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Squirrel Chat with the NEPA BlogCon Founders

Categories: Guest Posts,NEPA BlogCon

The NEPA BLOGCON Founders

For the fifth year Karla, Mandy, and Michelle, are leading the way to yet another powerful, action packed NEPA BlogCon. Each year this Social Media Conference becomes bigger and better. 2016 is not going to be any exception and is definitely in line to be the best one yet! You don’t want to miss it!

Like diligent Squirrels do, they have gathered together a valuable collection. This collection includes phenomenal speakers to share expertise on a whole array of exciting topics. Each will provide sustaining, encouraging, uplifting and motivating nuggets of wisdom to those in attendance.

This doesn’t just happen, though. It takes vision, dreams, goals, and determination to develop such a worthwhile, beneficial and impressive event.

I wanted to know what inspires them, what they see it becoming, and how they might see others of the community helping them to continue to grow, expand, and making it the premier event for NEPA. It’s truly an incredible conference to take advantage of, learn from, and become empowered by.

 

Michelle Davies
Michelle Davies
Mandy Pennington
Mandy Pennington
Karla Porter
Karla Porter

 

1) So let’s start with Karla, and a question on how this all came about. It’s amazing to see how the BlogCon continues to grow each year, not only in attendance, but in sponsors, vendors, and increased ability to help the community and host Squirrel Girls Tech Camp. But all this had to have roots somewhere. Can you share some of the beginning story? What prompted the idea and then the spirit to make it happen?

The roots of NEPA BlogCon are deeply entrenched in the local tweet-ups and blogger meetups of yore. I use that type of antiquated language because in today’s fast paced world of temporary PokeStops, it seems the first NEPA BlogCon in 2012 was an eternity ago!

At the turn of the decade, Mandy, Michelle and I began to consistently run into each other at these meetups. We saw that in addition to appreciation for the networking, pizza and beverages, attendees came with questions and problems they were looking for answers to. Individuals were struggling with the technical aspects of their blog, concerns about putting in the hard work but having few to no readers, figuring out how to keep going after the first couple of months, and about every other aspect imaginable.

Our minds melded and we decided to give people what they wanted, NEPA BlogCon. Within 24 hours we had a domain name purchased and began to plan. Throughout the years, we have been very fortunate to have a variety of very talented individuals and organizations who share our vision of community education involved in every facet, from planning to speaking, attending, and sponsoring.

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2) Mandy, would you tell us more about Squirrel Girls Tech Camp? I realize this is an annual program the NEPA BlogCon hosts and all the BlogCon’s proceeds go to benefit this camp. But exactly how did this come about and what do you love most about it?

One of the core values we established for ourselves as we organized NEPA BlogCon for the first time was that we wanted the conference to benefit our community. There are so many incredible organizations doing good work in our region and they need support to continue to thrive.

Each year, we donated our conference proceeds to various community organizations and it was amazing (and we’re so grateful for the opportunity to work with them), but, we wanted to take our mission of making technology and education accessible to the next level.

When we thought about what we could do with the funds to make the most impact, we kept coming back to the idea of education and the youth of our community. How could we benefit a community that was underserved and tied into what we try to accomplish with our conference?

Women are underrepresented in STEM careers and the technology jobs that will become available in the future need talented people to fill them. As three women with careers and/or interests in tech, we felt that it was important to give others the opportunities we didn’t have at a young age: a safe and fun place to explore, solve problems, and learn about where technology could take us in the future. So, Squirrel Girls Tech Camp was born!

What I love most about Squirrel Girls Tech Camp so far is the people. The girls, the instructors, and the volunteers have come together in such a meaningful way. There’s no better feeling when a camper’s face lights up when they’ve completed an exercise, or when they say, “I can’t wait until next year!” or “I wish we did this in school every day!”.

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3) And I want to ask, Michelle; I love it, and I’m sure you are all nuts about it, but I would love to learn more about the Squirrel Logo and name. It’s a lot of fun and I’m just wondering why a squirrel and what all it represents for you as founders.

Our first conference was held in the fall and it’s been a yearly tradition to hold it sometime in the fall, so we tried to look for a logo that symbolized autumn in Northeast PA. Leslie Stewart (now Hunsinger), our original designer and one of the co-founders of the conference, came up with the concept of the squirrel because you always see them running around and stashing acorns in the fall months. I guess you can kind of view Karla, Mandy and I in the same light. We are always busy running back and forth gathering presenters, sponsors, data, and swag for the conference while balancing full-time jobs and family!

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4) Okay, another question for Michelle, since the last one was a bit squirrelly. When you first began and hosted your first conference, was the BlogCon what it is today? Can you share how it might have changed or grown? Have your own goals for the event expanded?

BlogCon has gone through several changes throughout its five year history. One thing that always changes up is the location of the conference – since we are a regional conference we try to move it to a different college/university each year so that we can be accessible to all areas of Northeast Pennsylvania.

Another thing that changes is the content of the sessions. You will not get the same sessions year-to-year. We ask our attendees for feedback at the end of each conference year and try to craft sessions around the topics they are interested in. Also, if we see a particular trend, we try to make sure to get a speaker to present on that topic (I don’t want to give any hints away, but *HINT HINT* live streaming is a particular HOT topic for this year *ahem*) The first two years of BlogCon we did a 2 or 3 track system. There could be 2 or 3 sessions going on at anytime. We decided to switch it and do a single track style based on feedback from our attendees because they were upset that they were missing out on sessions they wanted to see.

