Kenny Chen

Bridging Sectors, Building Relationships

When Kenny Chen moved to Pittsburgh in 2014 to take part in Coro’s Fellowship in Public Affairs, he already held a keen interest in community building via cross-sector collaboration.

“People access necessary resources through communities, whether they’re looking for financial capital, or social capital, or solutions,” he says.

Chen remained in the city after the end of the fellowship, and today he serves as the Innovation Director at Ascender, a start/build hub based in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty neighborhood. Ascender operates a variety of programs and initiatives, including an incubator offering space, resources and mentorship to early stage companies. It also serves as a venue for events which Chen often helps to organize, including meet-ups for virtual reality enthusiasts and sessions on employment law for startups.

Ascender’s co-working space is perhaps most illustrative of how the organization facilitates the cross-sector relationships in the Pittsburgh area that are Chen finds so vital. The co-working space, Chen explains, includes 19 offices and 44 desks that are available for “tenants” to lease on a monthly basis. There are currently 120 tenants in the space, representing 50 organizations in a wide range of sectors and industries.

“At face value, it might seem like these people don’t have anything to do with each other,” says Chen. “But we’ve found that most, if not all, of our tenants have found new business or partnerships [from] conversations had in our kitchen or at one of our events.”

For example, Markowitz Communication, a small PR firm which moved into Ascender in April 2017, has found two clients among its fellow Ascender tenants: Marinus Analytics, a start-up specializing in software that helps law enforcement combat sex trafficking online, and Global Wordsmiths, a translation and interpretation consulting company. Meanwhile, Global Wordsmiths provides its services to another Ascender tenant, RoadBotics, which is a Carnegie Mellon University spinout company that uses smartphones to collect data on diagnose road defects like potholes.

In addition to promoting collaboration through its coworking space, Ascender also brings people together by hosting Thrival, an annual music, technology, and arts festival in Pittsburgh.

The festival’s first two days consist of moderated panel discussions on topics ranging from marketing and brand communication to humanity’s interaction with AI. Past speakers and attendees have included people from companies with national prominence like Pinterest and Google, as well as representatives from higher education, local government, nonprofits, foundations, and more. The festival culminates with two days of music featuring local and national performers; in 2017, headlining artists were Logic and Wiz Khalifa.

When Chen isn’t helping to organize events like these, he says he’s moving around Pittsburgh, meeting with people from different sectors and walks of life, working to understand their needs. He works to connect entities who can help each other, whether that’s through one of Ascender’s programs or through his own personal network.

To him, community building is about creating a network where people aren’t selling things or trying to pull off an imbalanced exchange of value. Instead, building community means leveraging relationships to meet complementary needs.

Kenny Chen

Learn more about Kenny, Ascender, and Thrival: