Kris Adams, Director
NWA Tech Summit,
Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce
FOR ANYBODY IN the tech world, the theme of the 9th annual Northwest Arkansas Technology Summit—“Fast Forward”—will certainly resonate. Staging this year’s Summit has also been an accelerated experience for its new director, Kris Adams, who just took the reins in March. We managed to slow Kris down long enough to hear about his plans for this year’s event, which will take place October 16-18 in Bentonville.
Before we start talking about this year’s Summit, tell me about yourself and how you came to be in this position.
I have a background in nonprofit work. Most recently, I was at a women and children’s shelter in Rogers, Restoration Village.
I grew up on the East Coast, in Maryland. We moved here about four years ago. And like I mentioned, I was at Restoration Village for the most recent two years and while I was there, I met Ashley Wardlow, who used to run the Tech Summit and is now the interim CEO here at the Chamber. We were paired together through AFP, the Association of Fundraising Professionals, and she was helping me work through some event logistics—sponsorships, donations, things like that. This was while she was doing the Tech Summit, so for about two years, I was hearing all about the event and was totally jealous. Then when she moved up to the interim CEO role, I reached out and was able to connect and come on board here, probably knowing more than the average individual would have because of my conversations with Ashley.
So you’ve been at it now for, what, a year?
Just since March. I came on in March. It’s a pretty quick turnaround to do an event of this size.
I’ll say. Was anything in place as of March, or did you have to sort of start from scratch?
Some pieces were in place. We had a sponsorship packet with options put together, but no conversations with participants had really been started. We were starting from Square One on that, so it’s been a very fast pace, which I like. It sure hasn’t been boring!
I assume you have a staff?
I have an intern from the University of Arkansas. She’s a broadcast journalism major, and she’s great. Her name is Shelby Mills and she’s my right hand with all this. I also have a great committee made up a lot of our supporting sponsors, previous speakers, people like that. ACDS’ Clint Hankinson and Endeavor NWA’s Jessica Head are the committee co-chairs. So it’s not a one-person lift, but it’s definitely a focused lift here at the Chamber. And everybody, regardless of their role, tends to pitch in when we really need it.
For me, the fun part of the process is talking with all the tech people and seeing some of the cool sessions that they’ll be piecing together. I’m not a tech practitioner by trade, I’m more of a fan. So getting to hear about some of the things they’re bringing is really exciting. On the other hand, what terrifies me are all the nitty-gritty logistics of the event!
I would say the hardest thing has been just the sheer constraints of time and space. We have so many interesting companies that we’d love to engage for the Summit.
The problem is, we just need more room and more time. And that’s a great problem to have.
You say you’re not a “tech practitioner by trade”—what did you study in school?
I have a Master’s in Strategic Communication from Arkansas State. Before that, I actually did an undergraduate and seminary degree in religion. I know that sounds like an odd mix, but, ironically enough, in seminary some of my courses were about theology and tech, so it’s an interesting overlap that I’ve had. And with my work in faith-based nonprofit settings, it’s been a good match and it’s fun to have that sort of communal relational training, because that’s really what makes big events like this happen.
So is it going to be virtual and in-person this year like last year?
We’re going fully in-person this year. And though we won’t have a live virtual component, we’ll probably make some content available post-event, especially for those that we provide no-cost access to, which are students, educators, and entrepreneurs.
This year’s event will be held October 16 through 18 in multiple venues in downtown Bentonville. It’s what Visit Bentonville calls an “unconventional convention.” We’ll be using The Record event venue as a main hub. Our live keynotes will happen there, and then we’ll live-stream those keynotes to the other venues that we have for overflow seating. These other venues will then host live breakout sessions for each of our programming tracks. Our full list of venues includes The Record, Skylight Cinemas, Meteor Guitar Gallery, and Bentonville Community Church. We’re encouraging Summit attendees to visit www.nwatechsummit.com/map to see an interactive map of our venues and event
layout. The full schedule for the conference can be viewed at www.nwatechsummit.com/schedule.
