When Starwood Hotels & Resorts opened its Starlab innovation center in New York City’s Garment District, it could have done something traditional, like planting a tree, as a way of saying hello to its new neighborhood. But the company wanted to do something that not only would make a contribution but would be aligned with how Starwood works, according to Mike Tiedy, senior vice president of brand design and innovation.
The 46,000-square-foot Starlab, which opened last November, is designed to support a cross-disciplinary, experimental approach to problem-solving and testing new innovations, Tiedy said, so earlier this year, Starwood hosted the Starlab Hackathon to Benefit the Garment District Alliance. The think-tank-style event invited professionals from a variety of industries working in the Garment District — and Convene as well — to come to Starlab to discuss ways to improve the neighborhood.
Before the event, organizers interviewed staff at the 21-year-old, nonprofit Garment District Alliance to learn about issues facing the community. Historically the geographic center of New York City’s fashion industry, the Garment District is being reshaped as fashion-industry tenants move out and are replaced by media, design, and technology companies and new hotels.
Starwood used feedback from the alliance to create problem statements, including ones dealing with trash removal and communicating the district’s evolving identity to visitors. The event was modeled, Tiedy said, on Starwood’s internal method of accelerating the generation of ideas by bringing together people with diverse expertise to expand their thinking. Organizers guided an intentionally diverse group of participants, including architects, fashion designers, artists, and business owners, through an agenda orchestrated to result in tangible solutions.
Teams of participants rotated through Starlab’s conference rooms, creating group proposals, and ended up in the Starlab library, where they presented their ideas. And just as at a hackathon, their ideas faced the scrutiny of a panel of judges — in this case, three entrepreneurs: Waris Ahluwalia, a jewelry designer and actor; Jennifer Hyman, the CEO and co-founder of Rent the Runway; and publisher Danny Seo, editor in chief of the magazine Naturally, Danny Seo.
The event was a party as well as a strategy session. Organizers offered custom cocktails and playfully tweaked the fuel typically associated with hackathons — pizza, candy, and other snacks — with glamorous upgrades.
All of the ideas that were generated at the hackathon were turned over to the alliance, whose staff benefited from being brought into contact with people that the organization doesn’t normally work with, according to Ryan Daly, the alliance’s communications manager.
“It was great to get people’s perspectives from other industries.”
Oh, and it was a good time, too. “It was fun to see everyone getting swept up,” Daly said, “and working toward a common goal.”