Outside of my day job as ExitEvent sales and events coordinator, I try to find different ways to blend my interests in music and innovation. This takes variety of forms: taking on side hustles, performing as a DJ, producing my own mixes and, for the second consecutive year, serving as program director for Innovate Your Cool. It’s a conference that highlights all things Innovation, Music and Culture, taking place alongside the Art of Cool Festival that successfully engages Durham’s creative arts community every year.

In the months and weeks leading up to the conference, my task was to frame a full day of educational programming with the noise of a large scale music festival in the background. I am personally not one to hide from a challenge, but I admit attempting to match educational programming with the same quality of programming on the music side was a bit daunting at first.

I was faced with the challenge to create a STEAM-based conference for a traditionally disengaged audience early on a Saturday morning, only hours after witnessing hip hop artist Rakim put on a show at the Durham Armory and hours before the mothership that is George Clinton & Parliament Funkadelic would take the stage at the sold-out Carolina Theater.

Conference Director Michael English outlining the mission of Innovate Your Cool to the attendees.

With all of the noise and self-imposed pressure, I took a put the medicine in the candy approach to creating sessions that would attract our target audience, people of color ages 8-48. As I describe the experience, allow me to also share some things that I learned while planning for the Innovate Your Cool Conference.

1. Leverage popular culture to get buy in

Popular culture has long been a catalyst for intrigue and attention—Whether you take heed to the example of a company like Target using two up-and-coming music artists to persuade folks to patronize their stores, or you started using quickbooks before or after Dj Khaled dubbed it a major key. My approach with that in mind was to leverage popular names that would draw a crowd to our host site American Underground, a Google for Entrepreneurs Tech Hub in the heart of downtown Durham.

Dreamville Records recording artist Ari Lennox entertains the crowd during her Google Lounge rooftop performance.

Of course everyone may not have immediate access to names like Rakim and Ari Lennox to validate your event so leveraging pillars of the culture works too.

Every target audience has a subculture. It takes respectfully tapping into that culture and celebrating it within the programming to attract attention.

2. Always plan with the end user mind

Much like the Lean Startup gospel of Eric Ries, my approach in year two of Innovate Your Cool was to conduct customer interviews and experiment periodically with smaller programs to get a read on what my audience would respond to. The best advice to date came from a two-time festival goer who would later tag the advice with a motto: “Two Friends and One Stranger.”

“30 Years Paid in Full” session featuring Professor Mark Anthony Neal, Producer/Professor 9th Wonder and Radio Host/Lawyer Combat Jack.

The idea is to attract a new audience with an unfamiliar message, to give your potential end user two things that they’re familiar with and one thing that they may not be familiar with.

For instance, I paired a youth-focused coding class with a beatmaking class, featuring popular music producers Elite and Hollywood JB, who have produced for artists like J. Cole, Common and Anthony Hamilton. I coupled this with a Soul Yoga program and panel discussions on investing, featuring Bill Spruill, Todd Olson and James Sills, all well-known local investors and venture-backed CEOs.

“F.A.M.E.” panel discussion featuring Shanti Das, Donald Thompson, Sara Yarborough and Domo Jones (left to right)

“Paid in Full: Invest Wisely” session featuring Todd Olsen, Bill Spruill, James Sills and Bianca Little.

This concept rearranged the programmatic approach to center everything around Music, Innovation and Culture, in line with the Innovate Your Cool mission.

3. Offer responsibility to partners and sponsors.

In the events business, we organizers are tasked with a goal to ensure the programming is attractive not only to attendees, but to potential sponsors. The 2017 Innovate Your Cool Conference featured nearly double the amount of programs than last year, made possible by turn key partnerships with Pendo, OpenIDEO, the North Carolina Science Museum and more.

Scientist from the North Carolina Science Fest and Morehead Planetarium and Science Center hosted live science shows for Innovate Your Cool attendees.

Pro tip: find partners who understand that simply having their name on a flyer or their product in a gift bag does not maximize the engagement potential that exists within your particular event. Offer the sponsor that you are targeting the opportunity to get their hands dirty too, by participating in planning meetings for sessions or helping out with volunteer positions. This will give them the opportunity to see the event from all sides and have a deeper buy-in to the overall success of the event.

The only caveat to this is the delicate balance of keeping your event from being overrun by corporate sponsors.

Volunteers from the Malkuta Project prep for their interviews with musicians Theo Croaker and R. LUM. R at Blackspace.

My initial goal for the event this year was to prove my personal belief that the lack of interest in STEAM-based education for communities of color is how the program is presented to them. I didn’t want to force attendees to participate in conversations on Python and blockchain technology if they would rather hear about topics like sneaker design or the rich history of Jazz and Hip Hop in North Carolina. The secret was to combine a bit of everyone’s interests for cross pollination and exposure to new ideas and concepts.

Turn out for the 2017 Innovate Your Cool Conference was able to surpass my expectations, increasing from a little under 400 attendees in 2016 to over 700 last Saturday.

Next steps for the conference include expanding the one-day event to quarterly programming for popular sessions such as the Compose Your Cool coding workshop as well as Soul Yoga.