When Jess Knox, the face of Maine Startup & Create Week, was disowned by the state’s entrepreneurial community after admitting to sexual harassment, the fate of the annual conference became uncertain.
But a group of volunteers has stepped forward to carry on the multiday event for entrepreneurs under a new name, with the goal of making it more useful and accessible than ever before.
Conference organizers Katie Shorey and Andrew Kraus were involved in putting on the event when Knox was running it, but now they are its leaders – Shorey as president and chairwoman, and Kraus as vice president.
The conference has been renamed Startup Maine, and it is being revamped to focus more on interactive workshops and entrepreneur “case studies” that teach solutions to real problems faced by businesses, the organizers said. The conference also has been shortened from five to three days, and the price of an all-access pass has been slashed from $499 to just $48.
“We didn’t want the price to be a barrier,” said Kraus, an attorney at Opticliff Law in Portland. “I think (the previous price) turned off a lot of people.”
Startup Maine is scheduled for June 21-23 at the Maine College of Art and other locations in downtown Portland. More information can be found at the event’s website, startupmaine.org.
Many of Maine Startup & Create week’s major sponsors are returning this year, including Maine Technology Institute, Idexx Laboratories, Wex, Red Thread and Pierce Atwood.
Shorey, the community relations manager at People’s United Bank in Portland, said Startup Maine’s purpose is to showcase what Maine entrepreneurs and startups are doing, and to provide the “big picture” of what could be possible for startups in the state. It is designed to be educational and provide opportunities for networking, she said.
“This conference is for the companies and the service providers, but also for the startup-curious,” Shorey said.
As in the past, the conference will feature presentations by prominent entrepreneurs and educators from Maine and elsewhere, the organizers said. Two speakers who already have been confirmed are Benjamin Shaw, CEO of Vets First Choice in Portland, and Patti Fletcher, a Boston-based business strategist and “leadership futurist” who wrote “Disrupters,” a book about women business leaders and their success strategies.
Kraus said the organizers have committed to making the event “gender balanced,” which means it will have an even split between male and female speakers.
The revelation in January that Knox, a prominent advocate for Maine entrepreneurs, had made inappropriate sexual advances toward some female colleagues seemed to place the conference’s future in jeopardy. Knox was Maine Startup & Create Week’s primary organizer, taking on most of the fundraising and recruitment of speakers. He also had a long-term consulting contract with the event’s lead donor, Maine Technology Institute, which subsequently canceled his contract. Another organization that Knox co-founded, Venture Hall, shut down just after being awarded a $475,000 grant to promote entrepreneurism in Maine. The grant was rescinded in the wake of the harassment scandal.
“When the news came out, I think part of the agreement with him severing ties with his contract employers was to also remove himself from Maine Startup & Create Week,” Shorey said. “It was requested from some sponsors, as well, that they wouldn’t participate if he was still involved.”
One of the women who Knox admitted to harassing is Stephanie Brock, general manager of Portland-based office furniture supplier Red Thread, a major sponsor of the conference.
Shorey said the organizers considered putting the event on hold for a year but ultimately decided to move forward, with a few significant changes.
One was to make the process of putting together the conference more transparent and democratic. When Knox was in charge, he was the primary decision-maker on all things related to the event, the organizers said. Now, decisions are made by a vote.
Another change was to establish an underlying nonprofit organization to ensure the conference’s future. The organizers registered Startup Maine Inc. as a nonprofit corporation and have applied for 501(c)(3) status. They also created a board of directors.
“We received such an outpouring of support from the community about wanting this to continue on,” Shorey said. “So we as a steering committee group, the people who have been volunteers over the past few years, as well as the organizers, we got together and said, ‘Can we make this happen?’ “