The best events don’t always start with a business plan. Often, they start with a spark. Someone has a passion they want to share, and a great idea about how to share it. They’re moved to bring people together around a vision, so they make it happen — even with no event planning experience. Here’s an interview with a creator who sought to advance machine learning through community events.

You don’t have to be an expert in a specific field to create an event that’s of real value to that community. Just ask Courtney Burton and Shon Burton, co-founders of MLconf. While both came from a background in recruiting technology, neither had experience with machine learning.

That didn’t stop them, though, from recognizing that machine learning was the future of applications — and that there was a gap in the community for an event that would regularly bring together leading experts and practitioners to advance the field.

Here’s how Courney Burton took her passion for an emerging technology and turned it into a thriving event, first as a partner with Carnegie Mellon University’s GraphLab team, then as a highly successful solo event held in New York City, Atlanta, and San Francisco.

What first sparked the idea for your event?

Burton: My husband and I saw machine learning becoming the future of all applications and wanted to get ahead of it somehow. At first, we started with nighttime meetups. Each event would be a new technical topic in a panel discussion format. But then, we recruited a speaker from Carnegie Mellon University who was doing really interesting work at the GraphLab. After that, we decided to transition from any topic to machine learning — and make it a full day event. 

In 2012, we partnered with Carnegie Mellon and called it MLconf with GraphLab. In 2013, we did the event without the association. 

When did you know your event would be a success?

Burton: For me, it was when some of the best minds, some of the really bright workers in the machine learning industry, were saying “yes” to present at MLconf. 

In 2013, there was a director of research and engineering at Netflix (Xavier Amatriain) on the cover of Wired magazine. My husband and I said, we know someone who knows him! Maybe we can get him to talk. From there, it was an exciting road of finding his contact information, and selling him on saying “yes” to present. At first he claimed he was busy, but then after a few more calls, he said “yes.” 

After that, someone from Google Brain — now called Google AI — said yes. And we were off to the races.

When was the moment you had to take the leap and go all in on your event?

Burton: I had a day job for the first two conferences — so did my husband. We were juggling a lot back then. And it still did well, it still profited, people enjoyed themselves. It wasn’t until after the second conference that I took the chance and quit the day job to focus on the conference.

For me, more so than expanding into new cities, which we have done since then, was realizing there weren’t any women on stage in the beginning. Why? Because women weren’t applying and they weren’t being invited. So in 2014, I kicked off this massive endeavor to ensure there were more women on stage. Now, around 38% of the abstracts we receive are from women and there’s a higher acceptance rate among women speakers. The talks are now closer to 50/50.

What was your first big failure and what did you learn from it?

Burton: The first thing that comes to mind was in 2012. We didn’t realize the logistical nightmare that occurs when you don’t alphabetize your name badges. It might sound silly, but they were all printed out on stick-on badges and people complained that they’d roll up on their sweater. It was kind of a disaster. Registration took much longer than it needed to. And so that was one of the first practical lessons I learned.

How has your business grown?

Burton:  I’m the only full time person. At times, I have one go-to person I work with. And then, I started this program committee of data scientists in the community. There are anywhere from five to six helping out with curating content. I work closely with the head of the committee (Sarah Braden) on final decisions. And I have contract help to support logistics — one of two part time people throughout the year. 

We do like to include students in the community who may not otherwise be able to attend, so we offer a volunteering program. We have about 20 volunteers per event. They may organize the books we have on display, help with registration, or attend to speakers.

Go back in time and give yourself a piece of advice about your event.

Burton: I’d tell myself to not worry so much about not being a practitioner, not being a subject matter expert myself. I’d explain that the person gathering the community is necessary to getting that community together. 

Now, I bask in this role. I’m the person who brings us together, who can see who’s doing interesting work and put them on the stage — I don’t need to be on stage. Once I got comfortable with that, it was easier. 

Make the leap from industry foresight to industry event today

Burton’s lack of industry knowledge didn’t prevent her from acting on her hunch that the machine learning community needed an event like MLconf. Now, thanks to her belief in machine learning as the future of applications, the community has a unique forum to advance the field.

Do you have a passion worth sharing? Set up your event on Eventbrite in minutes.

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