ENTREPRENEURIAL MIAMI’S COMING OUT PARTY

The eMerge Americas conference is a coming-out party for Miami’s startup scene.

It turns out Paul Graham was wrong. Nerds do live in Miami.

In a 2006 speech, the founder of Y Combinator famously said cities need two kinds of people in order to become technology hubs: rich people and nerds. “Few startups happen in Miami, for example, because, although it’s full of rich people, it has few nerds,” Graham said. “It’s not the kind of place nerds like.”

And yet, here I am, in the Miami Beach Convention Center, surrounded by nerds. Or at least the South Florida version of nerds, which is to say there are more short skirts, high heels and designer jeans than you’d find at a similar conference in, say, Mountain View.

I’m at the eMerge Americas Conference, the latest in a series of conferences that has been raising Miami’s profile as an entrepreneurial hub and leading Forbes, CIO Today, USA Today and the Wall Street Journal to write articles with headlines like, “Would you believe it? Miami has a real tech scene now” and “Miami: New Tech hotspot is really hot.”

In the past year or so, Miami has muscled its way onto the entrepreneurship conference circuit, hosting such events as Start-Up City: Miami (in conjunction with The Atlantic), the MIA Music Summit, SIME MIA and more.

But eMerge Americas is easily the most ambitious entrepreneurship event the city has ever held. This isn’t just another conference held in Miami because of the weather and beaches. This is about promoting Miami’s viability as a tech hub, a sort of coming out party for its entrepreneurial scene.

Not everyone thinks it’s going to work.

Even the mayor of Miami Beach, where all these nerds have gathered to listen to more successful nerds, does not think the city will ever be a tech hub.

“It’s the dumbest idea in the world,” Mayor Phil Levine, himself an entrepreneur, told the U.S. Conference of Mayors last winter. “Miami Beach is never going to be a high tech hub. As much as it sounds great, it’s sexy, that’s not who we are.”

The local entrepreneurial community piled on Levine and he, not surprisingly, claimed his remarks were taken out of context. Boosters are quick to point out that Levine was talking about Miami Beach, that haven of high-rises, overcrowded nightclubs and retirees, and not Miami, the comparatively more serious city across Biscayne Bay.

“Why not Miami?”

Manny Medina is used to that sort of skepticism. When he was CEO of Terremark Worldwide, an IT services business, he traveled to tech conferences all over the world and when he told people his company was in Miami, they inevitably reacted with raised eyebrows and skeptical smiles. Miami?

So after Medina sold Terremark to Verizon in 2011 for $1.4 billion, he set about wiping the smirks off the skeptics’ faces.

“A lot of the marketing dollars we spent at Terremark was going to these types of conferences all over the world. And it just kept circling my mind, ‘Why not Miami?’,” he told me later.

So Medina, who emigrated from Cuba when he was 13, launched a venture capital firm, Medina Capital, and founded the Technology Foundation of the Americas, a nonprofit trying to grow Miami as a tech hub by concentrating on the potential of Latin America. One of its first steps is this eMerge Americas conference held the first week of May.

Hosting your own conference is a bully pulpit and Medina uses his welcoming remarks to deliver a message to those who scoff at Miami’s entrepreneurial dreams, including the business establishment that thinks South Florida’s economy can never be more than tourism, real estate and banking.

“Adapt or die,” he says. “The opportunities are immense; the challenges are immense.”

Only in Miami

eMerge Americas might be about the new city, but the setting is very Old Miami.

The Miami Beach Convention Center, smack in the middle of South Beach, dates to 1957, back to the days when Jackie Gleason was declaring “the Miami Beach audience is the greatest audience in the world.” It’s where Cassius Clay surprised Sonny Liston and where Richard Nixon accepted the nomination in 1972.

Physically, the conference is divided into three parts.

Up front are four conference rooms. Here is where the panel discussions and talks are held, organized around six topics: Innovate, Healthtech, Future of Finance, Mega, City of the Future and Education 2.0. In addition to the program, the schedule is listed on four-sided pillars in the center of a common lobby. Between talks, attendees queue up three-deep trying to decide what to go to next: “Bringing Free Education to the World with Online Collaboration,” “eMerging Markets: New Landscapes, New Rules, New Players” or maybe “Serial Entrepreneurs in Latin America’s New Digital Age.”

Like at any conference, the panels are hit or miss. Some are genuinely exciting and thought-provoking while others are little more than tricked-out PowerPoint presentations, dry enough that the audience starts slipping out halfway through. (I’m looking at you, “Information and the Cognitive City: Perspective on a New Age for Cities.”)

Everyone knows the best part of any conference is the exhibits so I wander into the cavernous exhibit hall where entire countries (Taiwan, Colombia) and companies with revenues matching the GDPs of entire countries (Microsoft, HP, Cisco, IBM) have displays. They share space with sizeable exhibits from Florida International University and the University of Miami, whose display features two-foot-tall humanoid robots playing soccer. Robot wranglers frequently have to pick them up and reposition them on the pitch, like errant children on a playground, but it’s still fun to watch.

A New Zealand company is letting people ride around the convention floor on its electric YikeBike, which resembles a tricycle and positions the riders so that it looks like they’re sitting on the handlebars, unaware that the person pedaling has jumped off. The Knight Foundation, which is pushing entrepreneurship in Miami in a big way, has a cappuccino cart with a never-ending line.

