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Wednesday, March 12,2014

Tech ambassadors

LEAP representatives promote Lansing at SXSW, look for ideas

by ALLAN I. ROSS
Last weekend, three members of the Lansing Economic Area Partnership flew to Austin, Texas, to attend the annual music, film and technology showcase South by Southwest. Steve Willobee, director of business development, Sara Graham, director of talent and communications, and Jeff Smith, director of the new economy division, joined over 24,000 people from 73 countries for three days of networking, new gadget ogling and riding on Miley Cyrus’ wrecking ball. Seriously.

“I wanted to ride it, but I didn’t think that was a good idea being a representative of Lansing,” Smith said. “A lot of people were taking pictures. That kind of thing can get out.”

And with tech enthusiasts from around the world equipped with smart phones and Google Glass, showing up in someone’s social media feed was a matter of when, not if — but that was the plan. Smith said LEAP partnered with the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to run the Pure Michigan booth, which promoted state and local business and housing growth.

“There are hundreds of IT jobs in Lansing and the housing market is booming,” Graham said. “All the things are in place that an urban professional would want. Our goal was to reach out to people who may have moved away from Michigan or had preconceived notions of what Lansing is like.”

LEAP created the “Escape to Lansing” campaign, positioning Lansing as a disaster-free zone. They also unveiled a newly created website, escapetolansing.com, and gave out T-shirts with stylized drawings depicting natural disasters inside a red circle with a slash through it.

“We have no volcanoes, no sharks, no hurricanes,” Graham said. “No Justin Bieber. We were giving people reasons to look to Lansing if they’re thinking of starting up a new company.” (Notice she didn’t say anything about snow.) Smith said he thinks the campaign worked.

“A lot of people came by the booth who had left the state, telling us how proud they were to see us representing Michigan. We gave out almost 200 T-shirts in the first 10 minutes. We changed the minds of a lot of people.”

Smith attended a teleconference featuring Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, who was Skyping from London. He also saw Shaquille O’Neil, rode a Boosted Board (a self-propelled, battery powered longboard controlled by smartphone) and made a new friend.

“I was wearing Google Glass and I met this other guy, M. Cole Jones, a software developer from Atlanta,” Smith said. “Steve suggested we take a picture of each other and send it to each other, and that started a conversation.”

It turns out Jones is heavily involved in the Atlanta tech start-up scene and had some advice for Smith. Smith said he’s going to remain in contact with Jones and maintain that relationship. Smith was also able to check in with representatives from the Triangle Research Park in North Carolina he met last year.

“If one person relocates to the Lansing market as a result of us being (at South by Southwest), that’s a huge win,” Smith said. “If one person tweets about our shirts, that’s a huge success. That puts Michigan on a whole new stage. We start to look like Boulder and Phoenix and Austin. Lansing could be a hotbed of start up activity.”

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