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Business Observer Friday, Dec. 25, 2020 9 months ago

Social entrepreneur shifts to virtual events with impact amid pandemic

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Going from in-person to virtual won't stop Shannon Rohrer-Phillips from sticking to her big-picture goal: crafting an event with impact.
by: Grier Ferguson Sarasota-Manatee Editor

In early 2020, Shannon Rohrer-Phillips hosted a women’s summit that brought big-name speakers to Sarasota, including soccer star Abby Wambach and former Telemundo President of Entertainment Nely Galán. 

After the summit, Rohrer-Phillips, through her Sarasota-based company Shannon Rohrer-Phillips LLC, started planning another event, to be held in February 2021. The Voice + Visibility Women’s Summit is part of a broader initiative to create speaker events and trainings that elevate women and diversity.

Then COVID-19 happened. 

So when it became clear she couldn’t have an in-person summit with hundreds of attendees in early 2021 due to the pandemic, Rohrer-Phillips didn’t give up. She shifted course, determining how she could craft a virtual event with just as much impact. “Coming off about the first two or three weeks after the summit, we were riding high,” says Rohrer-Phillips. “We were excited about feedback from guests and speakers and had already secured the date for summit two. Then March hit, and everything obviously went upside down with COVID.”

Between March and June, she canceled mid-size in-person events she had planned. To keep the mission alive, she hosted free virtual talks.

Also during that time, tensions following the death of George Floyd prompted a national conversation about racism. Rohrer-Phillips, who has a background in social work, is married to a Black man and is raising biracial children, wanted to do something. “I’m looking at all of these elements thinking, ‘I’m a social entrepreneur,’” says Rohrer-Phillips. “’What can I offer but also monetize?’ What came to me quickly was a vision for Bridge Builders diversity, equity and inclusion training.”

In June, she and her team launched its first virtual course on white racial identity and responsibility. “There was clearly a demand,” she says, from both the corporate and nonprofit sides. The classes, hosted about two or three times a month, have kept Rohrer-Phillips and her team busy — and helped resuscitate the firm’s revenue.

During the summer, Rohrer-Phillips turned again to planning the summit. She knew Zoom fatigue was a real concern, and she didn’t want the event to be like just any virtual gathering.

She researched other platforms and discovered NexTech AR Solutions, a Toronto-based company that creates digital experiences with video keynote presentations and interactive vendor booths. To work with the platform, keynotes will be filmed and edited ahead of time. “The production piece is taking a lot of our time,” says Rohrer-Phillips. “It’s a competitive marketplace now. We want the productions to be polished and refined.”

‘It forced me, because of the financial pinch, to get laser-focused on what value I can bring to my customers, and that was necessary. That’s critical for anyone in business to only think about the customer.’ — Shannon Rohrer-Phillips, Voice + Visibility Women’s Summit

The NexTech platform will also provide data she can share with sponsors to quantify visitors to vendor booths. Sponsors so far include Bank of America, Cox Communications, Williams Parker, Twinkle Toes Nanny Agency, Star Financial Solutions and others. “Companies and sponsors recognize that investing in diversity, equity and inclusion is important, and it’s the future of corporate responsibility,” says Rohrer-Phillips. “This is a new market opportunity for companies to show up in spaces where diverse women convene. Diverse women have a lot of purchasing power.”

NexTech CEO and Founder Evan Gappelberg says beyond the features the summit will tap into, his company also offers augmented reality and human holograms. For NexTech, the pandemic has meant booming business. “In the third quarter, we reported $6.7 million in bookings, which was more than we did in all of 2019,” says Gappelberg. “Business has gone through the roof.”

Hosting the summit virtually means Rohrer-Phillips can target potential attendees beyond Sarasota. She’s focusing on certain areas, including Orlando, Tampa, the New York City area and Washington, D.C. “This will be a trial this year to see how well we can attract new markets of women,” she says.

Tickets are $99, down from $299 for the 2020 in-person summit. To make sure guests get more for their money, the event will incorporate financial and mental health tips. Attendees can also engage in virtual networking. “It forced me, because of the financial pinch, to get laser-focused on what value I can bring to my customers, and that was necessary,” says Rohrer-Phillips. “That’s critical for anyone in business to only think about the customer.”

Speakers announced for the 2021 summit so far include professional soccer player Jessica McDonald; producer and co-author of "Earn It!" Daniela Pierre-Bravo; co-founder of Stanford VMware Women's Leadership Innovation Lab Lori Mackenzie; and founder of Unshrinkit and "Shark Tank" winner Desirée Stolar. 

Rohrer-Phillips hopes their personal stories and messages of women rising together will be a big draw for attendees. “Our goal this year is to sell 1,000 tickets on that platform,” she says. “We’re on track.”

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