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A Faith Gathering of Business Professionals

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By Kim Hart
Monday, December 8, 2008

As the sun was rising last Thursday, cars poured into the Hilton McLean parking lot -- so many that a police officer stood in the street to direct traffic.

Driving nearly 800 local professionals to wake up early was the High Tech Prayer Breakfast, an annual event that brings together a wide range of local business players -- from investors and lawyers to executives and headhunters. Now in its seventh year, the breakfast attracts regular churchgoers as well as those who prefer a synagogue, a mosque or no church at all.

"I think people are feeling a lot of reasons for prayer these days," said Jody Toser, executive director of TelecomHub, an industry networking group.

Indeed, the worsening economic situation was a central theme of the morning. Jonathan C. Crane, who had the task of rebuilding WorldCom after the 2002 accounting scandal, told the audience how his faith got him through the difficult time. Holding up the worn Bible he read daily for guidance, he likened that pressure to the current financial fallout.

"Once again, we've been betrayed by greed, which has won out over sound business practices," said Crane, who was most recently president of Savvis, an IT provider. "And it's shaken us to the core. We need to call on a higher authority than [U.S. Treasury Secretary] Henry Paulson."

The nearly 100 organizers of the event included Gary Parsons, former chairman of XM Satellite Radio; and Hooks Johnston, venture capitalist with Valhalla Partners.

The event doesn't have religious affiliations, said Robert Brandau, one of the organizers and the founder of McLean consulting firm Increasing Revenue. "It's just a one-shot deal," he said, with "no fundraising, no recruiting, no membership. We aren't trying to promote anything."

The event drew some people who have moved between religious and business ventures. Michael Filamore, chief operating officer of Tech Solutions, was a youth minister for several years before joining the local business community. Dondi Serio, chief executive of Reston-based public relations firm MarkIt Power, moved to Washington three years ago with the intention of starting a church. She ended up starting a business and hosts a women's Bible study at Teqcorner, a start-up incubator space in McLean.

Tom Houck, who runs the site Faith360.com, spent many years as president of AuditWatch in Reston before deciding to enter the seminary. Outside the ballroom, he gave away copies of his new book about football and faith called "Between the Tackles."

Despite the heavy economic realities discussed, Chris Hopkinson, a first-time attendee, said he left feeling "motivated and inspired."

"I first wondered, are people going to hold hands and pass around a collection basket?" said Hopkinson, who heads marketing and business development for DubMeNow, a start-up trying to replace business cards via mobile phones. "It wasn't as serious as one might expect from religion."

Twelve hours later, some of the same faces appeared at the graduation for this year's class of MindShare, a year-long, invitation-only crash course for promising entrepreneurs.

MindShare began in 1997 as a way for entrepreneurs to exchange ideas and form relationships at a time when Internet companies with odd names and millions of dollars in funding were starting by the dozens. The current economic challenges have strengthened the bonds formed by this year's 40 graduates, said Harry M. Glazer, a lawyer at Kelley Drye who helped start the group. Alumni include WebMethods and VisualCV founder Phillip Merrick, Net2000 Communications and Razorsight chief executive Charlie Thomas, and Amit Yoran, chief executive of NetWitness.

Members of this year's class say the most valuable part of the program is making connections with other like-minded company creators.

"It's like a giant support group," said Michael Powers, whose firm, Mpowerplayer, is trying to find a larger audience for mobile games. Today the firm plans to launch a Facebook application designed to introduce social networkers to online games, in hopes they'll purchase the mobile version for their cellphones. "You're surrounded by entrepreneurs with the same growth concerns, the same funding concerns, and we share the best and the worst."

The class meets for seven sessions throughout the year, getting guidance from speakers and tossing around ideas about the challenges and successes of their start-ups. They find ways to partner with each other, share tips about raising money or pitching customers, and shoot down half-baked ideas.

Thursday night, John Reardon, founder of wireless company Critical RF, realized he could get some help from classmate Gregg Smith, chief executive of mobile marketing firm Acuity Mobile. Reardon's firm has developed a product that connects BlackBerrys like walkie-talkies, but needs help finding BlackBerry users to market to. Smith offered to introduce him to some of his BlackBerry customers.

"Throw out a problem, and you'll get 10 answers," Smith said.

Many members of this year's class got their start at companies that helped shape the local community over the past decade. David Sun and Jonathon Perrelli worked together at early Internet service provider UUNet. They later went out on their own, starting SunBlock Systems, a digital forensic firm, and SecureForce, a cyber security firm, respectively.

Another trio met at education software firm Blackboard and got hooked on scholastic ventures. David Yaskin now runs Starfish Retention Solutions, which helps colleges boost graduation rates. Todd Gibby is chief executive of Intelliworks, which helps colleges find prospective students. Christopher Etesse runs Kadoo, a site that could be used by teachers and students to share and store digital videos and photos.

The three share contacts across higher education institutions. Yaskin and Etesse both recently closed deals with George Mason University.

Kim Hart writes about the Washington tech scene every other Monday. She can be reached at hartk@washpost.com.


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