Forward Fest puts a premium on inclusivity

Fest takes place Aug. 16-23 throughout the city
Forward Fest puts a premium on inclusivity

Madison leaders are doing a lot of good, intentional work on race and gender equity right now, and the entrepreneurial sector is no exception. Embracing the issue are the organizers of Forward Festival, now in its ninth year. Billed as “Wisconsin’s largest technology and entrepreneurship festival,” the fest takes place Aug. 16-23 at venues throughout the city.

“Our big push this year is how we actually walk the walk of being and showing diversity and inclusion,” says Heather Wentler, festival organizer and executive director of Doyenne Group, a funding and networking organization for female entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs of color.

Wentler and fellow organizers say the effort began in earnest last year with an inclusivity statement: “We welcome individuals of every identity and demographic to all levels of participation. This includes design, planning, facilitation and attendance.”

Change is hard and it takes work. So during the offseason, strategic planning sessions established the mission and vision of Forward Fest. Inclusion is now a core value.

“We’re seeing more gender diversity than ever before,” says Wentler. “And we are dedicated to making race equity and inclusion initiatives the forefront of how we measure the success of Forward Fest and entrepreneurship in our community.”

Organizers say they will be proactive about working with event hosts to ensure they’re as welcoming and inclusive as possible.

Another big push this year is to put Forward Fest on the map of can’t-miss regional and national gatherings. Last year’s festival was the biggest, drawing 5,000 attendees to 56 events at 34 venues. Forward Summit – a one-day event featuring the Forward Tech Conference, BigData Wisconsin, Social Impact Data, Healthcare Innovation, Madison Tech Meetups, Kids STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) program and Startup Showcase – brought more than 400 people to Memorial Union.

Doyenne’s signature startup pitch event, 5x5x5, will return with five businesses pitching for five minutes for a $5,000 first-place prize. Amy Gannon, co-founder and director of entrepreneur development of Doyenne Group, will also lead a session called “Voice of Solidarity: The Role of Men in Advancing Women’s Entrepreneurship.” Gannon, who holds a Ph.D. in business administration from Boston University and served on the faculty and as interim dean of Edgewood College School of Business, will dive deep into issues of masculinity, how it plays out in entrepreneurial settings and its impact on both genders.

“Men benefit from women’s entrepreneurship – from having their peers be women entrepreneurs and having women as co-founders on their team. They benefit from that diversity of thought and approach,” says Gannon.

“It’s going to be a little bit provocative,” Gannon continues. “It’s challenging to do something like this well; walking the line of being inviting and patient but also not coddling, and really making sure that we have a real conversation about it and keep people accountable.”

From startup launch parties and high-tech happy hours to workshops and full-day conferences, the festival provides a window into the emerging and exciting world of innovation and entrepreneurship. Startup veterans Alnisa Allgood and Preston Austin host the Social Good Summit, which this year will showcase the best and brightest innovations from Social Good Madison’s accelerator program. Allgood is also a festival organizer and shares an enthusiasm for attracting nontraditional crowds. She says she’s already seeing more women and people of color feeling comfortable in the entrepreneurial community.

Bryan Chan, co-founder of Forward Fest, High-Tech Happy Hour and the festival’s “Parentpreneurs” event, is proud of the way the festival has evolved over time.

As the founder and president of SupraNet Communications, Chan says taking a break from running the business and experiencing the camaraderie of his peers has always been his favorite part of the experience.

“It’s special and it’s changing and evolving, and I want people to know that it really is for everybody,” says Chan. “And we have a lot of fun doing it.”

Brennan Nardi is communications director at Madison Community Foundation and a former editor of Madison Magazine. Reach her at