By 6:45 p.m. Sept. 8, local tech executives were packed so tightly into the lobby of the Tower Club that late arrivals had to step sideways off the elevators to squeeze into the room.
It was something of a back-to-school night for the crowd of entrepreneurs, marketing officers and venture funders who showed up in droves at the high-end networking club at Tysons Corner.
Wearing fresh fall suits and sipping chardonnay, the 260 attendees were supposedly there to hear from the chief economist of J.P. Morgan, but most seemed primarily interested in hearing from each other. The talk was of summer vacations, of course, but also of upcoming deals (shhhh) and how good it was to be back on the networking circuit.
"My sense since May is that we're seeing a significant uptick in our local technology world," said Dede Haskins, president of Women in Technology (WIT), one of the seven organizations co-sponsoring the event. "I would like to think that what this downturn taught people is how important it is to keep their network active."
If the past week is any indication, she's right. For the first time in months, the Washington area tech set could fill their mornings and evenings with events, and the leaders of many local organizations say they have ambitious plans for the year ahead.
WIT, for example, is launching a drive to attract its 1,000th member. The 10-year-old organization has grown to 950 members from 350 in 2001. When the bubble burst, WIT focused on helping members make connections that might lead to new opportunities, Haskins said, but now it's also offering programs on personal financial planning and career development. Encouraging young women to consider careers in technology has always been an agenda item for WIT. This year the organization is taking it a step further by creating a foundation that will pay for speakers and run mentoring programs.
TiE-DC, another co-sponsor of last week's event, also plans to become a more focused organization in the months ahead. For years TiE, formerly called the Indian CEO Council, was known for holding the purest networking events in town -- long on cocktails and short on speeches. But last year the local group started by executives with family roots in India was absorbed into a national organization. Abhishek Jain, TiE-DC's co-president, said it is now offering more substantive programming. In addition to monthly meetings, TiE is setting up more intimate gatherings for members in specific industries.
"In the boom-boom days you could walk into a room and everyone was a potential customer. When the economy is different, you're a little more discerning," Jain said. "Our members want to have smaller meetings. . . . They want to have meaningful dialogues."
Changes are coming to another organization represented at the Tower Club event. Last week the six-year-old DC Technology Council named Penny K. Pickett its new president. Pickett previously worked in business development for the Telecommunications Development Fund, a Washington venture capital firm. DC Tech's first few events this season focus on helping companies seek out opportunities in the homeland security market, but Pickett said she also plans to emphasize programs that teach District entrepreneurs how to tap into federal grants and resources.
Last Thursday morning, the alarms of 130 local techies went off early when the Northern Virginia Technology Council kicked off its fall season with a 7:30 presentation by Patrick J. Kerins, a partner at Grotech Capital Group and president of the Mid-Atlantic Venture Association. The same gray room was packed again the next day for a business development seminar led by Paul Villella, founder of local staffing firm HireStrategy.
People seem to be itching to get back out in the community, said NVTC President Bobbie Kilberg. Just as important, she added, companies are once again lining up to sponsor tech events. NVTC's fall golf tournament, for example, is always sold out, but this year -- unlike last year -- the sponsorship slots are all taken as well.
NVTC, the area's largest technology organization, will place more emphasis on developing young companies this year. The group was given a $1 million grant to establish a center that will offer training and guidance to entrepreneurs. "One of the things this center will seek to do is bring our large and small companies together," Kilberg said.
The organization also is devoting resources to promoting its legislative agenda in Richmond. NVTC will oppose bills that would prevent state contracts from going to companies that send work overseas, Kilberg said, and is pushing for changes in the state's telecommunication taxes. The group's philanthropic work continues this fall with the launch of two new technology clubhouses for youths in Falls Church and a third in Reston.
Maryland's networking season got off with a decidedly academic flair this week as local biotech professionals gathered in Rockville for a day-long conference on how to move from product research to drug manufacturing. Pasta salad and brownies were available at the back of the long seminar room, but the more than 30 attendees at a Tuesday afternoon seminar on biotech regulatory issues were too busy taking notes on legal pads and laptops to pause for refreshments.
Biotech isn't the only industry in the state, so the Tech Council of Maryland is placing new emphasis on fostering relationships between government agencies and information technology companies. To that end, the council is about to commence a program series on how to do business with the always-intriguing intelligence agencies.
"It's the IT community coming back," said TCM President Dyan Brasington. "This is more offerings than we've had before, and it's totally market-driven."
Ellen McCarthy writes about the local tech scene every other Thursday. Her e-mail address is email@example.com.