Three Lessons from an Entrepreneur at SXSW

Rachel Sumekh
Mar 21, 2019 · 4 min read

Does SXSW live up to the hype? I was surprised to learn that the answer is: absolutely. As a no-nonsense, social impact driven leader, I was weary (as I am with most things) about how deep the people and conversations will be at the preeminent tech, music and film festival known as South by Southwest.

I attended SXSW 2019 to speak on a panel called “How America Can Feed itself, Not Landfills.” I lead a national nonprofit, Swipe Out Hunger, that allows college students to donate their extra meal swipes to their peers, which both feeds Americans and prevents dining hall food waste.

The technology-specific track alone was a week long and was by far the busiest part of the festival. I was there for five days which, even as an extrovert, was about all I could handle. My days and nights were packed with networking events, happy hours, and “experiences” sponsored by companies from Dell to Inc. Magazine. How do you find out where to focus your time? I walked away from SXSW with a few lessons on how to make the most of the festival.

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The same day I met John Bon Jovi's son in an elevator

Have a little FOMO

FOMO stands for Fear of Missing Out. It’s that moment you start to worry that there’s a conversation, experience, or event happening that you’re missing out on. Generally, I’ve let go of FOMO as being part of my life: one of my mantras is “there’s nowhere else you’re supposed to be except for exactly where you are.” That said, channel a little FOMO while at SXSW. If you’re only going to events on the schedule, you ’re probably missing an experience somewhere else in Austin that may be more valuable to you. My advice is to hit up that old friend who’s also at SXSW and see what parties and events they’re going to. Ask friends of friends to introduce you to people they know who will be there and ask them what they’re going to that day.

Of course, the official panels, events, and sessions are solid, but at SXSW, it’s likely that there’s a happy hour across town with free drinks, tacos, and the VC you’ve always wanted to meet.

Be Your Full Self

Every conference is a chance to be the most visionary, enthusiastic, and unabashed version of yourself. This is especially true at SXSW where you’re surrounded by creative people who also have big visions. Being in a unique vessel like SXSW, you have a chance to be bold and see how folks react. Simultaneously, you’re meeting some really dope people and this is your chance to show them why they should stay in touch with you (sounds transactional but hey, human psychology).

I asked the guy I shared an elevator with what he was doing at SXSW and when he returned the question, I shared a passionate 20-second pitch on Swipe Out Hunger’s work ending student hunger. As it turned out, he was Jon Bon Jovi’s son and his parents are really invested in college hunger. At SXSW, you really, really never know.

How to Listen to New Ideas

Since I work in the anti-hunger space, I spent most of my time attending panels on the Food Track. All six food-related panels I attended focused on how broken our food system is.

One of my favorite moments came from a panel called “The Future of Eating,” when one panelist, Henry Gordon-Smith who is an agriculture consultant, praised the importance of building “smart cities” in relation to urban agriculture. A Smart City is an urban area that uses digital data gathering so as to inform city leadership on how to manage resources efficiently. Gordon-Smith was quickly met with pushback from Max Elder of The Future Institute who challenged the notion of smart cities if those cities still came with food deserts. Smart infers efficiency — and Elder would rather have an inefficient system if it meant everyone has access to food. Too many smart cities are built on values of efficiency rather than equity. WOOF, did that blow my mind or what?! Later in the panel, Gordon-Smith who advises on massive agriculture projects around the world said that we might need some socialist practices alongside capitalist driven ones to address inequities in food access.

The panel named how broken the food system was from the start– rather than focusing on how wonderful their organizations were. It provided the space for the conversation to explore new terrains about the food system at large, more issue and less ego.

I wanted folks to percolate on new ideas the way the Future of Eating panel led me to. I raised the following point while on stage later that afternoon. Can we live in a society with high-end gourmet food items while the person up the street from us barely has enough calories in a day? My take away lesson is that the challenges we face today are so massive and long-standing that now, we must be able to examine situations with a sober lens. We must be able to consider ideas that might be foreign to us if we are truly here seeking solutions. With SXSW being more creative than a traditional academic conference, it is the perfect stage to start building new ideas and beliefs.

Hearing panelists propose radical ideas should be more welcomed because on the other side of the conversation is the knowledge that business, as usual, isn’t working.

This post originally appeared on

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Standing alongside my fellow panelists at our March 13th panel on How America Can Feed Itself and Not Its Landfills.

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