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The Download, Shannon Henry

Prayer Breakfast Draws Strong Tech Turnout

By Shannon Henry
Thursday, November 18, 2004; Page E01

The guest speakers appearing before a sold-out breakfast of 600 tech executives usually hold forth on such topics as cable communications and early-stage venture funding. But on this morning in the well-appointed ballroom of the Ritz-Carlton at Tysons Corner, Gary T. McCollum, vice president and general manager of Cox Communications Northern Virginia, and April Young, senior vice president of Comerica Bank, have a different topic: their spiritual journeys.

"They will be baring their souls before you," said Carl Grant of the Reston office of Cooley Godward, co-founder and board president of the Washington area's annual High Tech Prayer Breakfast.

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The personal testimonials -- and a turnout that has doubled since the first such breakfast three years ago -- reflect the growing number of technology executives who believe that their Christianity should be part of their work as well as their private lives.

The event is hosted by a 90-member who's who of players in the local technology industry, including XM Satellite Radio Holdings Chairman Gary M. Parsons;WebMethods founder Phillip Merrick; VeriSign's executive vice president, Robert J. Korzeniewski; and venture capitalists Hooks Johnston of Valhalla Partners, Kim Cooke of Blue Water Capital and Mark A. Frantz of Carlyle Group.

Nestled among the centerpiece flowers on each table at the breakfast, held Nov. 11, are stacks of brown paperback Bibles. A man outside the ballroom door gives out free religious videos.

In her remarks, Young tells of being "reborn" in 1980 when her life was in turmoil and she was deeply depressed. "I believed God had a plan for me," she said. The beginning of that plan, she said, was tithing to her church.

McCollum tells of growing up in a Richmond housing project, of losing his mother to cancer at age 10, of the breakup of his first marriage. "On the inside, I was a failure," McCollum said of his life before he found God, even as he was earning A's in school, quarterbacking a football team and attending church. "I was a 2 percent Christian," he said. "I don't like anything that's 2 percent."

In a conversation before his speech, McCollum said he tried to separate his religious and professional lives but concluded he couldn't. "You don't check half of yourself" when you go to the office, he said. "I bring my faith to work." McCollum said his beliefs shape the way he reacts to problems at Cox. "I stay stable and content and patient," he said. "We need to live this and show it every day."

Alland Leandre, president of management consulting firm Vyalex Management Solutions in Columbia, said he has come to the prayer breakfast for the first time because he wants to talk to other people in the technology industry who share his beliefs. "If I meet a salesman who is a disciple of Christ, we have something in common," he said. "It breaks the ice."

The nonprofit group that puts on the event, High Tech Prayer Breakfast-DC Metro, holds smaller meetings and study groups during the year. Its inspiration was the High Tech Ministries in Atlanta. In October, the Atlanta group held its 13th annual prayer breakfast, which drew more than 2,000 people and featured Intel Chief Technology Officer Patrick P. Gelsinger as keynote speaker. The Atlanta breakfast has attracted other nationally known Christian technologists to tell their stories, including executives from Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byers; Apple; MCI; and Cisco Systems.

At the Tysons Corner breakfast, the hosts have set out to recruit a few new Christians. Each person, who pays $600 for a table, is asked to invite some guests who are not Christians or not practicing their religion, Grant said.

Guests are given cards to fill out, inviting them to put a check mark next to comments such as "Please contact me about hosting a table next year," and "This morning, I decided to commit my life to Jesus Christ." Grant said someone from the ministry will follow up on the responses. Next year's breakfast already has been booked at the Ritz-Carlton and, if the group moves to a larger space in the hotel, will be able to accommodate 1,000 people, Grant said.

After the speakers finished, Jennifer Trax, senior manager of marketing and business development at law firm Shaw Pittman in McLean, stopped to pick up a free video and CD copies of speeches from the past two breakfasts. She was pleased to be invited by Grant, who is one of her competitors. Grant and Trax both work at attracting start-up technology businesses to their respective law firms. Trax describes herself as a Christian but "not an evangelist" who talks about her faith often. Today's event, she said, "put things into perspective for me."

Andrew Sherman, a lawyer with McDermott, Will & Emery in Washington, said that when his client Mike Bruce, chief executive of InScope Technologies in Leesburg, asked him to be his guest at the event, he thought he might feel out of place because he is Jewish. Sherman said he ended up taking notes from the speeches and brought home one of the Bibles in which he circled passages from the New Testament. He said the morning's message that there's more to business resonated with him. "My thought is we need to do something like this at the synagogue," Sherman said. "We need to bring more spirituality into the workplace."

Shannon Henry writes about Washington's technology culture every other Thursday. Her e-mail address is henrys@washpost.com.

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