The team at Waterfront Ventures wanted to plan something special for 3 very unique, empowering, and amazing individuals. Melissa Le, is the cofounder of Waterfront Lab. She’s invested herself in the city of Camden to see it grow and have built a startup ecosystem in the city. Through her work with Waterfront Lab, Camden’s premier coworking space, she was able to attract 35+ tech startups into the space and Camden.

Dan Rhoton, CEO of Hopeworks N’ Camden needs no introduction. Being one of the most generous and forward thinking leader in Camden, his leadership has helped countless youth learn new skills and find new path to success. He’s been a judge on Camden Catalyst, speaker at Rain Conference, and have been a key figure in developing Camden’s talent pipeline.

Bob Moul, is a very well known leader in Philadelphia who’s recently devoted his time and energy to bringing Tech into K-12 school systems in Philly. The list of his achievements and accomplishments far exceeds the SEO requirements of this article, so we won’t list them. However, he’s invested in the development of Camden by helping us create Camden Catalyst, a $25,000 award ceremony. Bob has also advised startups in Waterfront Lab.

It’s clear that these 3 individuals are very special and deserve a special place in our hearts. July 17th was Melissa’s actual birth date and we wanted to surprise her. Unfortunately she’s an exceptionally keen person who isn’t easily fooled, so we had to be clever with our planning. So how did we manage to surprise them?

Step 1: Creating a fake event

In order to trick Melissa into coming to her own surprise party, we had to create a fake event. On May 25th, we set out to plan this event out. We initially planned for a large conference in Philadelphia sparing no expenses, however after careful consideration we decided to host it in our own backyard at 200 Federal St. 200 Federal St, was the former Camden Colab, the place where we first met Dan (we worked on the same floor), and where the first Waterfront Ventures Conference took place. This was the birth place of everything and it was only tasteful to begin the next chapter here.

The event would be called Tristate Technology and Education Impact Forum. Crafting the content was surprisingly difficult. We didn’t want it to be too brief, otherwise it would be obvious. And we also had to write in a style that she doesn’t recognize. Yes…she can recognize you by the way you write.

The planning of the event took longer than expected since we had to make it LOOK like an event with “real” content, graphics, and branding.


Step 2. Creating a false identity

Yea…we went pretty far didn’t we? A fake event wasn’t enough, we had to create the entire personality and companies behind it, since without a doubt, she WILL look them up. I think you’re starting to get a sense how much of a hawk she is when it comes to details. That’s when we created Salta International Inc, an organization that helps bridge the gap between technology/resources and students/communities in underprivileged parts of the world.


Step 3. Getting everybody involved

Now for the fun part. Early June, we sent out invitations to everyone including Bob and Dan. We asked everyone to be discreet with the information and to also invite their friends to make the event look real. We had overwhelming positive and excited responses from Melissa’s closest friends in both Camden and Philly. We even reached out to Melissa’s old friend Juvoni from NYC. Bob and Dan thought they were in on the surprise (they didn’t know we were going to surprise them too) and was fully onboard. We discreetly reached out to all of Bob and Dan’s close network and extended our invitation.

Step 4. Attention to details

Our good friend Chris Kohl was probably the only person who was fully aware of the entire surprise and gave us some really good advice. Luckily for us Chris is a stickler for details and suggested we refine everything in order to provide a seamless experience. Every detail matter. We didn’t realize how many little things we missed upon closer examination. Now it’s time to get everything right so the 3 of them don’t suspect anything on the day of the event.

  1. We had to get volunteers that Melissa have never met
  2. We needed proper table cloth branding to make it look legit
  3. We needed additional promotional materials to again…sell the event
  4. When she walks around and asks everyone “How’d you hear of this event”, everyone needed a story. We emailed everyone their “story”.
  5. We needed an actual host
  6. None of the food can resemble the “usual” things we always get before. She’d recognize it immediately.
  7. There had to be enough new faces in the crowd
  8. Needed new name tags/badges. Can’t reuse old ones
  9. And the list goes on…

We got everything down just right and prepared for the big day.

It’s show time!

Monday at 4:00PM we were at 200 Federal planning and setting everything up. It’s show time! 6:00PM everyone came in and networked like it’s just a regular Monday.


Our event hosts Tiffany Yau (CEO of Fulphil) did a great job opening the event and giving recognition to all of our “sponsors” and panelists. Once everyone settled, our moderator Monica Reyes (an alumni of Hopeworks), did a fantastic job leading our panelists. Bob, Dan, and Chris were our wonderful panelists and all did a fantasic job keeping a straight face leading up to the surprise.


After the panelists answered a few questions and had a few laughs, our moderator began the slideshow to show some ancient technologies that used to be in the classrooms. Each slide would show an image of something funny that our audience could relate to and burst out laughing. Then it came to THE slide…and it read “Happy Birthday Melissa”. We all sat in complete silence and let her absorbed it all in. She was left confused and with lots of questions. Bob raised his hands (our cue to shout surprise) and we all stood up and shouter “SURPRISE”.

Here is a picture of what she looks like curled in a ball of embarrassment afterward. Sorry for the blurry pic.


Melissa’s friend (who had flown in) came out of the closet (literally!) and her mom came in from the back to participate in the surprise. Tiffany and Monica brought out some champaign bottles and cups and we all had a sip to celebrate. Bob and Dan thought they were done for the night…little did they know that we’ve barely started.

