Lauren Prager, Chief Strategy Officer for Synapse Florida, is an adept connector and maker-of-introductions helping to drive the innovation economy blossoming in Florida. Though she is immersed in organizing the upcoming Synapse Summit, Feb. 17 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Florida, she took time to answer some questions about her career and how nurturing community helps the innovation economy thrive.
GD: Please tell us about your career in Washington before joining Synapse Florida. What did you learn in that work that prepared you for what you are doing now?
Lauren Prager: Starting my career by working on bi-partisan policy issues taught me about building community, the value of personal and meaningful connections, the importance of active listening and the ability of one person to make an impact. What I eventually realized was that I loved building community; my superpower is helping to cultivate meaningful relationships and as a connector.
There is no substitute for meaningful human connection; the past 2 years of the pandemic have only reinforced that truth. We rely on our networks for information, validation and empowerment. Our community shapes us, as much as we shape it. I learned so much by working with people from diverse backgrounds, perspectives, life experiences, business interests. We traveled together, shared meals and collaborated. We worked together on the things that united us. We learned from each other’s differences and found mutual respect in the shared commitment to making society better, even when we disagreed as to how to get there.
I also saw the power of showing up. Being present and engaged is so important but often overlooked. Policy makers and their staff rely on their constituents and experts to help them navigate issues, expand their knowledge to make more informed decisions and know when they’re doing well (or not). Their staffs need to hear from their community and those relationships have often shaped the course of history. Having those conversations directly, meaningfully, thoughtfully yields a much greater impact than being an anonymous voice online.
We live in a time when the ability to learn and engage has been democratized more than ever, but it is up to each of us to make the effort to take advantage of those opportunities and put them to good use.
GD: Is it true you started working as a volunteer at Synapse Florida? That’s quite a testament to how much volunteering benefits the volunteer.
Lauren Prager: It’s 100% true. In my previous work I had helped to organize and support a lot of educational conferences, some for as many as 15,000 people. When a friend said he was volunteering to put together an event around innovation and they needed more help, I thought it would be a great way to explore a potential new career path and learn about a brand new world.
I agreed to give 5-10 hours a week to help organize the program and speakers for the inaugural Synapse Innovation Summit in March 2018, which we held at Amalie Arena. I was Googling terms like “AI” “ML” “VR” “AR” and “VC;” I asked a lot of questions to learn about people’s personal stories, their careers, their goals and their passions. And I was not afraid to ask questions to understand the connections between different industries and technologies. I had nothing to lose and everything to gain to learn about business, innovation and entrepreneurship.
Quickly my volunteering went from 10 hours to 40, because I realized how much was happening in the community and how exciting it was to connect people to bring it all together. Synapse Summit was a huge success; we had more than 3,000 people, 150 exhibiting companies and 100 speakers attend. People launched companies, rebrands, new partnerships, jobs and initiatives at the event. Creating this shared experience really catalyzed the community, and my own passion.
GD: Synapse is a non-profit that connects Florida’s innovation talent. Can you give examples to explain what that means in practice?
Lauren Prager: Most of us rely on serendipity to meet the “right” partner who can help us towards our goal. But serendipity doesn’t scale.
Synapse was created to help curate meaningful, intentional connections, to help you find what you need and to share what you have. We do that by creating space where those sparks of inspiration and collisions can happen more easily. Synapse is unique in how we connect innovators from different industries, technologies, geographies, backgrounds and experiences.
We realized early on that there was a vacuum we could fill in creating shared experiences to celebrate, discover and engage with the incredible innovation talent across our state. The Synapse Summit and events we’ve hosted across the state like Synapse Orlando, Converge, Libate & Learns, are platforms to elevate the ecosystem, showcase our resources and prove that, as we say, “Innovation Lives Here.” We spend a lot of time between events cultivating partnerships and facilitating meaningful introductions to help businesses and innovators thrive.
GD: It seems a little ironic that Synapse, a nonprofit, is such an important player in the innovation space, which most people would assume is the realm of venture capitalists and tech CEOs looking for new worlds to conquer. What does a nonprofit bring to the equation?
Lauren Prager: Synapse is, quite literally, the bridge connecting all the players in the innovation community.
We’re connecting enterprise companies with solopreneurs and startups, helping scale-ups find talent, introducing investors to founders, and providing founders with resources to help them take their next step in their personal and professional growth.
We focus on our core values, which begin with “Community First.” We are built by, for and with the innovation community. We work with investors and entrepreneurs, corporate innovation leaders, government and education leaders, entrepreneur support organizations like accelerators and incubators, and talent (ranging) from high school and college students to mid- and late stage professionals and C-Level executives, and our dynamic military and veteran community.
We listen to what the community wants to learn about, what it needs to grow, then scout the thought leaders and resources in the community with that expertise.
We reduce barriers to entry through scholarships and partnerships that enable us to give opportunities based on merit. As a result, we are able to pass the mic to subject matter experts whose unique voices need to be heard.
We create opportunities for companies to launch in front of a built-in audience. We’ve hosted more than 1,000 exhibitors at our events and have enterprise companies next to startups or even student-led companies. Some are now valued at well over $ 1billion and have become unicorns. Others have found new hires, partnerships, advisors or investors that quite literally transformed their lives.
We live the mantra that the “rising tide lifts all ships.” The growth across our state is proof of the shared success we can have when we all work together.
GD: Along those same lines, what have you learned about the importance of nonprofits, government at all levels, universities and other players, outside of the for-profit sector, to driving economic growth?
Lauren Prager: There’s a reason we use the term “ecosystem” when talking about growth. An ecosystem is symbiotic and only thrives when so many different – and seemingly disparate – components work together. That’s what we see happening in Florida now more than ever: these ecosystem players are more engaged, connected and collaborative than ever before.
Nonprofits like ours play an essential role in creating opportunities for the ecosystem players to come together and find opportunities to align. Talent is thriving here as a result. Our universities are becoming more agile to help develop the talent pipeline we need for today and tomorrow.
Policymakers are attuned to the needs and opportunities of the current market but also taking active steps to keep Florida at the forefront as we lead in areas like decentralized technology and sustainable and green tech. The for-profit sector – investors, corporations – benefits when organizations like ours exist and are able to create space to connect the ecosystem.
GD: Any points you want to make that I haven’t asked about?
Lauren Prager: Most people think “innovation = tech” but that’s not accurate. Innovation is action to introduce a new idea, product, service, methodology to improve. Innovation exists in how we live, work, play, connect, communicate, and engage. Art, music, fashion, food, community, are all driven by innovators. Innovation does not require an investor, a degree, or permission. It just requires your decision to take action. Innovators aren’t dreamers; innovators are doers.