Innovation and Mentorship at This Year’s Next Level Conference

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Next Level Conference 2016


Last week,  I participated in the eighth annual Next Level Conference, hosted by the New Jersey Institute for Entrepreneurial Leadership (IFEL) and the Newark Community Economic Development Corporation (Newark CEDC). This incredible event is geared at helping Newark’s small-business owners innovate and grow their businesses.

IFEL is an organization that has proudly supported for several years (full disclosure: I have been invited to serve on their board), and we love to see the great work they are doing helping small business owners. This is, after all, part of what we try to do at

Anyone is welcome to join IFEL, and the NextLevel Conference is designed to benefit real businesses—operating businesses, from restaurant owners to small manufacturers, from retail store owners to construction companies. It is always amazing to see how a true startup begins and becomes a prosperous business, employing people in the community. It is especially amazing when you follow businesses that you have helped. This is what IFEL does.

Next Level 2016

Held on the Rutgers University Business School campus, in Newark, New Jersey, we had a full day of great sessions, networking opportunities and panel discussions. A few hundred business owners were privileged to hear some really great entrepreneurs and speakers, including Super Bowl champion turned successful business owner Brad Benson; Shark Tank alumni and founder of ChordBuddy Travis Perry; CMO and partner at Sundial Brands Emmet Dennis; and Chef Vonda McPherson, owner of Newark’s famous Duke’s Southern Table.

Hearing from entrepreneurs and listening to them tell their stories—especially their struggles and failures until they reached success—is always an inspiration. The group listed above and others who shared their stories all had humble beginnings and very interesting backgrounds.

The Benefits of Attending Next Level

Anyone can Google tips on starting a small business and read insightful articles or watch videos on the topic. I advise you to do it, and keep doing it, because there is a lot to learn! However, the pleasure and value of attending Next Level last Friday was hearing one story after another of real people in our community overcoming obstacles to build successful businesses—taking time off from my real business to listen and learn.

Most attendees were business operators. A few I met were about to start their first businesses, including two who had just completed a franchise purchase and a new storefront, set to open in the next three months. All attendees were present to share their own stories and listen to inspirational presentations focused on keeping local small business owners innovating.

Combining intense learning at the Next Level conference with ongoing mentoring and involvement in an organization like IFEL is bound to help entrepreneurs do well! You will learn tangible skills, an example being the very practical marketing skills the audience gleaned from the principals at the Single Throw Digital Marketing. You know your market and business better than anyone but often we don’t trust our instincts and try to do things the same way they they’ve always been done. Times, technology and behavior may change your industry or specific business, and if you don’t innovate, you will fall behind. In a nutshell, this is what participants learned at Next Level on Friday.

One more thing: A great event, especially one put together by an organization that supports restaurants, does well to include good food, and we were in for a treat! A food contest at Next Level featured amazing delicacies, from a variety of meat dishes and baked goods to incredible deserts. I don’t know who came first in the food competition—but in my book, we all won!

Finally, I’d like to extend a big thank-you to Jill Johnson, CEO of IFEL, and Larry Bailin, CEO of Single Throw, for producing such an amazing event. The location was great and the hospitality amazing, but next year we will need a much bigger space!