Now for the Award ceremony

Once everyone settled, Tiffany and Monica continued the program and began the award ceremony. A small speech was made to let everyone know who Melissa was and her accomplishments that earned her this award.

For those who don’t know Melissa she’s turning 27 this year. Melissa is one of the most generous individuals we’ve had the privilege to meet. She is so generous, that in 2016 she gave up her cozy Community manager position at a major Tech company in NYC to help us build a Startup Ecosystem here in Camden. She’s had a passion for helping others and empowering young girls to have the courage to pursue their dreams. So when she saw an opportunity to really make a difference in Camden, she took it. And what has she done in those 2 years?

  1. She single handedly built Waterfront Lab, the first official coworking space in Camden
  2. She recruited more than 35 startups to join the city to provide future opportunities for students
  3. She’s hosted countless events including Business workshops, Coding Kickstart, Breakfast with Titans, Business mind meetups, Camden Tech Meetups, and more…
  4. She was the mastermind behind UP Conference and Camden Catalyst, the $25,000 pitch competition
  5. She brought dozens of positive press articles to Camden and brought awareness to the Startup ecosystem in the city
  6. And let’s not forget, she’s also responsible for bridging the gap between Philadelphia and Camden’s tech community.

It took many great leaders and organizations to build Camden’s Startup Ecosystem. And Melissa’s unquestionable faith and sheer will was the glue that held everything together. For the many lives you’ve impacted and countless more that will be impacted by your work, we’d like to honor you with a special award. This award is only given to those who have made personal sacrifices to better the lives of others and whose hard work impacted the lives of many. Melissa, the first ever recipient of this award, please come accept your Impact Leader Award.

Here is a photo of Melissa receiving the Impact Leader Award.


Now we surprise Dan

Just as Melissa was getting ready to sit down to lower her anxiety, we interrupted her peace with yet another announcement!

Hi everyone can I have your attention please? First and foremost, we’d like to wish you happy birthday Melissa! However the evening isn’t over yet. Melissa isn’t the only person we’re surprising and showering with love today. There’s another person in this room who’s been a leader and mentor to many of us.

Where do I start with Dan? If you know Dan you know that he is always smiling and behind the scenes working diligently to better the lives of other people especially the youth in the city. He is a selfless person. Working day in and day out on things that he doesn’t even have to do. He has been a teacher, a vice principal, a consultant, the chief impact director of Hopeworks and now the executive director of Hopeworks. From 2012b to now Dan has had many accomplishments in the city of Camden. Since Dan has been apart of Hopeworks, Hopeworks has had its best ever retention and completion rates, he has helped increase college enrollment by over 300 percent. Hopeworks was awarded south jersey non profit of the year in 2016. He has achieved the best ever youth development and business outcomes at Hopeworks. We can go on and on about Dan and he truly deserves this award.

Thank you Dan for all of your hard work, commitment, and sacrifices for all of us here. Many of us may never know all the wonderful things you’ve done to make countless lives better. For your hard work and dedication, we’d like to honor you with the Invincible Leader Award, an award only given to leaders who made personal sacrifices and invested themselves to help improve the lives of others.

Dan was completely caught off guard and temporarily glanced for the nearest exit. Fortunately we’ve blocked off all means of escape, leaving him no choice but to accept the award and face the love and joy in the room that was also there for him. His Hopeworks crew including Valerie came out from the backroom and also surprised him. Here’s what dan looked like as he heard Monica announce his name.

Here’s a meme we created to capture the 4 stages of acceptance Dan went through as we surprised him with the Invincible Leader Award. An award he more than deserves.

Dan gave one of the most beautiful, heartwarming, and selfless speech any leader could give. The speech he gave is a true reflection of his character and precisely why we decided to give him the award.

And now we surprise Mr. Moul

Bob sat there applauding like the true supporter that he is. Despite his accomplishments, he remains one of the humblest, respectful, and most supportive friend one could ask for. After Dan’s speech, Tiffany took the stage and once again…announced yet another surprise!

But wait…there’s more! This year, we’d like to honor not 1, but 2 incredible individuals with the Invincible Leader Award. Bob Moul, to say that you’re generous is a gross understatement for the things you’ve done, the things you’re doing, and the things you want to do to help the lives of so many students. You simply are one of the most humble, kindest, and most sincere person anyone could possibly meet.

You always made time for those around you. You always find a way to help everyone. And when you give, you generously and without questions or demands. We don’t know what we did to deserve you Bob, but every one of us here is grateful for you. And this year, there’s no better recipient to receive the Invincible Leader Award than you.

Bob walked up to the stage, took his award, and also gave us such an eloquent and powerful speech. He told us that it’s awards like these from the community and from the people he cares about that means most to him, this almost left us in tears. Here is a photo of Bob accepting his Invincible Leader Award. He is the second recipient ever to receive the award!


And here are the 3 most loved and respected people in our community standing together with well deserved awards.


Everyone received their surprises and award. The event was a huge success and we spent the remaining time celebrating and taking pictures.


Special thanks

Thank you everyone who came. Your love, support, and friendship made everything possible. And thank you Melissa, Bob, and Dan for your commitment to making the world a better place.