Judy Ni and Oscar Wang introduced the idea for HospitalityTogether at the Full City Challenge in February 2019

The belief that Philadelphia is the greatest city in the world stems from a civic pride rooted in innovation. Our reputation as a “city of firsts” spans disciplines and transcends industry.

But Philly’s position at the front of the pack isn’t always something to celebrate. Right now, a bigger percentage of our residents live in economic hardship than in any other large U.S. city, and the number of people experiencing hunger here is rising, even as it declines nationwide.

Can we harness the city’s innovative spirit and use it come up with solutions that attack these pervasive problems?

That’s what we asked with the Full City Challenge, an initiative launched this year by the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia in partnership with Billy Penn. And after seven months of planning, six weeks of applications, a daylong workshop and an exhilarating two-hour pitch party at the end of February, it’s clear the answer is a resounding “Yes.”

It took an impressive collection of Philadelphians to reach that conclusion:

  • Self-starters willing to envision new pathways, and put in the work to feel them out
  • A diverse cohort of leaders willing to volunteer time and expertise
  • Sponsors and individuals willing to donate actual cash and services to the cause.

Thanks to all these groups working together, the first-ever edition of the Full City Challenge mobilized $36,000 in philanthropic funds — and we’re not done yet.

Full City Challenge 2019 grand prize winner:


$5,000 grand prize
$2,650 raised on GoFundMe

When Oscar Wang began speaking, a hush came over the room. Gathered at Green Soul restaurant for the Full City Challenge main event, 120 party-goers stopped chattering and turned their heads to listen.

A recent college graduate himself, Wang stood on stage and invited the audience to consider the tale of a local student struggling with an unfortunately common choice: keep up with his studies, or maintain the fast-food job he’d taken to help his mother pay for insulin.

“Instead of having to choose between being a learner or an earner,” Wang told the crowd, “we want to create a new paradigm: the learning earner.”

HospitalityTogether can make that happen, Wang declared.

His five-minute pitch had been honed during a rapid incubator held at the University City Science Center. In a meeting room at the Quorum gathering space, Wang and his partners — restaurateur Judy Ni and admissions expert Dustin Rodgers — had examined and re-examined every inch of their proposal.

The HospitalityTogether advisory session at the Full City incubator workshop Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

The set of advisors assigned to the group included representatives from the Philadelphia Foundation, USALA radio and Wharton Social Impact. As the experts provided guidance and suggestions, the HospitalityTogether team refined their presentation on the spot.

“We gave Oscar some feedback,” marveled Phil Fitzgerald, director of grantmaking at Philadelphia Foundation, “and five minutes later he’d incorporated it into a brand new pitch.”

One week later, the refinements to the spiel — in which Wang was tasked with explaining the problem, the solution, the methodology and the outline of a pilot test program within the span of just 300 seconds — proved out their worth.

“Who is that guy?” whispered United Way chapter head and Broad Street Ministry founder Bill Golderer, taking in the scene as one of the six local food celebs on the Full City Challenge judging panel. During the post-presentation Q&A session, Golderer piled on the compliments.

“Forget about Tony Robbins,” he told Wang, comparing the young man to one of the country’s most successful marketing speakers. “You’ve got this.”

Full City Challenge 2019 People’s Choice Winner:
The Rebel Market

$2;500 matching prize
$12,900 raised on GoFundMe

Poised speechmaking goes a long way toward convincing people that your social impact project is worth putting money into, but it isn’t everything.

That became apparent when the judges convened to pick their winner. Ensconced in Green Soul’s mezzanine private dining room while everyone else mingled downstairs, the half-dozen local food luminaries debated the qualities of the five inspirational projects they’d just been presented.

Each project had already proven itself by being designated a Full City Challenge finalist, besting dozens of other praiseworthy projects in the process.

Although the purse we dangled wasn’t all that big, we also offered the winner advice, exposure and strategic assistance in implementing a pilot.

Shonte Smarr of Philly Food Rescue takes in some workshop ideas Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

“Be sure to make that clear,” advisor Megha Kulshreshtha of Philly Food Connect had suggested in an early steering committee meeting. “List out the nontangible benefits. This is a lot more than just the $5,000.”

Good advice. Thanks to help in spreading the word — by the Broke in Philly reporting collaborative, by Economy League board members, and by others across the city — the combo of funds and assistance was enough to garner more than 30 submissions to our call for new ways to use the city’s rich food economy to lift up Philadelphia.

It wasn’t easy to narrow the field. Reviewing the contenders, we returned often to one of our original charges: that the project should rely on collaboration.

