Self-celebratory, inspirational-type gatherings where at the end everybody links arms, lights candles and sings Kumbaya don't do much for me.

E-town, Edmonton's Entrepreneurial Festival held last week at the Shaw Conference Centre, had a few Kumbaya moments, but the guts of the festival may have moved me down the change curve.

In the context of Edmonton’s galloping contemporary entrepreneurialism, I can almost embrace this congratulatory stuff.

The e-town festival is visible proof of the profound change of attitude that has happened in e-town (trendy-talk for “Edmonton”). And the festival defined that change within the language, symbols and communication of the incoming business generation.

It was a launch, perhaps THE launch, into the trajectory that will soon see Edmonton known from coast-to-coast as one of the country's most liveable cities.

Off the top, the e-town entrepreneurial festival was symbolic of a city that has fully restored confidence in itself. The evidence pours in that Edmonton had become a most enjoyable big Canadian city in which to live, certainly the best priced.

Confidence comes ultimately from good jobs, interesting jobs, well-paying jobs, knowledge-based jobs.

Those jobs are popping up all over the place, primarily the result of new companies created by that rare breed called entrepreneurs, self-confident individuals who want to be in charge of their own destinies, not working for others.

The more individuals we have that have started, or have a burning desire to start, new companies and endeavours, the more wealth creation the city experiences. Pardon my bluntness, but beneath every exclamation point about “liveability” lies the need for money to create and build that liveability.

Edmonton is already a very entrepreneurial city, but is still perceived internally and externally as a university and government town. The vast majority of Greater Edmonton's working population are hired by small-to-medium companies founded and run by local entrepreneurs.

Remember too that most of the big companies headquartered in Edmonton were all started by one or two people ... PCL Construction by Ernest Poole. Stantec by Don Stanley, ATCO Gas and ATCO Electric by Ron Southam and his father, PTI Group by John Hokanson and his dad. Daryl Katz took calculated gamble after calculated gamble to build his drug store empire.

Other than the city-owned EPCOR, just about every other major business in the city can be traced back to young founders willing to take risks that would stress most of us into early graves.

E-town brought the up-and-coming crop of entrepreneurs together in a youth-oriented context of imagination, visual communications and interactivity as natural to the #hashtag generation as breathing.

At the same time, conference catalyst Brad Ferguson, the young(ish) President and CEO of the Edmonton Economic Development Corporation, persuaded sponsor companies to leave their own comfort zones. Each was asked to pose a question central to their endeavours, to be answered Post-it style, thereby "unleashing the brainpower of 903 attendees."

Within their own context, the next-gen entrepreneurs were exposed to:

Advice from some of the best communicators on and off the planet (Astronaut Chris Hadfield); Guy Kawasaki, Apple evangelist and author of the legendary start-up company advice book, Art of the Start.

The wisdom of the old guys - the sponsor CEOs and senior veeps hung around for most of the conference, usually talking to wanna-be entrepreneurs.

A cornucopia of business support services displaying their ways, talking to delegates to see where they can help, from Alberta Women Entrepreneurs to the Edmonton Executives Association to Startup Edmonton to TEC Edmonton.

Such conferences can be worryingly "soft" - feel good, Kumbayah and all that nonsense.

But here's two countervailing thoughts.

If this conference was to be viewed as too “soft”, it at least involved few tax dollars. The e-town entrepreneurial festival should break even from delegate fees, sponsorship and other revenue.

“Gaps” in the entrepreneurial eco-system were clearly defined in the financing, institutional and regulatory spheres.

From small acorns, mighty oak trees can and do grow. Ten years ago, Economic Development Edmonton sponsored and facilitated business "cluster" groups to formulate goals for each group. It all sounded airy-fairy back then. But go back and look at those goals. Most of them have been achieved.

“We had never had a conference/festival centred around leadership and entrepreneurism before,” says Ferguson. “By celebrating as a collective, we gain the courage to think differently.”

 

e-town entrepreneurial festival: factoids

 

Attendance: 903

Cost per delegate: $299, students $100

Budget for conference, $600,000, expected to be covered by delegate fees and sponsorship.

Corporate heavyweights in attendance: ATB’s David Mowat, Rogers’ Senior VP Larry Baldachin, Travel Alberta CEO Bruce Okabe, City of Edmonton general manager of sustainable development Gary Klassen, PwC Edmonton managing partner David Bryan, Deputy Premier Thomas Lukaszuk, Parlee McLaws partner Bruce Hirsche.

Twitter hashtag #etownfest.

Main Keynote speakers: Astronaut Chris Hadfield, Motorola Advisory and former Apple “evangelist” Guy Kawasaki, museum and all-around creative guy David Usher.

Graham Hicks

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