We’re going to have five different programming tracks this year: Mobility and Supply Chain, Entrepreneurship, Health and Wellness, Cybersecurity, and Web 3. So we’ve got a huge lineup—five tracks with about 12 breakout sessions per track, plus 12 keynotes. That comes out to 72 different informational offerings, whether it’s keynote or breakout sessions. It’s a lot of content in about 48 hours.
Then there’s probably a couple extra that I’m missing with some of our programming specifically for high school students, which we’ve never done before. We always offer access to the main conference but we’ve never done programming just for them. So that’ll be exciting.
Tell me more about the different tracks and the insights you’re getting from them.
Sure. In our Cybersecurity track, which seems to be filling up quickly, we’ve got some great presentations. One particular focus that affects a lot of the tracks but is kind of unique in cybersecurity is about workforce development, which, as you know, ACDS has a huge role in. Workforce development in tech is in a tough spot today because of the pace and frequency at which things change in industry. So trying to keep a workforce well skilled and ready to deploy to fill organizational needs is tough. We’ve got at least one session that will feature ACDS and some other partners, including the NWA Council, to address this workforce development issue and hopefully highlight how we can stay ahead of the curve on getting those individuals in the right places to fill those needs.
Our Health and Wellness track is really interesting too. A lot of the tech that’s being deployed today is aimed at addressing issues of access and equity, including virtual options and different ways of patient home monitoring with wearable devices and things like that. Some of our presentations will feature what’s been happening in those areas. We’re also thrilled to have Dr. Geeta Nayyar, Chief Medical Officer at Salesforce, delivering one of our keynotes this year.
The Mobility and Supply Chain track will feature some cutting-edge trends like aerial mobility and autonomous vehicles. Sam Saad, VP of Strategic Initiatives at Gatik, is presenting a keynote with Vik Gopalakrishnan, Vice President of Supply Chain Engineering at Walmart, about their self-driving trucks and how that enables them to move goods quickly and efficiently these days. It’s a really interesting shift that we’re seeing in supply chain to include these new ways of moving people and goods from Point A to Point B. The fact that we’ve got these Walmart deliveries happening here via drone is like something out of a sci-fi novel. Incidentally, Tulsa Innovation Labs is going to be talking in two Cybersecurity breakout sessions about trusted, privacy-enhanced, and cyber-secure autonomy for autonomous systems. Also, their Head of Partnerships, Jennifer Hankins, is going to be delivering one of our keynotes about “a new blueprint for regional economic development.”
Finally, the Web 3 track is really interesting this year. The Blockchain Center of Excellence at the University of Arkansas has hosted a virtual conference for the last two years, and this year they decided to partner with us to effectively merge that conference into the Tech Summit as a track. So we’re partnering with them for content for those sessions. They provide a great level of expertise in that Web 3 space where there’s just so much new happening that it’s great to have a measure of quality control to ensure that we’re getting good presenters and topics on things that the general public still really doesn’t know much about or feels a little leery about, such as cryptocurrency and NFTs and things like that.
Tell me about your overall theme: “Fast Forward.”
Over the last couple of years, technology has accelerated at an exponential rate, thanks to everything that’s transpired with COVID, to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to now the supply chain issues that we’re facing. Companies are pivoting and using their tech, leveraging it in new ways to address faster whatever problems they’re facing. So Fast Forward seemed the perfect theme for the times we’re in. Even at some of the other Chamber events that we’ve had recently, one of those recurring choruses that we hear people talking about has been the pace, the speed at which things continue to just change in industry. It’s good that we’re able to focus on that—not just where we’ve been in technology but where we’re going, and how to stay ahead of the curve with this increased pace that we’re all seeing in tech.
Anyway, we’re really looking forward to this year’s Summit. Of course, the people who’re in the tech industry love it, but it’s also a community event. We’re one of the few extremely large events in the area that isn’t private or semi-private. Anybody can purchase a ticket on our website and attend if they’re tech fans, or if they’re running a smaller business, or if they have a team that wants to be a part of it—they can buy tickets and join the fun. The Summit is also a fun event to be part of for someone like me, who’s done nonprofit work. I mean, I’m getting to help bring a community together around a shared love and passion for something that has a great capacity for good. What’s better than that?