Articles by

Alec Schwartzman

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    Mural by Ron English, 2010 at 222 NW 26th Street. Photo by Alec Schwartzman on Flickr. Miami Art Week kicks off today and thousands of art lovers and curious visitors will descend on Wynwood to take in its colorful walls, trendy galleries and scores of selfie spots. The arts district is thriving like never before.  But in the late ’90s, the neighborhood was mainly composed of a string of dilapidated warehouses, auto shops and drug dens. It “was a bit sketchy then,” said Ron English, a revered Texas graffiti artist who has worked at Wynwood Walls. “I saw this guy hanging out by a trailer and I asked him if I could paint his trailer. He said I could and I did, only to later find out it was not his. I guess the crack he was smoking at the time should have been a clue.” However, because of street art and the work of property developers such as David Lombardi and Tony Goldman, among others, Wynwood has transformed into a popular tourist destination. With more restaurants and businesses moving in, the public art space now sees over 150,000 sightseers monthly. During Miami Art Week, those numbers swell with a proliferation of shows and parties in the arts district and nearby in Midtown Miami. Mural by Paris street artist Kashink, 2013. Photo by Alec Schwartzman on Flickr.
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    Photo courtesy of Soofa. Most ordinary benches just sit in parks or alongside city streets, providing a space for people to rest and watch the world pass by. But what if those benches had a more profound purpose: to connect the people who use them to the surrounding environment. Soofa, a Knight Enterprise Fund portfolio company, has developed a smart, solar-powered bench with a plan to revolutionize how people, cities and businesses understand and interact with urban spaces. “The vision really is that you get easy access to city information, so you don’t have to look on your computer,” said Sandra Richter, the CEO of Soofa. “It is almost like a digital layer of the city. When you go online, you have cookies; the Internet is tailored to you. The city really is not. We want to make the city better on a personal level, but also on a governmental and global level in terms of impact.” In 2014, Richter and co-founders Nan Zhao and Jutta Friedrichs started working on Soofa at the MIT Media Lab, a Knight Foundation grantee. The founders discovered an opportunity to innovate based on their conversations with companies such as IBM and Cisco. “The reason why we started building the Soofa bench is because everybody kept talking and talking about smart cities, but no one was coming up with interventions that would lead to a smart city that we, as the mobile generation, can feel,” Richter said. “We basically want to create a whole line of connected products for the urban environment”  
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    Photo by Alec Schwartzman. Andres Moreno did not just happen upon success. It took the Venezuelan entrepreneur years of hard work and a bit of luck to create Open English, the leading online language school in more than 20 countries. “Ideas are not worth much, unfortunately, unless there is a lot of execution put behind them,” Moreno said Tuesday at The Idea Center at Miami Dade College. “That is a tough thing for people to understand. A lot of entrepreneurs are frustrated because they have a lot of great ideas coming to them all the time, but until they actually decide to take the first step, they won’t become great businesses.” Moreno spoke as part of his “Exito! con Andres Moreno” series. This appearance marks the first “Exito” (Spanish for success) event in the United States, previously only occurring in Latin America and South America. The two-hour talk was a precursor to a future full-day conference, although the date hasn’t been set. “People want these tools; they want to hear these experiences,” Moreno said. “I started doing speaking engagements around this concept, but soon realized speaking engagements just were not enough. We wanted to organize 10 years’ worth of experiences and lessons learned into a methodology that would allow people to have a toolbox they could apply wherever they were in their stage of development. That is how ‘Exito!’ was born.” In his talk, Moreno focused on the seven steps of building a business, using his story with Open English as a case study. According to him, a business starts with an idea. The idea then must become a product, which leads to targeting a market, understanding the competition, creating a business model, acquiring customers and raising capital. “All businesses are obviously different, but there is a common, shared set of challenges that you just need to get right when starting one,” Moreno said. “When you have a company at such a young stage, it is like a baby. Anything can hurt it. Anything can damage it. You have to be very protective … You realize a lot of stuff is out of your control.” Moreno learned the hard way that one of the main things a budding company cannot control is funding. In the early days of Open English, the company was on the verge of closing down and survived because of a chance loan of about $8,000 from a bank in Venezuela, Moreno said. Since then, the company has raised more than $120 million in venture capital funding. Open English employs 1,500 workers, and has 70,000 students enrolled.
