Stories of Technology, Innovation, & Entrepreneurship in the Southeast

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May 21, 2020 | Tom Ballard

“Let Her Speak,” KTech “lunch and learn” are two of five virtual events on last Wednesday’s schedule

We reached a new milestone on Wednesday, participating in five virtual events in a little more than six hours, starting with the PYA webinar titled “Got a Payroll? Don’t Leave Money on the Table.” (BTW, if you did not have a chance to watch it live, you can at your leisure by clicking here.)

Over the lunch hour, we dropped-in on the latest “lunch and learn” from the Knoxville Technology Council (KTech), then joined the first part of the inaugural virtual event from “Let Her Speak,” had a business meeting with a non-profit organization on whose Board of Directors I serve, and concluded the day by viewing the pitch competition for Atlanta’s “Startup Runway 8th Edition” where Sofia Tomov was one of the participants.

We already covered the Atlanta competition in yesterday’s edition, so we’ll spotlight the other two public events in this longer than normal article. Also, after eight consecutive weeks of publishing Saturday editions during the COVID-19 pandemic, we will not do so tomorrow. Have a safe and enjoyable Memorial Day. We’ll return on Tuesday.

“Let Her Speak” Virtual Meet-up

Drocella Mugorewera, Executive Director of Bridge Refugee Services, keynoted the event that was organized by “Let Her Speak” Founder Catherine Porth Cahill with support from Ellie Gunn and Booth Andrews.

Explaining that she recently completed a study about the biggest barriers that women are facing, Cahill said that the standard answer was not enough hours in the day. Yet, as she dug deeper into the data, she says the real challenge was women not having enough faith in their abilities, something she described as “our own negative perceptions” that are only exacerbated by the isolation from a support system as a result of COVID-19 restrictions.

To encourage more positive thinking, Cahill selected Mugorewera, a Knoxville resident who had to flee her native Rwanda in 2018, leaving behind her husband and children. As she described the reason, it was simply her outspoken views that resulted in a fear for her life.

She began her presentation with a virtual hug for the audience of about 50 and a simple but powerful statement: “If you learn, you can earn.” Next, she asked attendees to stand-up and run out of the room from where they were watching the event, explaining when she returned that “you just escaped to save your life.” It was a dramatic way to make a point that individuals can act to make things different.

As Mugorewera described the last 12 years since she fled Rwanda, a story that was captured in this 2018 article in the Knoxville edition of The Tennessee Ledger, it was very clear why Cahill had selected her for the keynote. Mugorewera had things for which she had strong beliefs and a willingness to act against all odds and with a good deal of personal pain for herself and her family.

“I’m not a victim; I’m a creator,” Mugorewera told the attendees. “I’m so thankful even if I went through all that struggle.”

She advised the women in attendance – other than Alex Abell of Lunchpool, I was probably the only male attendee – to be patient, persevere, build networks, never give-up on yourself, learn how to communicate, stick to your values, and don’t let anyone pull you down.

Just a day earlier, Mugorewera’s organization was honored by the Rotary Club of Knoxville with the club’s “2020 Peace Award” for its work in making “a positive and peace-building impact on our community and the world.”

KTech “Tech for Good – Lunch and Learn”

KTech takes a broad view of the middle word in its name as evidenced by its most recent event titled “Tech for Good – Lunch and Learn.” Previous sessions have focused on topics such as “Healthcare Technology During COVID-19,” “Design Thinking,” and “IP 101: Boost Your Intellectual Property IQ.”

Wednesday’s virtual session focused on technology in the non-profit sector and featured Alyson Gallaher of Volunteer East Tennessee (VET) and Brewton Couch of the United Way of Greater Knoxville. The latter is probably better known than the former that was established in 2014 as Volunteer Knoxville and rebranded as Volunteer East Tennessee two years later. It is the region’s volunteer center connecting non-profits and volunteers.

During the presentation moderated by Brandon Bruce, one of KTech’s founders, the two executives discussed the challenges that non-profits in the area are facing as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and how many of them are responding.

Crouch put a real face on the impact, noting that non-profits in the region had lost $12 million in revenue from cancelled events. “COVID-19 turned the fundraising model on its head,” Gallaher added.

Noting that “we were shocked but should not have been,” VET’s Executive Director explained that many non-profits were unprepared to engage volunteers virtually. They lacked the technical understanding they needed. That point was underscored by Couch who described how many United Way affiliates had teamed-up with Salesforce as a way to connect with employers and their employees.

“Smart technology can help non-profits execute better,” she explained. One example was an app that was designed to help connect homeless people to available housing. Thanks to advice from two volunteers from Oak Ridge National Laboratory, Couch said the United Way included a component that allowed the organization to begin collecting data to show the impact and success of the program.

During a Q&A session, Bruce asked both panelists about the typical technology needs of non-profits. Gallaher cited a better understanding of how to leverage technology to streamline their processes while also becoming more efficient, a clear reference to the financially challenging times. For Couch, it was data management . . . understanding how to turn what she described as “a treasure-trove of data into something usable.”

Both organizations and those that they support in one way or another rely on volunteers and philanthropy, two areas that Gallaher addressed with a lowkey plea. “Now is the time (for companies) to think about community investment differently,” she said, noting that employers might not have the financial resources they once had but they can still encourage their employees to become engaged as volunteers.

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