By Nancy Dahlberg
Miami's tech and startup community is seemingly growing by the hour. Where should the community centralize to collaborate, build startups, access accelerators and tap funders once the pandemic is past us? Here's one view.
Michelle Abbs is Managing Director of Mana Tech, which aims to develop a vibrant tech hub in downtown Miami. Mana Tech is part of the big vision of developer and entrepreneur Moishe Mana, who has acquired more than 50 properties in the Flagler District over the last six years.
Abbs is a longtime community leader. Most recently she led Babson WIN Lab Miami, an accelerator for female entrepreneurs that until this year operated a program locally. She was part of Class IX of the Miami Foundation’s Miami Fellows and was on the management team at Teach for America Miami-Dade, where she set regional strategy and coached over 400 pubic school teachers, among other roles. She joined Mana Tech in March.
At Mana Tech, as Abbs explains it, her role is “to connect with the broader tech community locally, nationally and internationally, share with them the story of why Miami as a tech hub matters and is happening and why co-locating in downtown is the best choice.“
The selling of Miami is getting easier by the day, thanks largely to Miami Mayor Francis Suarez’s viral (and effective) tweeting campaign. That enables Abbs to hone in on why downtown should be the centralized hub for Miami's startup founders, VCs, tech companies and support organizations. Abbs says redevelopment at this scale takes time and requires a focused long-term vision but Moishe Mana has done this before multiple times – including in NYC’s Meatpacking District and more recently in Wynwood – and it all follows his team’s masterplan.
Mana, born in Israel, shared his story in a tweet thread of his own last week. “10 years ago I came to Miami and invested in over a billion dollars in real estate. I told people I came here to create a global tech hub, and they laughed,” it began. He talked about Miami’s immigrant-powered, built-in diversity and his previous work. “There is something special happening in Miami and it's a great time to be here,” he tweeted.
Because 2021 looks like it will be a pivotal year for the massive Mana Common project, we caught up with Abbs last week to find out the latest. Here are excerpts of that conversation.
What attracted you to Mana Tech?
In my previous role with WIN Lab we built a community in support of female founders and seeing gender equity in Miami. We built a group of stakeholders and we would convene a few times a year for the finale or a big event and that was it, and we all went back to our normal activities. I think the power of what we're doing with Mana Tech is creating a space where that community doesn't have to disperse afterwards -- there's actually a physical place where we can coexist to create that flywheel effect.
I love the scale of what we can create. Downtown is a place that has not realized its full potential. And how amazing will it be to drive through that neighborhood in 5 to 10 years and say ‘we built this, we changed this neighborhood together.’
Tell me more about what we might begin seeing in the next couple of years as part of Mana’s vision for Flagler and tech?
We are really excited that we will have our first project that will be coming online that'll be focused on tech. We'll have tech tenants coming in, and this is a large commercial space with over 130,000 square feet and we are going to start the complete gut renovation of that. We are working in partnership with an architecture group who helped us reimagine what this historic yet, futuristic and modern place can be and that's going to be created [as part of] our master redevelopment plan.
And with this groundswell of excitement about Miami, we are also going to work to renovate some of our other locations. Moishe owns over 50 different buildings, it’s like a million-plus square feet of real estate in downtown. So, given that there is this urgency and an immediate ask from the tech community that is here now, we are going to start transitioning some of the storefronts and floors of office buildings. We're really excited that we have the opportunity to be responsive to the market. We've got folks who are saying, I need exactly this and we are able to deliver that.
Strategically, what we're doing is both meeting the demand for the office space and doing concerted outreach to the best in class, the tier one accelerator programs that have international reach, and attracting them to move into the area. And we’re working with our team -- we've got connections on the ground in LatAm and in Israel -- to bring accelerator programs or startup groups from abroad into our space to really have that gateway feel realized in the physical landscape.
I think, in Q1 2021, we'll be able to make some big announcements once those partnerships are fully [executed]. To attract these programs, we want to work with the DDA and Beacon Council around the incentives that they offer, and the Knight Foundation, so that it's a collective effort. We are happy to take the lead and we also want to work in partnership with [corporate] sponsors to see these programs be successful. When there's more buy-in from multiple stakeholder groups, then we know that that's part of what will allow these programs to really thrive when they land here.