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    Video by CircX on YouTube Following a run of sold-out shows last fall, Circ X returned with another three provocative performances on June 26 and 27. The local troupe combined components of burlesque, comedy, music and circus into an interactive cabaret experience. The events tackled themes of sexuality, objectification and gender fluidity. In addition to acrobats soaring through the air and a Charlie Chaplin-inspired musical number, bearded men dressed in drag roamed the audience, asking attendees to describe the performance. See what they had to say and view excerpts of the performances in the video above. Alec Schwartzman is an editorial intern for Knight Foundation. Email him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @AMSchwartzman.
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    People gather outside Panther Coffee in Wynwood. Photo by Alec Schwartzman. This post has been updated to reflect that the Wynwood Business Improvement District already has off-duty officers patroling the area and ambassadors who work to keep streets and sidewalks free of trash.  Thursday may bring fresh changes to the Wynwood community. The Wynwood Neighborhood Revitalization District (NRD) Plan, approved unanimously by the City of Miami Planning, Zoning and Appeals Board recently, will go before the City Commission for final authorization. “For Wynwood, this will be the first time in its modern history where the community has come together to express a common vision for the future,” said Albert Garcia, vice chair of the Wynwood Business Improvement District (BID). “It is setting the framework for responsible residential and commercial development that balances the history and character of the arts district we have all grown to love today.” Established in 2013 with Knight Foundation support, the Wynwood BID is a collection of local property and business owners with the mission to make Wynwood an internationally recognized epicenter for art, culture and business. Keeping the original visions of developers David Lombardi and Tony Goldman in mind, the leaders of the BID created this proposal with the intention of preserving the industrial and artistic nature of the neighborhood while creating a community where people can both live and work. “It’s a continuation of the renaissance they were the catalyst of,” Garcia said. “When they came to Wynwood, it was largely abandoned by the garment industry that had left. In its place, they brought back people, businesses and creatives at a much-needed time when there were no cultural arts communities. Miami is now going through an immense cultural renaissance with institutions like [Perez Art Museum Miami], which have put us at a world-class level.”
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    Photo by Alec Schwartzman on Flickr. “What does civic innovation mean to you, and how would you define it?” Michael Hall, co-founder of Digital Grass, posed this question to a panel of civic innovators at The LAB Miami last week at “The Big Business of Civic Innovation.” Digital Grass, a Knight Foundation grantee and technology and innovation firm, sponsored the event to help discover the necessary steps to keep local innovators in South Florida while maintaining diversity in the community’s entrepreneurial ecosystem. The event’s panel included locals Matt Haggman, Pandwe Gibson and Armando Ibarra in addition to special guest speaker Carla Mays, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur and ecosystem builder. Mays took the first attempt at answering Hall’s question. “Civic innovation has to do with government, inclusion, equity, and the innovation in public policy and technology,” Mays said. “It also deals with managing the disruption. When we come up with disruptive technology, it tends to put people out of work. My definition of civic innovation is equity and inclusion in the innovation process that moves us toward a more equitable and sustainable community.”
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    Photos courtesy of the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science. What happens when you bring together the work of an aerospace engineer and a sculptor? The Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science will display the result Tuesday with a kickoff event and panel discussion for “Curious Vault Collaborations 002: Insight Flight.” The Curious Vault is an online platform highlighting objects from the museum’s collection. The collaborations bring together an artist and a scientist to create specific exhibits. “The first one we paired a local artist and a marine biologist,” said Kevin Arrow, the museum’s art and collection manager. “This one we are pairing a local artist, Robert Chambers, with [GeCheng Zha, a university of Miami professor and director of the Aerodynamics and Computational Fluid Dynamics Lab].  The project itself becomes a science experiment because we put these ingredients together and hope for the best.” “Insight Flight” will explore the past, present and future of flight. Organizers drew inspiration from an exhibit planned for the museum after it moves next summer from its Old South Miami Avenue location to a new home downtown. “There are many people working on an exhibition that’s going to be highlighted at the new museum called ‘Feathers to the Stars,’” Arrow said. “In a nutshell, it is going to be a history of flight: the very first evolution of feathered dinosaurs, to man looking up and wanting to fly, to SpaceX and the future of space travel. We had this ‘eureka’ moment when we realized no museum has ever linked all three of those into one exhibit.”
