Go for Disney, Stay for Greenville Collaboration

My with my lovely wife in Disney World (2017).

I love Disney, but not like most people.

While many obsess over the parks, movies and merchandise, I love Disney’s corporate history and structure.

Yes, you read that correctly.

I love learning about the company’s founding in 1923, the evolution from Steamboat Willy to Disneyland, and everything that has made the organization one of the best customer service enterprises in the world. I never would have guessed that this peculiar obsession would result in me becoming immersed in Greenville’s tech community for an afternoon or result in my discovering a magic way better than pixie dust.

Having only moved to the Greenville area in May of this year, I had never heard of the Grok Conference. This annual gathering of creative minded and mostly tech professionals was back for the first time since being disrupted by the pandemic and was highly anticipated by participants.

My interests were piqued because Liz Rutledge, senior manager of software engineering at Disney Media & Entertainment Distribution, was among this year’s speakers. I wasn’t familiar with Liz’s work, but the chance to hear from someone with more than a decade working for The Mouse was too good to pass up.

I reached out to Chris Merritt, a partner at Atlas Local and one of the conference organizers, who graciously allowed me to join the 125 event attendees to hear Rutledge speak.

I arrived to find the event’s schedule had shifted slightly and Rutledge wouldn’t be up for another hour. In the meantime, I slipped in to a presentation from Jamie Kosoy, head of web presence a productive and note-taking web application called Notion. To the outside observer, the crowd seemed unusually entranced by Kosoy as he worked through his personal portfolio, which included his time at Stripe, the payment service provider. Chris explained to me that Stripe was something of the gold standard among developers for its design and functionality.

I admire Disney, they admire Stripe, I thought. Makes sense.

“I was supposed to go back into work after his talk. But I got so inspired, I decided to stay all day!”
My wife and I on yet another trip to the Magic Kingdom (2019).

The conference entered a short break after Kosoy’s talk, and I said hello to a few familiar faces in the crowd. That excitement I felt during the presentation became only more evident. One local developer confessed to me they found morning’s presentation from designer and entrepreneur Matt D. Smith so impactful, they changed their entire work day.

“I was supposed to go back into work after his talk,” they said. “But I got so inspired, I decided to stay all day!”

But it wasn’t just the speakers, the opportunity for networking and collaboration was really getting people jazzed. The next session was a perfect example: something called 10/20s. These breakouts allow for any conference attendee to speak for 10-minutes about whatever they want, getting feedback if they want or just talking. One participant I saw used workshopped a new marketing idea, another practiced for an upcoming presentation. One person asked advice regarding a non-profit project, and still another shared their personal story of overcoming domestic abuse.

The crowd’s feedback and conversation prompted by these brief presentations carried over after the session itself. You could see it prompting connections from which, perhaps, new projects would be born.

By the time Rutledge took the stage – sharing the informative and often hilarious story of the journey that led her to work at Disney – I felt like I had discovered something way better than pixie dust. This was a collaborative community uniquely connected and eager to help each other thrive.

In the days following the conference, I found my thoughts returning to the experience. It all made me want to create something, reach out, be bold on my next project.

It all made sense when a colleague informed me that the word “grok” actually means “to understand intuitively or by empathy.” I realized that’s exactly what happened to me.

Or, to put it in Disney terms, I had felt the magic.

About the Author

John Sweeney

Explorer. Conversationalist. Disney History Nerd. John Sweeney is a Communication Project Manager for the City of Greenville, working specifically on #StartupGVL. John is an Ohio native who has lived in South Carolina for nearly 20 years. He enjoys talking with entrepreneurs, exploring the wonders of the Upstate with his family and expanding his knowledge of Walt Disney based historical trivia.
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