At a recent breakfast meeting of the Washington D.C. Technology Council, President Jay Young roamed around the hotel banquet room, eagerly patting members on the back and introducing himself to newcomers.
"One of the most important things in the tech community is community itself," said Young, an energetic MCI Communications Corp. veteran and entrepreneur who was appointed head of the industry group shortly after its creation in January. "People need to feel welcomed to share ideas."
The personal touch is one of many things that distinguishes his organization from its giant counterparts in Northern Virginia and Maryland, which are famous for large budgets and large awards banquets.
The technology councils that have been operating in the suburbs for more than a decade now have nearly 2,000 member firms between them. The organizations serve as spokesmen, cheerleaders, researchers and matchmakers for their members, and their rapid growth is a benchmark for the region's emergence as a high-tech center.
But what about the District? The absence of a technology council in the city was a "glaring omission" in the city's economic development strategy, said Dyan Brasington, president of the High Technology Council of Maryland. Washington lost "a lot of traffic" because it hasn't been as technology-friendly as its neighbors, she said.
Under the administration of former mayor Marion Barry, District officials talked about promoting technology jobs, but they didn't do much to make it happen. The election last year of Mayor Anthony A. Williams, who promised to be more business-friendly, gave the idea of a technology council new impetus.
It has received the backing of the D.C. Department of Housing and Community Development, which is already running the "NOMA" project to attract tech firms and other businesses into the area north of Massachusetts Avenue between the Washington Convention Center and Union Station.
More than 50 percent of the Virginia and Maryland councils' members are technology start-ups. Though there are exceptions, the District has lacked that rich vein of tech entrepreneurs. The D.C. tech council argues that that can be corrected. The city, it says, has qualities the suburbs often lack: a wide variety of restaurants, a convenient transportation network, atmosphere, proximity to federal agencies. Start-ups don't need large campuses; they can be very well accommodated in small suites at competitively priced office buildings in the District.
Though there is sometimes competition among jurisdictions for jobs and investment, the suburban councils have officially welcomed the birth of the District's own council and have participated in the organization's planning stages. "As a regional economy, we don't like a hole in the doughnut. We want the District to do as well as it possibly can do," Brasington said.
Even so, some executives at large companies privately suggest that the Northern Virginia and Maryland technology councils are sufficient for the region's purposes. Who, after all, really welcomes another set of dues to pay and another set of banquets to attend? They question whether the District has the critical mass to support its own tech group.
Young is starting with a tech base that's just a fraction of what the suburbs have, but is by no means insignificant. MCI Worldcom Inc. has major operations on Pennsylvania Avenue NW, for instance. Bell Atlantic Corp. is in the District in force. There is also a scattering of entrepreneurial operations, such as Magnet Interactive Group and Doceus Inc.
No one quite knows how big the industry really is. A study last year by Potomac KnowledgeWay, a Herndon-based technology think tank, said as many as 28,000 people work for technology, communications, Internet and tech-based consulting firms in the District. But a George Mason University study in 1995 that used tighter definitions estimated that just 4,000 out of the 262,000 tech workers in the region were based in the District.
The basic problem for technology in the District is that the city "has never projected a business persona," said Young from his office overlooking New York Avenue, right in the heart of the NOMA project. "When people think of the technology region, they don't think of D.C."
Young wants the council to be the "voice of the District tech community." This month, he's surveying the group's 160 members about their needs and interests so "they're in sync with our strategic plan."
"We're still not smart enough yet to know what the community needs," said Dan Gonzales of the Staubach Co., a member of the council's board of directors. "We need to figure that out soon."
Young isn't willing to be a formal lobbyist for his members. He doesn't see the need for that kind of relationship with the Williams administration; the city has already blessed the council with a one-time, $25,000 injection of seed money.
Suzanne Peck, the Williams administration's chief technology officer and a member of the council's board of directors, serves as an arbitrator between the tech community and the government. Young meets frequently with Michael Hodges from the Department of Housing and Community Development to discuss incentive packages to draw tech companies into the District. He's already testified before the D.C. Council about getting tax breaks for tech companies.
Breakfast meetings are another major function of the technology group. They bring people together to network and listen to talks from industry notables.
As with any young organization, a big part of what Young worries about is recruiting new members. Glancing down the membership list, large corporations, venture capitalists and law firms dominate -- they are the group's cash cows. (The founding members raised more than $150,000 to get the council off the ground.)
This month, Young is on a mission to recruit 15 corporate sponsors that would each feed the council $10,000 a year for two years to fund breakfast seminars and social events. But the council pays a price for focusing on large corporations. The young companies, which make up much of the future of the tech industry, don't have a strong presence in the organization.
Word of mouth and the council's Web site (www.wdctech.net) aren't going to be enough for publicity, officials acknowledge, so the council has started advertising in trade magazines. Young has also started recruiting from grass-roots tech organizations such as the 200-member New Media Society. And he predicts that the Greater Washington Technology Showcase that the council is co-hosting in September at the Convention Center will also create more publicity for the organization.
"We're taking one baby step at a time to gather marketing intelligence," said Young.
A Look at ...
Washington D.C. Technology Council
Function: To provide local technology companies, venture capitalists and tech-related businesses a forum in which to network. Also functions as a liaison between members and the city government to work on economic development and tax issues concerning the tech community.
President: Jay Young
Headquarters: 1401 New York Ave. NW