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Tech leaders talk developing virtual worlds and more

Veronica Brezina



The Meet Me in the Metaverse panel at the poweredUp Tampa Bay tech event. Photo: Veronica Brezina

The leaders helping evolve Tampa Bay’s tech scene by establishing incubators and taking the leap to create startups all met under one roof to discuss how the region can capture even more activity and different verticals to pursue. 

Here are some of the biggest takeaways from Thursday’s poweredUp Tampa Bay Tech Festival at the Mahaffey Theater in St. Petersburg, hosted by Tampa Bay Tech: 

On the metaverse

The team at Accenture took center stage for the Meet Me in the Metaverse panelist discussion. 

Accenture, one of the largest local professional services firms that works with Fortune Global 100 companies, has ramped up the operations and scale of its mixed-reality metaverse world. During the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic causing disruptions in the traditional physical space and onboarding new employees, it prompted Accenture to go the extra mile in utilizing its virtual platform. Accenture bought 60,000 Oculus headsets for its employees to start the journey into an omni-connected experience it calls the One Accenture Park, a metaverse campus of Accenture

Inside One Accenture Park, the employees and newcomers are avatars navigating through the campus. While the One Accenture Park was the main discussion point, the panelists spoke overall on how different sectors are breaking into the market and how the metaverse can virtually touch every industry in a unique way. 

“The metaverse is one of those transformational triggers in the digital worlds and business models. You have the ability to own a digital receipt and exchange that like we do in the physical world,” said Dan Guenther, the managing director at Accenture who leads the global extended reality division.  

Carly Evans, management consulting senior manager at Accenture, pointed out how a Gucci bag sold in the metaverse for a whopping $4,000. 

“In the fashion retail world, when you buy that physical bag, those are with you physically, but [by having and displaying assets] virtually, you can reach a lot more people,” Guenther said, explaining the acquirement of goods exemplifies your status in the virtual world. 

He used the example of how athletic-wear retailer giant Nike utilizes the metaverse to not only sell products but also to leverage sponsorship deals, generating additional revenue. Chipotle is another corporation taking advantage of the metaverse as people can receive a virtual token they can use at physical Chipotle restaurants. 

The Future is Female panel at the poweredUp Tampa Bay Tech event. Photo by Veronica Brezina

On the gap between women and men in the startup world 

Female leaders in the growing tech startup space in Tampa Bay spoke on their experiences in breaking into the world of entrepreneurship, all sharing the common denominator of overcoming obstacles. 

The Future is Female panelists included Jill St. Thomas, CEO of Tampa Bay Tech; Rachel Feinmann, VP of innovation and managing director of TGH Innoventures, Tampa General Hospital’s venture capital fund; Lakshmi Shenoy, CEO of Embarc Collective, and Tonya Elmore, CEO of the Tampa Bay Innovation Center. Tampa Bay Business Journal and Tampa Bay Inno reporter Lauren Coffey moderated the panel. 

“I spent most of my career as a practicing business lawyer working with ventures and private equity investors as well as startup companies,” Feinmann said, explaining she volunteered a lot in the startup world and saw the potential for the ecosystem. 

“I remember going to my partners and saying I think I’m going to leave and start this nonprofit accelerator in the startup world,” she said. “Everyone looked at me like I had five heads.” 

She said it was hard to have the courage to finally step away. 

St. Thomas also emerged from the advertising world and ended up in Florida in the mid-90s. For over six years, she has headed the Tampa Bay Tech group. 

“I tend to be very Type-A. The wisest advice I ever got was from my mom. She said to me in that the grand scheme of things, this is nothing,” St. Thomas said, shedding light on advice  on hustling through obstacles and cultivating plans. 

For Lakshmi, said she was “exposed to tech from the womb” as her father was a scientist and she would spend countless hours with him in his labs, witnessing the power of innovation firsthand. 

However, Lakshmi said it took her a while to get into the industry after serving in advertising and marketing roles in Chicago and was eventually recruited to Tampa, where she currently runs Embarc Collective. 

“For me, it was about figuring out where my passions were …I was going home really drained and it wasn’t until I was in the startup world that I was gaining energy  from the work I was doing. It was a big leap into something new … but doing that ended up being the best thing for me although the transition going from a life of corporate stability into the startup world was definitely an adjustment,” Lakshmi said. 

Elmore, who said she was a minority in her field in college, was inspired by a female professor. 

“I went into economic development work … and what was interesting about it was there were so many startups,” Elmore said. “I had so many great mentors and opportunities that opened the doors for me … maybe because it was fresh and early at the time, a lot of people couldn’t relate to starting an incubator and what that really meant.” 

While there are more women heading startups and becoming entrepreneurs, in 2021, females received less than 2% of venture capitalists, Lakshmi said, mentioning now the dynamic needs to change while not everyone is solely dependent on venture funding. 

“There’s a lot of implications if you do go after venture funding that may not be right for the company’s projections,” Lakshmi said. 

On retaining tech talent 

No matter the panel, the hot topic of attracting talent emerged in nearly every discussion.  

“From a technical standpoint, it looks like what has caused this crazy job market is the participation rate that has dropped in the last few years. A lot of people have left the workforce from Covid or early retirement … it has been shrinking,” said Dan Lasher, the chief information security officer at TD Synnex, which was formed through a Tech Data merger.

“At the same time, you have this pent-up demand that has now been unleashed and this 5% smaller workforce,” he continued. 

He added how legal immigration has been impacted by the slowdown of granting visas due to policies changing on the free movement of people. However, on the opposite side of the spectrum, the federal system has gifted nonprofits funds during the pandemic, which has spearheaded new projects, therefore further increasing the demand for more jobs. 

“It has created this environment we have never seen before and has taken people by surprise,” he said.

While Florida has a hefty bulk of positions that need to be filled, and economically survived the pandemic, leaders say the state needs to continue to be aggressive in retaining talent and the startups it has attracted. 

“The No. 1 variable that is going to impact where our region ranks is volume- the number of startups,” Lakshmi said. “For us, as a region, we don’t have the volume like other places around the world. What we’ve seen during the pandemic though is our rate of acceleration. It is incredibly high. The change from 2018 to 2022, is probably one of the higher changes when you look at places … we’ve experienced this high amount of growth these past pandemic years and we need to maintain that level of growth whole other places that have been adversely affected by the pandemic are looking at us and saying we want what Florida has.” 

She added how Florida needs to not be complacent and protect its growth against competitors. 

Joe Hamilton and Cathie Wood at the poweredUp Tampa Bay Tech Festival. Photo by Mark Parker.

On Cathie Wood’s perspective 

During the poweredUp event, ARK Invest CEO Cathie Wood and Joe Hamilton, St. Pete Catalyst Publisher and head of network for Metacity, had a fireside chat. 

Wood shared her thoughts on inflation, calling it “the most difficult time of her career,” as well as her perspective on the $40 billion collapse of the popular crypto token Luna and its associated terraUSD stablecoin (UST). 

Read more about the fireside chat here. 

Additionally, Tampa-based BlockSpaces and Cogent Bank discussed innovative ways they are using blockchain technology, a topic the Catalyst will highlight in an upcoming feature.

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