A Forum for Free Thinkers

The iKC Unconference puts the power in the hands of the attendees by letting them choose which topics will be discussed.

Story by Lindsey Kennedy

There is a hum of lively conversation that fills the stone hallways of Union Station on Aug. 21 as lanyard-adorned attendees of the iKC Unconference make their way to the first session of the day.

Just minutes before, these same individuals surrounded a large array of ideas handwritten on notebook paper, intermittently attaching small stickers to the ones they found most compelling. “How can we be more inclusive as a city?” reads one, “How can my small business effectively market itself?” asks another.

These questions, discussion topics and potential community initiatives are actually submissions for the iKC Unconference’s session topics. The session ideas are pitched anywhere from 30 days prior to the event up to the morning of, and they are voted on and executed that very day. As attendees add their stickers, they are actually designing their own personalized conference experience in real time.

“No B.S.,” promises the Unconference, an event held by Think Big Partners and The Greater Kansas City Chamber of Commerce. “No Bland Speeches. No Boring Speakers.”

The purpose of the Unconference is to bring together perspectives from the region’s business, nonprofit, civic and entrepreneurial communities and provide representatives from each with information they can really use. Attendees can sign up for optional one-on-one mentoring, network with other participants and attend whichever sessions will inspire and educate them the most.

“I think that if you ever want to succeed at anything, you ought to define the problem from the perspective of the customer,” says “un-mentor” Neal Sharma, CEO and principal of digital consultancy agency DEG. “The Unconference model does a really good job of letting the customer dictate what’s happening.”

Even the rules of the Unconference are sort of non-rules. “Whenever it starts is the right time. Whenever it is over, it is over,” reads the first tenet of the Unconference philosophy.

Instead of limiting the possibilities of the experience, Unconference guidelines ask that attendees let go of any perceived structure or regulation that might box them in creatively or limit their options.

Tyler Procknow, Think Big Partners senior partner and cofounder, celebrates the crowd-sourced, democratic approach to an entrepreneurship conference. “We really went to look for a model that put that power right in the hands of the attendees to

say, ‘These are the things that are really important to us as individuals, as businesses and as a community as a whole,’” he says.

In fact, conceptualizing with the entire community in mind was something that happened organically during the conference. Many of the session submissions departed from predictable entrepreneurship topics like acquisition of investment capital or successful social media marketing.

“We had a discussion today about open primaries, so [it] really is anything that we can come up with that will make Kansas City a better place to live, work and play,” Procknow says.

Beyond the sessions and networking opportunities, iKC also offers one-on-one appointments with “un-mentors.” Presented like an entrepreneurial speed date, 20-minute time slots give attendees a chance to gain insight from local leaders and innovators, including Sharma.

“I know that I am, I have been and continue to be a remarkable beneficiary of mentorship,” Sharma says. “The people who have been nice enough to share their time and advice with me have shaped how I think about just about everything.”

According to Sharma, most un-mentees were in search of inspiration, a new perspective or guidance from those who have been in their shoes before. For the attendees, and for the KC business community in general, mentoring can fill in these gaps in expertise, education or motivation. “It’s going to be a critical element of how we build an entrepreneurial ecosystem in Kansas City,” Sharma says.

In a session about incorporating philanthropy into a small business model, attendees from nonprofits, small businesses and local government discussed how they could make their community a better place. One member of the discussion presented a problem: a gap in funding, and another member gave a solution: a grant that the organization in question would qualify for.

As members of the session began furiously writing down details, it became clear that sometimes the recipe for innovative problem-solving is unconventional; when providing structure for motivated thinkers, sometimes less is more.