slice of life

Here’s how 4 fans of upstate New York are striving to keep talent in the area

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In Hack Upstate workshops, participants spend a whole weekend finding creative solutions to real life problems.

UPDATED: Aug. 1 at 1:20 p.m.

Four upstate New York natives decided in 2016 that it was time central New York grabbed and embraced all the local talent that ended up leaving for bigger cities. Thus, Upstate Interactive was born.

Upstate Interactive is a digital agency that partners with area startups, businesses and entrepreneurs to address one crucial part that an otherwise successful venture could be missing: the digital and technical aspects.

Right now, Upstate Interactive is a team of four partners, two of whom are Syracuse University alumni. They come from different academic backgrounds including computer science, finance and business. What brings them together is their passion for web development, partner Doug Crescenzi said.

“We’re definitely folks that love learning,” Crescenzi said. “We are constantly challenging ourselves to take on unique problems that we can address through digital means.”

Crescenzi did not move to central New York until recently; he had been running a startup in New York City until April last year and shortly before that, he was in Rochester.

As he began doing consulting work, he connected with the three other future partners of Upstate Interactive — Peter Smith, Zoe Koulouris and Kseniya Lifanova.

As the four collaborated, they all realized that they brought different skills to the table and the the group dynamic was working for them, Crescenzi said. About six months ago, they decided to form Upstate Interactive.

Exactly one year ago in March 2016, they began teaching classes in Syracuse.

“We all have ties to upstate New York and we’re all really passionate about the area, the ecosystem, and the talent that comes out universities like Syracuse and Cornell,” he said. “We get really excited when we get the opportunity to work alongside upstate companies and organizations and find ways to help them properly grow, using our digital skillsets.”

Each partner has even developed their own independent programs, like Koulouris and Lifanova’s Women in Coding, which offers affordable monthly classes in coding and events for networking for all those who are interested.

Crescenzi put together Hack Upstate, which works as a weekend-long “hackathon” where programmers and builders get together and find creative solutions to digital problems.

Another plus for Hack Upstate is how students and prospective employers gather in the same place and engage with one another as they proactively build and construct, rather than just talk about concepts.

“It’s been really cool to see the extent to which they enjoy learning and solving problems, things that are necessary to succeed in technology,” Crescenzi said.

Expanding that desire to learn and solve makes for the successful formula at Upstate Interactive.

The team builds on the strengths it has to amp up the success of another venture. Crescenzi illustrated this with the agency’s work with a hypothetical medical client.

“Perhaps they have a piece of health care product, like a physical good, and they do phenomenal manufacturing, checking all the boxes and satisfying all requirements,” he said. “But perhaps they don’t have the resources to build an in-house technical team. We can come in and fill that void for them.”

Upstate Interactive has worked with a handful of startups, including some in the technology and medical spheres.

“We are still a young organization and so we’re taking on a fairly collected set of clients but we’re working to niche down and narrow our focus,” Crescenzi said. “Folks in the medical and health care space are always looking for opportunities to grow on a digital front, so perhaps that could be the niche.”

Considering that they are still a young organization, Upstate Interactive wants to grow at a healthy pace, rather than just increase their numbers rapidly. To find the right talent, Crescenzi said the agency is investing a lot of time and energy in trying to identify the people it can work with in the long term.

Upstate Interactive has also had quite bit of success in putting employers and potential employees in the same space and increasing opportunities for internships in the upstate New York digital arena. Student talent coming from universities and other institutions in the area is instrumental, Crescenzi said.

“There’s a future, they are going to drive us forward,” he said. “We’re trying to canvass the path and clear the way for them, based on the talent we see. We’re doing our best to keep that talent here because they will do big things if they stick around.”

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