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    Photo by Alec Schwartzman on Flickr.com More than a hundred people packed O Cinema Wynwood last week for an “Indie-Pendence” Day celebration.  The event was the latest installment of “I’m Not Gonna Move to L.A. (NOLA),” a monthly short film festival from Knight Arts Challenge winner FilmGate Interactive that champions local filmmakers, helping them display their work and connect with the broader community. “NOLA is the longest-running local short film series in Miami,” said Tina Francisco, the filmmaker coordinator. “Since we started [in February 2012,] we’ve shown over 250 films. It’s a great platform for local filmmakers” On the first Wednesday of every month, FilmGate Interactive invites the community to take part in the experience, which includes a “percolator” to pitch ideas to the audience, networking opportunities, vintage movie trivia, live local musicians, and, of course, the screening of shorts produced by local filmmakers. At the end of the screenings, every audience member gets a fuzzy ball to throw at the director of their favorite film. The director with the most fuzzy balls wins the audience award, a free year’s membership in FilmGate Interactive. The membership benefits include discounted production insurance and rentals, and production support. Guest judges choose a winner as well.
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    Tucked in Knight Foundation’s North Conference Room, eight summer interns work on projects spanning multiple departments: arts, community and national initiatives, communications, grants and administration, and journalism. Affectionately dubbed “The Fishbowl,” the room, with its panorama of the Miami waterfront, also offers an expansive view of Knight’s work for students and recent graduates pooled from around the nation. “I think working together is the best part because you get to see all of the organization,” said Raul Carril, a community and national initiatives intern. “You have people from all different departments coming together, giving you this rich overview of what is happening at Knight. It brings knowledge to the table, and reinforces the concept of becoming informed and engaged because we are all collaborating and communicating.” In his internship, Carril, a recent graduate and current Master of Business Administration student at Rollins College, has worked on the changing urban economy. He has looked into the physical spaces in communities, and how society can use these spaces to empower independent workers.​ Carril also worked with Yida Hernandez, a rising senior business student at Miami Dade College, on the Knight Cities Challenge Winners Summit held in Detroit this June. Hernandez worked on planning the event, and helped grantees prepare their presentations. “The autonomy we have been given in the work is unique to Knight,” Hernandez said. “When you think about an intern, you usually think about them fetching someone coffee or filing, but coming in here and receiving the responsibility given to us is motivating.”
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    Photo:  Jason Ibarra interviews Adam Smith of Medina Capital at Startup Grind. Credit: Alec Schwartzman. With Miami’s rise to prominence as a startup epicenter, entrepreneurs need to think about not only how to set themselves apart, but also how to protect their competitive advantages. Startup Grind Miami’s event this month at The LAB Miami sought to link local startups with resources to bypass the most-overlooked hurdle in their quests for success: security. “At the end of the day, there is so much easy stuff that can be done to protect a company that isn’t because it is not viewed as a priority,” said Adam T. Smith, the featured speaker of the event and a partner at Medina Capital. Smith believes startups need to focus on privacy, security and data liability. These lesser-discussed issues can quickly lead to a startup’s failure if not addressed early on, he said. Smith also highlighted the value of data, and the need to protect it.
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    Photo: A VONA student addresses her classmates during a Voices workshop in Miami. After 15 years of operating exclusively in the Bay Area, the Voices of our Nations Arts Foundation will bring its multi-genre workshop for writers of color to South Florida this summer. The workshop aims to provide an inclusive experience for aspiring minority authors. “The city has a wonderful tradition of art. It’s incredibly diverse, and emblematic of the nation we are speaking to,” said Junot Díaz, one of VONA’s founders. “We received generous support from the University of Miami, and that is not a small thing. The embrace has been very warm.” Through M. Evelina Galang, a University of Miami creative writing professor and VONA board member, the foundation secured a home for its mission to provide a safe space for writers of color to develop their ideas and for workshops in fiction, poetry, memoir, political content, LGBTQ narrative and playwriting. “It is hard to express the importance of artists of color to our understanding of the world,” Díaz said. “It is just impossible to overestimate how fundamental the contributions of artists of color are to our humanity.”