Organizers tout ‘different vibe’ for 2019 NWA Tech Summit

by Jeff Della Rosa ([email protected]) 913 views 

Graham Cobb is the president and CEO of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce, the organizing body of the 2019 Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit held Oct. 20-23. Cobb said the event will "showcase Northwest Arkansas."

The sixth annual Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit is expected to exceed expectations as a four-day event and showcase some of the unique aspects of Northwest Arkansas, including mountain biking, art and venues in Bentonville. Attendees can even expect a blending of technology and art on the trails, including an interactive LED sculpture.

About 1,500 people are expected to attend, coming from across the nation and regionally, including Dallas, St. Louis, and Memphis, Tenn., said Graham Cobb, president and CEO of the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce.

So far, more than 1,000 people have registered for the event set for Oct. 20-23. A limit has yet to be determined, but the event could comfortably handle another 600 attendees. The chamber is the organizing body behind the summit, supported by the Walton Family Foundation.

“We’ve leveled up,” Cobb said. “We’ve smashed existing expectations of past tech summits, which have been really high and awesome events. Going to what is essentially a four-day conference and showing off Northwest Arkansas. We’re pretty proud of that.”

The conference previously took place exclusively at the John Q. Hammons Center in Rogers. This year, it will not only take place there, but also at venues in downtown Bentonville and on bike trails.

“The idea is to showcase Northwest Arkansas,” Cobb said. “You’re not showcasing Northwest Arkansas if you are in a conference center. The major employers, communities, [and] municipalities have invested millions of dollars in quality of life and quality of place. When you are at a convention center, it could be any convention center, and so we wanted to bring people outside to give them the experience of being in Northwest Arkansas.”

In a mobile economy, people are making more economic decisions on where they can live, work and play, Cobb explained. For those who can work from anywhere, they choose a place to work where they can enjoy the quality of life, he said. And, a great place to start or grow a business is one that has low cost of living and high quality of life. The opportunity to bring people out of the traditional convention center setting allows attendees to see all that Northwest Arkansas has to offer, he said.

“The tech summit is an economic development project, and it’s focused on talent attraction,” Cobb said. “We know that the companies that drive this region are dependent on talent, and when we talk with companies big and small, that’s their biggest pain point is talent and getting them to Northwest Arkansas.

“The tech summit is less about how many people can we get here and more about are the right people here. Are influencers going to be here seeing what we know is so wonderful about Northwest Arkansas and becoming vocal brand champions for the quality of life that we enjoy here? Makes it a lot easier when you are recruiting top talent if they already have friends talking about how cool it is.”

Tom Douglass, who had worked for Walmart in supply chain, logistics and technology for the past 20 years, is chairman of this year’s summit. This is Douglass’ fifth year to help organize the event and his first as chairman.

“It is such a huge, dynamic pivot from the last five years,” Douglass said. “I’m just excited to see all those things that are taking place. We’re going from one to 14 venues. We’re letting people visit some of our schools and show them how we’re beginning that education process in innovation. We’re going from zero to five podcasts, art installations, bands and entertainers, outside influencers in social media. All these things are things that we haven’t done in the last five years. I’m just really excited to see reactions and how people really are going to feel a whole different vibe from this particular event.”

Douglass said he left Walmart in May to start Bentonville-based Catapult Consulting, which helps small or emerging technology businesses connect with larger corporations. He had been director of emerging technology for nearly seven years when he left Walmart.

“We live at the center of all things supply chain,” Cobb said, “with three Fortune 500 companies here, 400 of the Fortune 500 with offices, 1,600 vendors, and these industries in the midst of a complete disruption around technology, how to deliver product to the customer.”

Attendees will hear from experts in machine learning, artificial intelligence, retail technology, e-commerce and supply chain. The experts will talk about what’s next after next, which is the theme of the event, Cobb said.

“Enterprise businesses, because of their girth, have a hard time being nimble enough to innovate,” Cobb said. “A lot of times they use their venture arms or their [mergers & acquisitions] divisions when they are innovating. That’s another piece of this year’s technology summit is that we don’t care what technology you are using that might be brand new today. We want to hear from people that are transforming the space — 12 months, 24 months from now — truly looking to the future to find out what’s next after next.”

Attendees can expect to come away from the event thinking about what they can do to be successful today and tomorrow, said Douglass, who developed the theme name.

“It is great to talk about what is coming over the next couple of years, but if you don’t start talking about what’s coming over the next five to 10 years, you start making decisions today that make life more difficult in the future,” Douglass said. “So I think it’s really important that we think about what’s next after next. We all have a fairly good idea of what’s next: what we’re going to do next in blockchain, what we’re going to do in automation or even in self-driving vehicles or robotics.

“The key is understanding what comes after that so you start making really good decisions about infrastructure, about people, about business itself as you are doing what is coming now and maybe what’s coming tomorrow. Big business and even small business tend to go in a direction they think is right, but if we don’t have a good discussion about what’s coming over the next five to 10 years, we’re not all on the same page,” he said.

Another takeaway from the event will be how Northwest Arkansas is a hub for innovation, art and outdoor enjoyment, Douglass said.

