo CEO Anjali Sud, I inmailed Flexport CEO Ryan Petersen, and I spoke with Huffington Post CEO Jared Grusd (who’s also a professor at CBS) to invite Arianna Huffington and Jonah Peretti. I was having my wildest dream imagining what if they all came yet knowing that there was less than 10% of the chances they would agree to speak.
Our First Follower
Some of my close friends know this about me — I love Linkedin. Through Linkedin, I initiated so many fruitful conversations and found speakers such as Linkedin Director Patty Sheikh’08 and Zola SVP Maya Simon for Columbia Women in Business Annual Conference Technology Panel. I even hit commercial use limit twice.
So as usual, I was looking for potential sponsors or speakers and I found Microsoft America CFO Jack Ryder’93. I briefly met with Jack at Microsoft headquarter through office visit in Jan 2017. Jack was extremely down-to-earth. Despite his busy schedule, he attended the alumni panel and shared his thoughts to twenty students who visited. I didn’t speak with Jack back then because I was intimidated by his title. I sent him an invite to connect thinking the worst that could happen is not getting a response.
In fact, it turned out to be one of the best things happened to me at CBS. Jack not only accepted my invite (I did attach a personal note along), he offered to chat over the phone, and eventually became ALLEYCON’s earliest and biggest sponsor. Anyone who attended the conference knows how beautiful The Times Center is, and if it was not Microsoft’s sponsorship, having a conference there would be almost impossible.
You might have seen a video that was viral years ago and it’s called First Follower.