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Jim Kenney, meet Austin, Texas.
The mayor has generally been a hands-on adopter of technology, especially for a middle-aged man hailing from a South Philly rowhome. He used Twitter in a personal, mostly nonpolitical way as a councilman and accumulated thousands of followers. When UberX launched in 2014 and the PPA cracked down, he welcomed the new technology, saying then-Mayor Michael Nutter needed to call off the police department from assisting in stings.
But this weekend is going to be a whole new experience. From today to Sunday, he’ll be going full tech. Kenney is heading to the South By Southwest Interactive Festival (the place where his beloved Twitter was popularized) with local startups and other representatives from the city. His presence with an official city delegation is seen as a further sign that Philadelphia is trying to compete with cities like Boston, New York and others seen at the forefront of the startup scene.
“It matters when the mayor goes,” said Archna Sahay, director of entrepreneurial investment for the City of Philadelphia, “and when the mayor spends time and gives support to the community.”
And Kenney recognizes the importance as well, telling Billy Penn that his presence magnifies the statement the city and more than 20 local tech companies are trying to make by hosting events and setting up together on the convention floor as part of an initiative called Amplify Philly.
Over the next four days he has an itinerary including a panel about immigration he’s speaking on, a few mayor’s meetups and some fun activities: Kenney said he can’t wait to try the Tex-Mex and will visit former Neumann-Goretti women’s basketball star Olamide Aborowa, who now plays for the University of Texas.
But he’ll mainly be networking and talking about Philly. The South By Southwest interactive conference is all about showcasing opportunities and new ideas to fellow startup and tech leaders. Kenney’s pitch will be about what he considers a growing tech community, its cost-effectiveness compared to places like New York and Washington DC, and safety for immigrants, who are heavily involved in tech.
“We have a government that is progressive and that promotes progressive ideas like LGBT rights and immigration rights,” he said. “We are a sanctuary city, which I think is important for people internationally in tech.”
Kenney’s relationship with tech got off to a rocky start at the beginning of his mayoral tenure. Key employees of the Office of Innovation and Technology resigned before he started as mayor and during his first few weeks, and the startup and tech communities questioned the direction the Mayor would be taking.
But the city continued to invest in startups and tech, and Kenney kept popping up at startup and tech-related events. Last year, he extended a tax-credit program for startups called the Keystone Innovation Zone out of University City to Old City. After startup leaders banded together to start a first coordinated effort at SXSW last year, Commerce Department employees like Sahay and Rebecca Lopez Kriss got involved.
The difference between previous years and the coordinated effort at SXSW was obvious. Rather than have a few Philly companies located randomly throughout the convention floor, Philadelphia essentially had its own aisle, with startups lining both sides. Dave Silver, president and co-founder of REC Philly, said the coordinated effort helped him make contacts with a group he ended up organizing a show for during the DNC last year. He said several other companies used the SXSW setup to make business connections and find new job candidates.
Kenney hopes more stories like that can be told from this year’s trip.
“I’m looking for profile for Philadelphia,” he said. “I’m looking to expand Philadelphia’s reach….As far as I’m concerned this is one of the things I was elected to do.”