Why’d we deem that critical? There’s already a lot of good work going on in the city, so creating new cross-discipline or cross-community or cross-generational connections might be just the thing to spark fresh ideas.

The Rebel Market team at the Full City incubator workshop Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

Perhaps none of the Full City finalists exemplified that concept better than the Rebel Market, a team comprising three organizations that had never before worked together.

“We’d heard of Siddiq [Moore, of Siddiq’s Water Ice] before,” said Rebel’s Jarrett Stein, “but this is what caused us to finally reach out.” They also tapped Tom McCusker of Honest Tom’s Taco Shop, and the trio joined forces to come up with a plan for a healthy, affordable corner store run by Philly students, for Philly students.

At Green Soul, the collaborative spirit proved infectious. Rebel’s proposal received serious consideration from the judges — and scored thousands more in GoFundMe donations over the course of the night.

Full City Challenge runner-up finalists

Victory V Farms

$8,225 raised on GoFundMe

Philly Food Rescue

$2,750 raised on GoFundMe

Care About Restaurant Employees (CARE)

$2,875 raised on GoFundMe

Judges Bill Golderer of United Way, Ellen Yin of Fork and Han Chiang of Han Dynasty Credit: Kait Moore Photography

Crowdfunding plays a growing role in modern philanthropy, and GoFundMe was an integral part of the Full City Challenge.

During the rapid incubator a week before the main event, a GoFundMe coach flew in from California and worked with each of the finalist teams to set up a campaign page. Along the way, she imparted lessons applicable to many kinds of individual fundraising. (Use lots of photos! Start by telling people you know! Set a small, attainable goal and grow it as you go!)

The resulting campaign pages, which went live the day after the workshop, provided a way for party-goers to vote in real-time: whichever team had raised the most by the end of the night would be awarded the People’s Choice prize.

But it’s not easy to convince a room full of strangers you’ve got an idea worth funding — even if you know they’ve come specifically to hear your pitch.

On stage at Green Soul, Frank Sherman of Victory V Farms struggled somewhat to give voice to the salient points he’d used multiple times before (the project already has some big money investors behind it). His loss for words notwithstanding, the idea to turn abandoned buildings into vertical farms that produce food for and employ neighborhood residents still raked in thousands of dollars on the crowdfund platform.

When it was her turn to present, Philly Food Rescue’s Victoria Della Rocca started with a wry twist on a classic Philadelphia phrase: “We the people…are hungry!”

Philly Food Rescue’s Victoria Della Rocca and Shonte Smarr Credit: Kait Moore Photography

As her spiked heels deftly navigated a tangle of microphone wires, Della Rocca spoke clearly and forcefully about building out a tech platform that connects volunteers with restaurants and supermarkets to solve the last-mile problem of getting fresh food to hungry Philadelphians.

“Is this about not wasting food, or about feeding those in need?” one of the judges wanted to know. “It’s about creating more dignity and access for those in need,” she replied.

Maria Campbell, the one-woman force behind CARE, got so wrapped up in explaining the issues facing the people who work in hospitality — the 130,000-plus workforce in the Philly region faces much higher rates of depression and disease than other industries — that she only made it halfway through her prepared pitch.

“Ask about her pilot program,” the judges were charged as they started their Q&A.

Full City Challenge supporters

Philadelphia International Airport
MarketPlace PHL

Green Soul
University City Science Center
CIC Philadelphia

Woodrow’s Sandwiches
Di Bruno Bros.
Pure Fare
Evil Genius Beer
Quaker City Shrubs

As the judges tallied scores and debated contenders’ merits, serious queries traded time with jokes ping-ponging around the table.

“I want this one because it’s gonna save me money,” said Han Dynasty proprietor Han Chiang. “But does this program replicate what’s already out there?” another judge wanted to know.

The Full City Challenge judges deliberate Credit: Danya Henninger / Billy Penn

On the official scoresheets, having a clearly defined pilot was given extra heavy weight for a couple of reasons.

One, it could jumpstart a test-and-learn culture, the modern business model where fast-failing ideas are viewed as useful tools. Second, the Economy League and Billy Penn only had $5,000 to offer — not enough to fund any of these projects fully, but surely enough for a small trial.

How will that trial play out for Full City Challenge grand prize winner?

Stay tuned to our coverage. You’ll get a front-row seat as we help HospitalityTogether help Philadelphia live up to its potential as the greatest city in the world.

Danya Henninger was first editor and then editor/director of Billy Penn at WHYY from 2019 to 2023.