In truth, a lot of what happens at eMerge Americas is the same as can be found at any other tech conference, but there are little touches that make it clear you’re not in San Francisco or Austin.

Before and after each session, dance music is pumped into the ballrooms at volumes that wouldn’t be out of place at Mynt or Story, South Beach clubs where some of the attendees will party when the sessions end. And the early-stage business plan competition is won by Hair Construction, an app that makes it easier for women to get hairstyles they actually like. It’s a solid presentation and a good product, but, at the same time, it’s hard to imagine a hairstyle app winning a similar contest in Seattle or Cambridge.

And one of the competition judges is former Miami Heat player Jamal Washburn (who actually has some serious franchising game: 38 Outback Steakhouses, 32 Papa John’s, three Dunkin’ Donuts, car dealerships, etc.).

Northbound

Behind the flashy, big-ticket booths are clusters of tall, round, white plastic tables, the kind you’d see in a Jetsons-themed bar. And, just like in a bar, the people at those tables are desperate for attention and conversation.

Even though they’re overshadowed by the bigger displays up front and don’t have room on their tables for much more than a laptop and their handouts, these companies are what the conference claims to be all about.

These are early-stage startups, many of them promising companies from Peru, Colombia, Mexico, Chile, Argentina and the Caribbean, here in hopes of attracting the attention of customers, investors, mentors, partners, anyone, really. In many cases, they’re the best of their class from incubators in Lima or Caracas, journeying north to seek their fortune.

I speed date from table to table, picking up the literature and business cards, listening to the pitches from Sociallybuzz, Wave Interactions, Wind2Share, FLUVIP and others. Everyone is delighted to talk.

Pancho Troncoso is from an accelerator in Chile. His startup, Uanbai, is a mobile marketplace where people can sell anything from furniture to movie tickets. The city was more of the attraction than the conference, he says. The trip north was a chance to schedule meetings with possible investors in Miami.

Like every other Latin American entrepreneur I talk to here, Miami is Troncoso’s dream destination. No one talks about moving to Silicon Valley or New York City. Miami is the place.

“We would love to set operations in Miami if we get investors from there,” he says. “Miami is a city that provides all the facilities to operate, with great connections, and at the same time it represents the tipping point that connects Latin America with the United States, so it is crucial.”

Positive thinking

Few things are as buoyant as entrepreneurial conferences. Never mind that most startups fail, in the confines of the conference hall every idea is a winner, every investment a sure thing. And these ideas will change the world. Speaker after speaker talks about how things are getting better and better (or will be shortly), thanks to Bitcoin, digital medicine, Big Data or killer apps.

And why can’t those things find a foothold in Miami? It’s cheaper than New York or San Francisco, better weather too. It’s bilingual and has shorter flights to Latin America and Europe than the West Coast.

So it’s only fitting that the keynote speaker at the end of the second and final day is the author of a book titled, Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think. Peter Diamandis, serial entrepreneur, chairman of the X PRIZE Foundation and founder of Singularity University, is the most relentlessly positive person in a building full of them.

“I believe that over the next 20 years . . . we’re going to be able to meet the needs of every man, woman and child on this planet,” he says. “We are creating a world that is extraordinary and living into a time where our grandest dreams have no limits.

“Miami will be a great test of the transformative power of entrepreneurship given the challenge,” he adds.

This is pure oxygen for the crowd and there are self-satisfied smiles all around after Diamandis finishes. But it’s not over yet.

Manny Medina had the first word at his conference and he is going to have the last. And he’s brought a friend and fellow Cuban-American: Armando Christian Perez aka Pitbull. The rapper, his shaved head gleaming under the lights, tones down his usual swagger and smirk on stage. In fact, Pitbull, resplendent in a dark three-piece suit, looks more like a CEO than Medina, who’s in shirtsleeves.

Pitbull is a serious entrepreneur. The 33-year-old has stated he intends to become a billion-dollar brand in two years. In addition to nine Top 10 singles, he has sponsorships from Dr. Pepper, Kodak, Bud Light and Voli Vodka and is the new brand ambassador for Playboy. Oh, and he has men and women’s fragrances.

His love for his hometown is genuine. He titled his debut album, M.I.A.M.I. and goes by the nickname “Mr. 305,” a shoutout to the city’s area code.

“Get a piece of everything you’re involved in,” Pitbull tells the crowd, ticking off his partnerships and investments. Medina asks questions and the rapper answers thoughtfully, switching between Spanish and English, delivering a message that resonates with the entrepreneurial crowd: “Short steps, long vision — you apply that and you’re going to be successful.”

When it’s over, after Medina and Pitbull have patted each other on the back and the exhibitors start packing up their exhibit panels and promotional literature, I wander out into the blinding sunlight, past the Ferraris and Lamborghinis parked curbside and walk a few blocks to Lincoln Road Mall, a pedestrian-only stretch of road that is the hub of everything South Beach. Here, aggressive restaurant hostesses flag down passersby, sunburned tourists wobble by on rented bikes and exhibitionists and street performers compete for attention and tips.

Scenes like this are always going to be what most people picture when they think of Miami, not the high-tech city envisioned in the convention center. But it’s not a case of either/or. Nothing says a city can’t have South Beach and startups. And there’s too much entrepreneurial energy bubbling up in Miami now for things to remain unchanged. Manny Medina already is planning next year’s conference.

Like Pitbull says, “It’s not a sprint; it’s a marathon. And that is what eMerge is all about.”

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