Although we’ve changed up the format, tracks and locations, one thing remains the same and that is our goal. We have and always will want to educate Northeast PA about emerging technology while giving back to the community. In past years, we’ve assisted the Blue Chip Farms Animal Refuge, the Arc of Luzerne County, and the NEPA Veterans Multicare Alliance, raising awareness of their missions and more than $5000 to benefit these amazing causes. Now that we’ve created Squirrel Girls Tech Camp, we get to continue to grow our mission by educating young girls interested in STEM.

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5) And back to Mandy. I know from attending BlogCon myself, it is an encouraging and energizing crowd. It is a great way to become inspired. Can you share some of the ways you have seen it motivate, educate, or strengthen others?

Every year, I’m inspired by our attendees. The moments between sessions or at the beginning and end of the day are magic, because it’s when I get to meet most of you! I know I speak on the whole NEPA BlogCon team’s behalf when we say we LOVE hearing about what you learned, loved, or were inspired by.

There are so many moments from the past 4 conferences that were memorable. We’ve had people come to the event with a job to fill (and they accepted resumes and handed out job descriptions on the spot!). We’ve met people who started out with a big hairy idea and turned it into full-time gigs. We’ve heard stories from people who were saved by blogging because it connected them with a greater community and helped them find their tribes. We’ve seen small business owners that saw immediate success when they put to work what they learned. And most importantly, we’ve rediscovered a passion in our region for being better, striving for more, and recognizing that your community is what you make of it.

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6) Karla, it’s proving to be such a great experience for myself by being one of the volunteers for BlogCon, and helping Mandy, Michelle and you. Thank you. I’ve seen you three work together as a strong team and realize you have built a totally enriching event. But there is this quote that says, ‘what you build, ends up building you’. Over the last few years, how do you feel the BlogCon has helped build the team and you. Maybe that’s too big of a question. Maybe you can just share what you love about the BlogCon.

That’s a very interesting question on multiple levels and worthy of a whole post on its own, but I’ll keep the answer reasonably short so you don’t get any TLDR comments. While we are unique individuals at different stages of our lives and careers, the three of us share a suite of fundamental attributes in common that launched and continue to foster growth of NEPA BlogCon, its events and community. Here are a few of the attributes that in my opinion we share and are keys to our synergy and success:

We have pro local attitudes: We have shared appreciation for regional talent and enthusiasm for helping to keep it here. We’re huge proponents of community based education and community building initiatives. We agree that due to stereotypes, insularization of the past, historic loss of industry, lack of major economic development and opportunities for upward economic mobility, we suffer as a region from a dent in self-esteem – and we want to do what we can to help improve it.

We are ninjas: If there is one shared value the three of us have, it’s that we are solution and action oriented leave no stones unturned types. Basically, none of us tolerate unsolved problems very well. When there is a problem we will hunt down the solution, crowdsource the answer, create the cure, and build a conference about it.

We are networked on and offline: The three of us are connected to a vast array of large and small professional and business associations, hubs in higher education, niche communities, and community and nonprofit initiatives. If I don’t know a certain someone, surely Mandy or Michelle does – or knows someone who knows someone.

We have complimentary skills: From project management to negotiation and IT to marketing, many of our skills overlap, and others are peripheral or parallel – and after all these years of working together we are a tight team. Between the three of us I would say we’re well rounded. We are also very fortunate to have superb volunteers who donate their talent to add creative sparkle.

Speaking quite candidly, this annual conference is a huge project to execute, and with the addition of Squirrel Girls Tech Camp, as volunteers ourselves, it’s become even more demanding. It hasn’t always been easy to coordinate schedules and activities; we have jobs, families, other competing interests and different work styles. Organizationally speaking, over the years we have developed a groove, have each other’s backs, and truly become a solid team.

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7) And one last question for each of you to share your thoughts about: Although this year’s event is upcoming, I’m sure you all have ideas for next year’s BlogCon and thoughts on how to keep making it one of NEPA’s great and anticipated conferences. Would you like to share any of these possible plans or goals? What do you envision it becoming, or how would you love to see it helping to further the area and people?

The plan is to continue to absorb other committed individuals who share our vision into the executive committee in order for this to truly be owned by the community, so it can live on, grow and evolve, to always meet the needs of the region. ~Karla

I think that we’d like to see the conference continue to grow in size year over year. We would also love to see many communities accept and adopt the concept of Squirrel Girls Tech Camp so that more young girls get exposure to STEM education. ~Michelle

The future holds exploration for us! We’re excited to learn more and continue growing, but more importantly, we’re eager to expand our reach as we educate more people throughout our region. Technology has granted us a world of possibilities – never stop exploring! ~ Mandy

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–Wow! I’m not sure what else to say after such stunning and thoughtful answers! I continue to be thoroughly inspired by you three! What absolute giving hearts, untiring determination, strong minds, and courage to be the difference to excitedly create results and growing communities. You’re a beautiful team producing major ripples being felt in lives of so many across the area. Thank you for not only putting on NEPA BlogCon, but also giving a great interview. Just Wow!

Author: Jenny Kile

Jenny Kile is a writer, treasure hunter, game enthusiast, researcher, and founder of Kardtects Building Cards. She manages a few websites dedicated to these varied interests and enjoys sharing adventures in each! Some of the topics she writes about on her sites include: Searching for lost treasures (MysteriousWritings.com), how to build amazing card houses (Kardtects.com), and collecting wonderful board games of the 1800’s (AllAboutFunandGames.com). She has also written a few children’s books capturing the love for adventures (amazon.com/author/jennykile). Jenny feels Fun is Every Where and welcomes all to join in the fun with her!

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