Today's Inc. 500 theme: applause. What was everyone so enthusiastic about? It wasn't the weather -- we woke to drizzly skies. No, this applause was for a lineup stacked with outstanding speakers and inspirational stories.
Former New York City public school teacher turned entrepreneurial guru Steve Mariotti got the ball rolling by introducing a few of his newest proteges. Mariotti is the founder of National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship, an organization he started to help inner city youths learn the skills needed to launch the next generation of small businesses, a program that helped 17,000 youths last year alone. To put a face to his vision, Mariotti brought along four young business owners from around the country who talked about their businesses and the fun they have in running them -- a sentiment that hit home with everyone in the room as they roundly applauded Michael Simmons, Geneva Johnson, Ivania Dalba, and Laima Tazmin.
Talk about sentiment: The day's second speaker, Bill Strickland, tapped everyone's emotions with his tales of retraining ex-steelworkers and welfare moms from the streets of Pittsburgh. He mesmerized us, he amused us, he talked a lot about salmon in telling us about his company, Manchester Bidwell Corp. Strickland proved himself to be the ultimate social entrepreneur -- someone whose efforts not only make money, but also make people's lives better. In his words, if you want people to become part of the world, you need to bring the world to them. And for his efforts, the crowd gave him a gift: a hearty standing ovation worthy of an encore.
After Strickland left the room with awed entrepreneurs in his wake, the rest of us headed to the final breakout sessions of the conference. The choices ranged from leadership tactics, to balance and happiness and a discussion of how InPhonic became No. 1 on this year's Inc. 500 list. I headed to Bo Burlingham's session entitled "What to Expect from the Next Bush Administration." To help flesh out the issues, Bo brought in tax expert Chris Edwards from the Cato Institute and the quintessential Inc. CEO Jack Stack from SRC Holdings. Not only did those attending get a chanced to voice their top concerns and priorities for the next four years like health care, oversight of federal contracts and the No Child Left Behind Act, but they heard the page-turning story of how Stack's letter to President Bush last year led to him almost becoming the country's next manufacturing czar. The overall takeaway from the session: Change isn't going to come from the top -- it's up to all of us to push the small business agenda.
But when you talk about the top, it's tough to get any higher than keynote speaker Burt Rutan, Inc.'s entrepreneur of the year. The mutton-chopped Rutan was greeted by an enthusiastic standing ovation for his efforts in leading the way for the first private manned space flight in history. Not only was Rutan a natural speaker, his passion for the future of space travel oozed through the crowd. Rutan told us about his vision for the future where entrepreneurs, not government agencies like NASA (which he liked to call Nay-Say), will drive us to the moon and beyond. Matter of fact, Inc. is already considering having the 2010 Inc. 500 conference out in space -- gravity not included.
Next up: the awards ceremony only a few short hours away. (Though I'm not looking forward to strapping on a tux.) More to come later.
Darren Dahl is a contributing editor at Inc. magazine, which he has written for since 2004. He also works as a collaborative writer and editor and has partnered with several high-profile authors. Dahl lives in Asheville, North Carolina.