Fostering an even better tech world in Wichita

When FlagshipKansas.Tech was created in 2018, the creators behind the technology council recognized the importance of bringing together diverse voices within Kansas’ tech sector. “This meant bringing together innovators, educators, thinkers and practitioners from various technology disciplines,” says Ben Sebree, board chair for FlagshipKansas.Tech.

“Our initial planning phase revealed the perfect chance to start planning in 2021, which set the stage for our inaugural summit the following year. Thanks to the exceptional backing from the Kansas Department of Commerce, Wichita State University and others, we were able to capitalize on our 2022 achievements and expand the event’s scope in 2023.”

Wichita, where the tech summit takes place, is home to one of the largest concentrations of engineers in the nation, and, Sebree says, where there are engineers, innovation is never far behind. “This has allowed tech companies like NetApp to flourish in Kansas, alongside a tech sector comprised 98% of companies with fewer than 500 employees, succeeding quietly without the ostentation, capital or hubris of Silicon Valley.

“But perhaps the most remarkable aspect is that Kansas and Wichita achieve all this while adhering to a core value system that fosters a workforce with an unmatched work ethic and intellect dedicated to bettering the world, rather than self-enrichment.”

Wichita: An Innovation Incubator

two men on stage talking
Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak on left

Sebree and Luis Rodriguez, board immediate past chairs for FlagshipKansas.Tech, helped lead the development of Flagship’s Ad Astra Tech Summit. Its second annual event just took place on Oct. 2, bringing together technology innovators, educators and practitioners from various disciplines within the industry.

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“It’s crucial to acknowledge that while the [technological] shift was already in progress, the advent of Covid-19 hastened the realization that, firstly, every sector has become intertwined with technology; and secondly, technology is driven by people, not confined by location,” Sebree says.

Rodriguez says this is where the unique spirit of the people in Kansas and Wichita shine. “To much of the country, Kansas and Wichita might seem like a quaint backdrop, often overshadowed by the vibrant innovation hubs like the Bay Area or New England—a misconception likely fueled by the film industry,” he says. “However, the reality is that Kansas and Wichita have been cradles of significant global innovation for more than a hundred years.”

He went on to name various creations born out of the city, like the hamburger. It is the founding location of establishments like Kings X, White Castle and Pizza Hut. Kansas has also been a major player in aerospace technology, home to companies like Airbus, Spirit AeroSystems and Textron.

Changing the Attendee Experience

people in conference room

“When organizing the 2022 summit, our team and leadership decided to prioritize the complete attendee experience,” Sebree says. “We faced the challenge of engaging professionals from a wide array of disciplines, each with their distinct needs, skills, perspectives and access to technology. This required us to offer a differentiated experience at the summit. We understood the importance of facilitating dialogue among these diverse professionals.”

In Ad Astra’s first year, the team approached the attendee experience a bit differently, offering separate tracks for sessions based on each individual’s discipline. They later realized how restrictive this approach was. “We observed that this approach somewhat restricted cross-disciplinary interaction and learning,” Sebree says.

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“In response, for the second year, we shifted to an open schedule format. While we continued to organize sessions around key disciplines, we gave attendees the freedom to choose from the entire range of sessions. This adjustment significantly enhanced attendee satisfaction, surpassing our expectations set by the already successful first year.”

Ad Astra’s Goal

Rodriguez says every technological challenge fundamentally stems from the same underlying issues. “We now inhabit an era where a workforce lacking proficiency in Computer Science and computational algorithmic thinking cannot prosper. The economic engines of contemporary and future businesses and employment, which fuel a community’s financial well-being, are interwoven with technology,” he says.

He adds that Ad Astra Technology Summit was designed to bridge the gap between influencers and the various components necessary for fostering technological acumen. “It aims to be an accelerant for supporting digital transformation and innovation across Kansas and Wichita.”

Making Next Year Better

two women talking in front on group

“I imagine every organizer would advise this, but begin planning sooner and constantly refine the experience,” Sebree says, when listing the things he learned from this year that could make for a better tech summit in 2024. Other lessons he and his team learned are:

  • Create structured opportunities for networking and peer-to-peer learning.
  • Don’t try to pack too much into the day. When it comes to sessions, quality trumps quantity.
  • You’re never going to please every palate, but it’s always worth it to budget for better food.

Beyond this, he says, there’s always something that doesn’t go according to plan, but it likely isn’t worth stressing over. As an example, Sebree says, they encountered audio issues in Charles Koch Arena during Apple Co-founder Steve Wozniak’s keynote fireside chat.

“As a nonprofit, AV was a big expense, and we opted to use the in-house audio,” he says. “We found that an arena sound system works for sporting events but wasn’t ideal for our setup. Lesson learned. Additionally, there were some delays with presentations in the breakout sessions. Next year, we plan to schedule time for speakers to test their presentations in advance to minimize any issues.”