Having come from an educator and accelerator background, I have seen the power of those types of programs and what they can do to both connect an ecosystem and lift it up. I'm excited about bringing some of those tier one programs into the community because I also think it allows us to engage different stakeholder groups. In particular, one type of program meets a need for Miami where I think we experience a real gap, and that is I don't think that we've seen our local corporates fully know how to engage and it's not for lack of desire. I'm excited about partnering with programs that will really build the bridge between our innovation economy and our corporate economy.
How has COVID impacted your planning, recruiting and renovation plans?
When I came into the role it was March 23 -- I think that was the first day that the entire city shut down -- and there was a period of folks really questioning what the future was going to hold and what this was going to mean for office spaces. We did see a couple of technology groups come out and say, hey, we're going to work from home, but tech isn't saying that they're going remote forever, they're saying they're going remote until it's safe. Now, COVID has provided us this really interesting opportunity to be responsive to the needs of what office spaces will be. For some folks, it looks like we'll do hybrid models and so we’re thinking about the importance of meeting rooms, the importance of having the right technology. So COVID has allowed us to be responsive to the changing need in the market and in a way I'm really glad that we hadn't started breaking ground on all of these designs because it allowed us to build for the future.
And then I would say the other thing is, when I came into the role it was kind of like, hey, Michelle, your job is to sell the vision for why people should move to Miami, and recruit the best in class startups and scale ups and investors and entrepreneurial support organizations, innovative corporates, all of that. But in the past month, my job has become so much easier. I don't have to sell why Miami. People are buying into that. Now it's really focusing on why downtown and how downtown is this really special place that I believe is really the only place that can do the thing that we need it to do.
It's a central node. It has the best access to public transportation, which allows for a really inclusive regional strategy. When folks talk about connection to Fort Lauderdale and West Palm, well, the Brightline is right there. … And it also has a lot of housing for everyone -- this isn't just luxury high-end like Brickell, this is accessible housing for our entire demographic. And then downtown is truly the node for fiber optic, the internet backbone nodes are right in downtown.
How does your passion for gender equity and inclusion fit into the work you're currently doing?
Well, it does because no one can really stop me from bringing it up! The team has been really responsive to that passion and desire and so when we have this call to action to bring the best in class and co-locate, we want to make sure that we integrate into the fabric of what Miami has already created. And so that means bringing into the downtown space the organizations that have already led the way pioneering a lot of those efforts. We want to make sure that those folks have a place and they're at the helm of making sure that what we're doing is representative of the future that we all envision.
We are in partnership with the mayor and other key players, and that allows us to share that passion and vision for what Miami as a community stands for. I’m excited to be part of the Miami Manifesto [process] and then also I'm trying to come up with other ways to make sure that female founders and founders of color know that Miami wants them here. Maybe that is partnering with AllRaise, for example, and doing a zoom call webinar with their female VC group and saying hey, we would love for you to join what we're building and what's already been built in Miami.
What do you think about the influx of VCs and founders that we've been seeing?
I think it's a really incredible opportunity. We can benefit from learning from and working with folks who have done this before in different communities.
And I think that we have benefited from being a very small interconnected ecosystem and that has allowed us to challenge each other and hold each other accountable. We want to see folks integrate and grow with us, acknowledging the bones of this house have been built, the structure is there, and respecting that and then integrating with what's been built. As long as folks that are really on board with that, we are going to have a seamless next phase of this movement.
And so what will success look like?
Success looks like us redefining an entire model of what a tech and innovation ecosystem can look like and feel like, and be -- we're not modeling this after Silicon Valley. Moishe has a lot of interest in also bringing together the way that tech is involved in retail, in food and beverage and various other industry verticals so we don't silo ourselves.
It'll look like literally a day in the life of going into your office and then you pop down for lunch and then walk a few blocks to go meet up with a potential funder and then walk a few blocks and go see an accelerator pitch contest and then walk up few blocks and see a super cool new restaurant using high end technology and in each of those places you're having those serendipitous collision points.
Photo of Michelle Abbs at top of post is by Valerie Lopez of Shoot My Travel; renderings of Mana Common provided by Mana Tech.
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