The 'disrupters' who open up the city to possibility

Scott Gordon of Mastery schools listens to principal LaQuanda Jackson of Simon Gratz Mastery Charter School.
Scott Gordon of Mastery schools listens to principal LaQuanda Jackson of Simon Gratz Mastery Charter School. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: October 01, 2012

Vanity Fair is out with its annual list of the "New Establishment" and, this year, according to the editor who put the package together, many of those who made the final cut share a common trait: They're "disrupters." That is, they're innovative change agents who, by nature, take on the status quo in their fields.

It got me thinking: Who are the disrupters among us? We could use some. In his 2007 book, Walking Broad, favorite-son writer Bruce Buschel covers the length of our longest street by foot and, at one point, peruses a Daily News and the names and stories jump out at him: Ed Rendell, Arlen Specter, racial conflicts, union unrest. "Twenty-five years and nothing has changed," he writes. "Same people, same plights, same biases, same newspaper."

Usual suspect-itis is Philadelphia's great curse. And most of our usual suspects tend to be political, as Buschel noted. That's because we allow politicians to fill our power vacuum - and then we wonder why change happens at a glacial pace. It's safer not to make waves here. Change agents who have taken on entrenched interests - John Timoney, Paul Vallas, Heidi Ramirez, and, most recently, Girard College's Autumn Adkins, all come to mind - have ended up being driven out by the comfortable defenders of the way things have always been done.

So I've been keeping my own list of Philly's disrupters - people in business, philanthropy, tech, education, the arts, the media, and, yes, politics, who refuse to follow the script. According to Liz Dow, CEO of Leadership Philadelphia, we have more than we think. "Our disrupters display fearless, fresh thinking," she says. "They're who the Steve Jobs 'Think Different' ad campaign spoke of: 'The ones who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.' "

Some of them you may know:

In philanthropy, Jeremy Nowak of the William Penn Foundation is ticking off the right people and getting big things done.

Richard Vague and Nick Stuccio, orchestrators of the Fringe Festival, are the Batman and Robin of the arts.

In the entrepreneurial and tech world, the move of Josh Kopelman's First Round Capital into West Philly could jump-start an Austin, Texas-like venture-capital ecosystem here. (Kopelman's move was aided by a couple of kindred-spirit disrupters: Campus Apartments CEO David Adelman recruited him to the city and Councilman Bill Green passed a bill giving tax breaks to Philly investment firms.)

In education, Mastery's Scott Gordon represents the closest thing we have to the type of transformational change that Geoffrey Canada has brought to Harlem.

But here are three disrupters you may not know:

Ajay Raju is a 42-year-old rainmaker at the Reed Smith law firm who has started something called the Center PAC. It's a political action committee designed to invest in the rarest of species - moderate politicians - but also to open up the political game to fresh faces with new ideas. The PAC's donors are doctors, dentists, and young people, and Raju has gone to great lengths to keep the usual suspects at bay.

"This is a bold and transparent attempt to dilute the influence of the insiders," Raju says. "We need to build a business and civic cartel to get things done and to give constructive feedback to elected officials, not to be in their thrall."

In the entrepreneurial space, Terry Williams is a venture capitalist who invests in early-stage tech start-ups with his Next Stage Capital fund. But his true innovation is something called CXP, which provides HR, IT, accounting, and sales functions for $2 million to $10 million companies that pay CXP a management fee. Nothing unusual about that, right? Well, the innovation is in the relationship between Williams and his client companies: They swap equity.

So CXP has a minority share of each company that hires it, and each company has a stake in CXP. That makes CXP Williams' own de facto incubator, with each company connected to one another. It's growth, squared. "At a time when the economy is crunching small-size companies, this is the only way to network and grow," Williams, who counts among his portfolio PeopleShare, the West Chester temp agency that is one of the region's fastest-growing businesses. "We're proving out this concept in the Philadelphia region first."

Finally, there's Texas transplant Claire Robertson-Kraft, the 31-year-old chair of Young Involved Philadelphia, which is currently holding its two-week "State of Young Philly" event series. With 5,000 members, YIP is hosting brainstorming forums through Oct. 13 centered on the educational, economic, and sustainability challenges that face the city. But it isn't just some people talking. YIP's first-ever project competition will provide seed money to the team that comes up with the most innovative action plan to take on those challenges.

In case you need help identifying these aliens among us, here's how you can identify the disrupters: They see things that the usual suspects don't. Last week, the ever-styling Raju left his trademark pocket square at home. So he goes to Boyds and finds that someone has reinvented the pocket square. Changed the shape of it and turned it into a pocket round.

"There aren't that many ways to be innovative when it comes to pocket squares," Raju says. "You can change the color, the pattern, the material. But someone came up with an entirely new way of looking at it, someone challenged the question itself. I said to myself, 'What a great metaphor for this moment in Philadelphia.' "

Yes, we need more people who, when they look at things that have been around for a long time, see the possibility of a different shape.

Who else is a disrupter? E-mail me and let me know. I'll introduce you to a few in this space a couple of weeks from now.


Chat live with Larry Platt Monday at 1 p.m. at www.philly.com


Larry Platt writes regularly for Currents. E-mail him at larry.platt@gmail.com.

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