Each year, for the past six years, Rose Ross and team, have solicited nominations for one of the more creative and inspirational awards in the tech industry, The Tech Trailblazer Awards. And, fortunately for those startups and emerging companies, the number of nominees and eventual winners has been impressive. Remember VerdiGris, Big Data Award winner or Nutanix, Virtualization runner up? Both were honorees in the first year of the awards and now count themselves as alumni. All in all, Tech Trailblazers have become a “Who’s Who” of technology companies.
With less than a week to go in the Early Bird Deadline for this year’s awards (August 4), I had a conversation with Rose to talk through the Awards, the impact they have had over the years and to hear about some new changes to this year’s Awards.
Q: This is your sixth year, did you ever imagine when you came up with the idea that it would be this successful?
A: It’s been a really interesting journey. When I created it a while ago, there was a vision but we weren’t true future gazing. We’re pleased we’re still going strong and still blazing tech trails. I still feel the same passion and that is shared by the broader team including the judges. What has truly added to the momentum is the reaction to the companies that are shortlisted, runners up or ultimately winners. They all get so excited. We are just starting to share some of that feedback from recent years on our website through the blog. It’s been great validation for what these companies are doing and I know to get the recognition and stamp of approval that our awards provide is important to them. It builds morale. I know it’s great to be recognized by experts in their field. The excitement is continuing to build and we continue to bring in new ideas to continue to make sure the awards work and are relevant.
Q: What has been your most memorable moment since your team created the Awards?
A: I think back to when we had our first winners and the excitement around that was a defining moment. The support has been amazing since day one, including that of our incredible judges. It’s hard to imagine the reception we received from so many great judges when this was just vaguely a thought and a good idea but little more. That was really fantastic getting all the judges on board. Everyone has been extremely generous with their time and support. There have been some down moments over the years. We lost a judge earlier this year, Jeremy Geelan, and our thoughts are with his close friends and family. I was personally upset by that. However, he had always been a huge supporter and I know he would want us to continue to move the Awards forward. We brought in two new categories two years ago to reflect what is going on in the industry; an award for IoT and FinTech. Of all our awards though, the Firestarter Bursary Award is a stand out. This award is for non-VC backed startups up to two years old. We created this to ensure that entry fees are not a barrier for the new lean startups who are still securing major funding from VCs. This is one of my favorites as it recognizes the new kids on the block. Those companies that are really early start companies and it’s phenomenal for them to get that kind of recognition.
Q: Tell me about the new categories for this year, Male CxO and Female CxO Trailblazers of the Year?
A: We wanted to move out of the pure recognition of the companies and technologies, to recognize the individuals behind both. As we know, none of a company’s or technology’s success would be real without the individuals that make it happen. When we looked at these new categories, we wanted to honor both men and women. I have always been an advocate for women in technology, and am somewhat saddened there are not more, but we have to set the standard for how to mentor, encourage and motivate women. You can’t force everyone to learn to code, but all elements including passion of how to make technology real is important. It’s all about an amazing eco-system and making it happen. For women, in particular, it’s about harnessing their passion and technology can be the foundation to enabling that. That is one way to make it more mainstream avenue for women. I was talking about STEM recently with Jacqui Taylor, a new judge this year, and she mentioned how we really should be talking about the concept of STEAM – STEM but adding in an important additional element, the arts. You really need that diversity of skillsets and by adding in the arts it would make STEM more accessible to people as well.
Q: You have a couple of new judges this year as well, how important has the quality of the judges been for the Awards?
A: People like Jacqui are the kind of people we need as judges. We’re also fortunate to add Jennifer Arcuri. As I mentioned before, we never would have gotten off the ground without the support of our judges. As I’ve seen it there are three key ingredients for our success. First, the passion of the teams, including judges. They are all respected and trusted voices within the industry and that has been our criteria for approaching people. Second, being active on social media. When we started we had zero budget so without the reach and amplification of social media, we wouldn’t have been able to scratch the surface. Third, sharing the secrets to success. We have spotlights on the alumni and will be introducing a meet the experts area where our judges will provide insights as well. Stephen O’Donnell did a great presentation on how to stand out and be a winner. I’m hoping we will be able to continue to get valued insights from the judges, some future gazing and to hear who has been influential in their tech careers. It will be great to learn who has been their mentors or advisors, how did they get positive outcomes especially after facing challenges.
Q: The awards are global, are you seeing any increased interest from any particular region of the world?
A: In year one, we had 80-85% US-based nominations, and I’m proud to say that is now closer to 60-65%. There still is a long way to go. Ideally we’d touch every single enterprise tech startup around the globe. That takes time and contacts. You do need to work with partners and we are fortunate to have a strong network to build on those relationships including media partners, industry associations and local communities like the ones we work with in South Africa and New Zealand. We’ve had winners from Israel, Bulgaria and UK over the years and a good turn out from team USA as always but the real measure of success is being in a place where you are seeing the innovation and diversity where it is happening – regardless of location. And as we all know, innovation can happen anywhere. We’d love to see nominations from people where they are doing what they want to be doing, where they are passionate, and location is irrelevant. We are seeing the world is changing in that respect.
Q: What advice would you give someone considering nominating a person, solution or company for an Award?
A: I think what comes across is that people do like to see the recognition in the marketplace. I’d say that it’s important to talk about what problems you are solving. Some nominations have been very good at spelling out the bits and bytes and speeds and feeds, but it’s equally important to talk about the business challenges you are solving. I hope that anyone that puts their company forward would think they have an individual to nominate as well. I’m especially looking forward to see those nominations and see people get the recognition they deserve as well. I think the judges will be looking at community involvement for individuals because that is where you really start to shift things. If you want to get a winning entry you need to make sure it’s complete! Make sure there is substance and passion. Make sure to include the golden soundbite or soundbites. The great storytellers need to be the ones you speak to so they can provide not just the information but the passion and the compelling insights. Think of this as an investor pitch.
There is one item I’d like to mention we didn’t cover. A couple of years ago we did the Tech Trailblazers Enterprise Tech Startup Index project. It was a research program that looked at the challenges faced by, and the opportunities available to, the enterprise technology startup community around the world. We had a significant number of participants commenting for the Project when we launched it. To participate, you don’t have to nominate yourself, your company or solution for an award. We’d certainly encourage people to do that during their submission process but that’s not a pre-requisite. We’ve reinstituted it for this year, and we would love to share the data from those responding and will make a concerted effort to report back on the trends and shifts from the data. For those interested in participating, you can share your thoughts from the following link.
Final call for the awards is September 8th and the application form can be downloaded from the homepage. For questions, you can also email the Tech Trailblazers at email@example.com.