Cobb explained the mission of the summit is juxtaposing experts on the cutting edge of technology trends impacting major businesses with the beauty of the Ozarks. That includes creating experiences unique to Northwest Arkansas the way other communities and conferences have made unique experiences for their areas, such as the Sundance Film Festival in Utah or South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

“When you are at Sundance, if you’re not seeing a movie, you are skiing,” Cobb said. “What we’re doing at tech summit is if you’re not engaged in programming, you’re enjoying some of the differentiating quality of place attributes that Northwest Arkansas boasts. Those are culinary — James Beard award finalist restaurants will be delivering food to people here. Great drinks — our local craft beer scene will be on display. Arts and culture — we’re actually bringing in and installing permanent and temporary art pieces that are tech-enabled. Maybe the biggest thing is cycling. To be specific, mountain biking.”

Cobb noted a nearly $80 million investment into trails that are providing an exponential return on investment.

“We want to show off mountain biking to everybody,” he said. “We know that nature fosters creativity. That’s why places like Microsoft built offices in treehouses. We’ll be hearing from industry leaders from Strava to Trek to our own local bike builder Allied Cycle Works about things they are doing to disrupt cycling through technology. And we’ll also be just playing on bikes whenever we get the opportunity. There’ll be bikes for people to ride from venue to venue, there’ll be guides and lessons for mountain bike rides, and then — as I mentioned — that art installation piece.”

Organizers are working with San Francisco-based LED art designer Symmetry Labs and the Scott Family Amazeum in Bentonville to install temporary and permanent artwork along the trails. The art will be interactive, and as people ride through, it will activate. “It’s going to be a blast,” Cobb said. “It’s going to be four days of a completely different experience around technology.”

The event will begin and end on mountain biking trails in Bentonville. Starting 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 20, attendees will hear TED-style talks about technology in mountain biking, take guided mountain bike rides on the Slaughter Pen Trail System, and have a trailhead cookout with area music, food and drink. From 4 to 8 p.m. Oct. 22, a party will take place at Coler Mountain Bike Reserve.

Starting at 9 a.m. Oct. 21, attendees will hear from various speakers, go into breakout sessions and view exhibit booths at the John Q. Hammons Center. Some of the keynote speakers include Bill Groves, chief data and analytics officer at Walmart; Arlan Hamilton, founder and managing partner of Backstage Capital; and Sujata Gosalia, executive vice president and chief strategy officer of Cox Communications. The four-day event will include between 40 and 50 speakers.

At 4:30 p.m. Oct. 21, attendees will be taken in shuttles to the 8th Street Market in Bentonville for food, music, gaming and art.

Attendees on Oct. 22 will take part in various tracks of breakout and developer sessions taking place at venues in downtown Bentonville. The breakout sessions include speakers, such as illustrator and animator J’Aaron Merchant and Meagan Kinmonth-Bowman, founder and managing partner of Stonehenge Technology Labs. The sessions focus on art, supply chain, artificial intelligence and retail innovation.

Developer sessions include talks on technology platform Angular, including Stephen Fluin, who leads developer relations at Google, and Dan Wahlin of Wahlin Consulting. Wahlin will also host an Angular workshop Oct. 23 for an additional fee of $250 — not included in the general pass. Organizers are working with J.B. Hunt Transport Services of Lowell and Microsoft on the workshop, which at another conference costs between $800 and $1,000, Cobb said. Half of the 75 tickets have already been sold for the workshop.

A general pass for the summit is $189 per person. Included with the pass is the Microsoft Open Hack on Oct. 22, led by Jarrod Ramsey of Microsoft. Wahlin’s Angular workshop will comprise one of the two events taking place Oct. 23. The other is an event to explore inclusive ecosystems called InTech, which will require a separate registration and will be a celebration of women in technology. A venue location for the previous event has yet to be determined.

Cobb explained the Women in Technology event that took place last year will be blended into the summit this year because it was doing a disservice to the speakers. “They were missing out on a huge audience,” he said. “Women technologists are just technologists that happen to be women. We wanted to give them the best audience, and honestly — and shame on men for it being the case — but when you call something women in whatever, men don’t show up. Men were missing out on hearing some of the best technologists that we could get to speak simply because they were women.”

Also, the MedTech Healthcare Summit hosted last year won’t take place this year.

“We felt like it pigeonholed us a little bit,” Cobb said. “It’s extremely important, but when we’re looking at what’s next after next and larger ideas around technology and how it’s impacting enterprise businesses within communities and the existence, we didn’t feel like we needed to have something specifically for MedTech.”

Organizers include Douglass, Cobb, event director Jenn Cozens, Jordan Carlisle, vice president of economic development and entrepreneurship for the chamber, along with 10 to 20 volunteers as part of a steering committee. They have been working on the summit for the past 10 months.

“It’s really been an awesome experience in a design-thinking way to approach this convention,” Cobb said. “We’ve really used feedback from our major employers as well as research that we’ve done on trends in technology, married to quality of life. It’s shaping what we think is going to be the signature event for Northwest Arkansas for decades.”

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