Mayor Martin Walsh welcomed members of Boston’s startup community to City Hall Thursday afternoon for a meet-and-greet in celebration of Global Entrepreneurship Week. The group included CEOs, venture capitalists, and people running some of the city’s largest startup accelerators and co-working spaces, and they were all eager to weigh in on a topic that Walsh himself acknowledged he’d yet to dig into: What were his plans for branding Boston as a site for global innovation?
Walsh started the roundtable discussion by updating the room on his efforts to make Boston a more digitally savvy city, citing many of the data-driven efforts and analytical tools that Globe reporters Andrew Ryan and Meghan E. Irons wrote about last week. The conversation then turned to the usual topics: How to improve transportation and retain talent.
Walsh said he was committed to making Boston a place where you could “get a glass of wine or steak at 2 or 3 in the morning,” and to working with Beacon Hill to expand transit options so that developers or lab technicians could have public transportation options late at night. “We’re headed toward 24-hour services in the city,” Walsh promised.
But the discussion quickly shifted when Rob Biederman, the co-founder and chief executive of HourlyNerd, asked Walsh about how he intended to brand and market Boston as a place where innovation thrives. The mayor paused. “Great question,” Walsh said, and admitted that while he’s spoken to members of the startup community numerous times, “this is the first time this conversation has happened.”
The room was eager to weigh in with ideas on how best to broadcast that Boston’s availability of resources differentiates it from San Francisco and New York as a unique place to do business. “New York is like the Hunger Games, everyone is trying to get a piece,” said Sean Valiente, finance manager at MassChallenge, whereas in the Boston area, “it’s a different kind of mind-set” as people are willing to collaborate and help others out.
Greg Gomer of Streetwise Media suggested using the venture capitalists in the community as mouthpieces for the innovation scene. “We’re missing the opportunity to market them,” he said.
This prompted Bob Davis of Highland Capital to jump in: “For too long Boston has held our head low,” because we weren’t Silicon Valley or New York City, he said, “and we let the market escape from us.” He advocated widening the scope of the conversation and thinking about innovation as less of a noun than a verb — saying that we should embrace the word innovate as “a celebration of pride” that could be shared by anyone who’s trying to rethink their approach to doing business.
The mayor seemed receptive to all of the suggestions, and said that he’d begin a marketing push in the first quarter of next year. His spokesperson, Melina Schuler, said this would be among the many things on the docket for the mayor’s new chief communications officer when that hire is made.