Back in late 2016, Charlie Vincent and Robert Herrera, president of The Mill co-working space that now has two Delaware locations, decided the state needed a leadership conference to bring together members of the 20 or 30 different young professional groups throughout the state of Delaware that were either affiliates of large organizations or their own standalone group.
The first #MILLSUMMIT in August 2017 drew more than 250 people to the Chase Center. But that was just the start. The 2021 #MILLSUMMIT, which included nearly three dozen panels and keynotes, attracted nearly 1,000 people, most of whom were streaming in through the conference’s app and website, which offers the ability to network and ask questions.
Vincent says #MILLSUMMIT is now “the largest hybrid young professional conference in the country, and there’s a lot of room for it to get bigger.” He and some of the other original committee members formed a nonprofit called Spur Impact after the first #MILLSUMMIT, with the mission focused on helping empower and connect young professionals to each other and with opportunities in leadership roles at public, private, and nonprofit community service organizations.
This year will be the sixth #MillSummit. How did you keep it going during the pandemic?
The pandemic was a blessing in disguise in that it opened the door to the hybrid virtual world. It’s opened a lot of doors to a wider audience beyond Delaware for the virtual side. This year (Aug. 2-4) will be the first where we’ll have a fully hybrid event. The first day will be an all-virtual day and the next two will be fully hybrid at The Queen in Wilmington with a cap of 250 for in-person attendance. Anybody from around the world can stream the sessions and the keynotes and interact with the speakers, panelists, and other attendees. We experimented with hybrid a little bit in 2021 at CSC Station and it worked out great, and the in-person experience will be even better this year. No matter where you’re at, you can just watch through the app or through your phone when you can. We had one attendee last year tell us she listened to the whole thing like a podcast as she drove from Chicago to Kansas City. Registration is now open and you can register at this link: https://millsummit.com/register
About 75% of the young professional conference attendees are between 25 and 40 and most of the rest are older. You have a lot of entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, and mompreneurs attending as well as corporate employees. The more seasoned professionals are trying to figure out how to give back and connect to this younger generation. You have teams with four or five generations on these workplace teams. So a lot of the conference content is designed around Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI)-related topics, leadership, and professional development topics, or generational diversity and team dynamic topics because they’re relevant no matter where you are in your professional career.
How do you keep the conference fresh?
You must surround yourself with a good planning team and a good board that can help guide the ship and make sure you’re checking your blind spots. We have 50 or 60 volunteers helping plan this. What’s been most satisfying to me is seeing people come in because they’re interested and now two or three years later, they’re the senior leaders helping plan the whole conference.
What makes Delaware the best place for #MILLSUMMIT?
As the nation’s corporate capital, businesses around the country leverage many of Delaware’s resources on a regular basis. Because of our size and location, many corporate, nonprofit, and government leaders are able to connect and interact with each other on a relatively easy basis, whether for an in-person or virtual meeting.
The #MILLSUMMIT is a great place for companies to bring in their younger and seasoned leaders to attend, network, and learn from experts about relevant topics of both personal and professional interest.
We’re trying to figure out ways to turn it into a bigger destination conference two or three years from now so we can showcase this great state in different ways and because it is a different experience in person than virtually. You need the city and the state and the county to come in and think about this from a tourism and economic impact perspective. With other national conferences, the conference itself is the primary magnet. But once the attendees are physically here, you could invite them to a show at the Grand or a Blue Rocks game, or a Winterthur exhibition. We’ve had speakers go down to the beach while they’re here, or to Philly, our local museums, or Longwood.
How do you build a hybrid conference that reflects the original goals for Delawareans?
Retention of talent has always been an underlying issue since it takes a lot more effort to hire than keep good employees, and so keeping the #MILLSUMMIT topics focused on retention-relevant issues hasn’t changed. We usually have panels with representatives from four or five local groups talking about their strategies for getting young leaders involved. We also might pair that panel with a virtual session about how to get involved in your own community with a different set of speakers.
Who’ll be speaking this year?
We haven’t officially announced the lineup yet, but our keynotes this year include a national DEI expert, a speaker who will speak about the “great resignation” and unfollowing your passions. I’m personally looking forward to hearing from Major Michelle Rogers, one of the commanders at Dover Air Force Base, who will talk about her experiences as a career officer and helping lead in what is traditionally a male-dominated industry. This is also the first time we’ve invited a military leader to speak as a keynote, and I know the attendees are going to be inspired by her story and have some good tactical takeaways from her.
Why are you guys so popular?
The quick answer, I don’t know. We’ve kept the cost reasonable, and it’s planned by young professionals across industries. We really take pride in making sure everyone’s voice is heard at every step in the planning process. We try to make it as inclusive as possible to bring different voices to the table and plan a conference that would be appealing to our counterparts around the country.
Nobody has ever dictated topics or has given us a big pot of money and said, hey I need you to do this. Among the committee, if has always been like, “Hey, why don’t we do this? And let’s see, can we get Barack Obama?” So we think about how to make a cool event and experience that our friends and colleagues would want to attend. Everybody around the planning table is empowered to put their personal stamp on this conference.
There is a cost to attend but we’ve kept the price low on purpose. We’ll probably charge around $150 for all three virtual days and fortunately we have a lot of corporate and other support that helps pay for nonprofit attendees and community members to attend whether they are in person or virtual. We try and price it in a way that’s affordable to everybody. We have a scholarship program that allows people to buy two tickets, one for themselves and another, so someone else can go that can’t necessarily afford to.
In the beginning, Robert and I agreed that people who sell a young professional conference at $1,500 a ticket aren’t going to get the average person who’s sitting in my shoes at a law firm or a bank to travel three or four days and their employers won’t shell out that sort of price to send 15 or more people. They might send one. At our conference, businesses can afford to send a lot more people to hear and share ideas and hopefully go back and start implementing some of them in their workplaces.