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On the Recent Changes at Greater Baltimore Technology Council

It’s been a busy few days in the Baltimore tech scene, sparked by the recent changes in leadership at the Greater Baltimore Technology Council. While I have been on the board since 2004, because I was away on travel the last two weeks, I did not directly participate in the decisionmaking process that led to the most recent changes. In fact, I’ve been largely consumed with building my new business (410Labs) for the last year and I’ve not had time to participate in GBTC as much as I’d like.

However, there’s been a lot of speculation about the motivations and thinking behind the change, and as I’ve at least been a part of the ongoing conversations that led up to it, I feel compelled to speak up to set the record straight.

Here’s a brief recap of the facts.

  • 1999-2007: GBTC was setup as a standalone organization and was extraordinarily effective at rallying the community, building new programming, and creating connections, under the leadership of Penny Lewandowski and Steve Kozak.
  • 2006-2007: The GBTC began a long term strategic assessment process, focused on modernizing the group’s technology systems (databases) and also providing value to both small and large businesses. Several recommendations were made with a goal of “building the innovation ecosystem” in Baltimore. I participated in this “strategic planning committee” at that time.
  • 2008-2009: Community-developed events like Ignite, Barcamp, SocialDevCamp and others had begun to cause many to question GBTC’s role: was it for networking events, or educational events? Was it focused on small businesses, or big ones? How would it be funded? What was the membership model? The Strategic Planning Committee grappled with many of these questions.
  • January 2009: the board formed a “Strategic Advisory Committee” co-chaired by me and Rick Geritz, another local tech entrepreneur. We conducted a series of interviews and surveys to help understand perceptions and best potential roles for GBTC going forward.
  • May 2009: We prepared a set of recommendations and submitted them to the board. The recommendations included the idea that the group should, in addition to focusing on the needs of larger companies, also focus on cultivating entrepreneurs and driving entrepreneurship in the region. The board approved our recommendations and authorized Steve Kozak to move forward with implementing them.
  • June 2009 – June 2010: Kozak and the board engaged in a process geared around making the changes we recommended. (The changes would, in fact, ultimately be quite sweeping and could not be implemented overnight.) As part of that process, several additional ideas and models were explored.
  • June 2010: Ultimately, the board came to feel that Steve Kozak was not the right person to implement these changes, and sought to go in a different direction with leadership. This is not a ding on Steve; he’s a strong and talented leader who did much good for the organization. But the board felt that it was time to make a change in order to more quickly implement its strategic plan, a move which by that time had gained some urgency.
  • June-December 2010: Jennifer Gunner acted as interim Executive Director, and did a strong job of moving the group in the direction outlined by the board. However, the board felt that it should perform due diligence in performing a search for a new executive director – a process in which Gunner would also be considered as a candidate. The board authorized a Search Committee to review candidates and select a new executive director. (I did not participate in that committtee.)
  • December 2010: After reviewing all of the candidates, the Search Committee recommended that the board hire Sharon Webb as CEO, and appoint Gunner as Chief Operating Officer. Webb would be tasked with implementing the strategies outlined as part of the strategic assessment conducted in 2009-2010 and would accordingly have full authority to hire, fire, and make tactical changes, as required.
  • 2011: Webb got up to speed with the organization and interviewed many members and partner organizations to get a feel for how to best proceed. She did an admirable job, and has a strong background in leadership and strategic change. However, as an outsider to the tech community, some wondered if she was the right person to lead the group. Changes in leadership led to many staff departures, including Gunner. This is understandable and not a reflection of anything Sharon did wrong. On the whole, the group had made some bold moves and was moving in the right general direction.
  • December 2011: Jason Hardebeck, who in 2001 had founded WhoGlue, one of the first social networking companies, just completed the sale of his company’s assets to Facebook. Hardebeck has long-time ties with GBTC and has known several board members (including myself) for over 10 years. As an energetic, experienced entrepreneur familiar with issues affecting large companies, small companies, and GBTC, he appeared to be a “catch” for the organization. The board made the decision to offer Hardebeck the executive director job, hoping to accelerate its new strategic plan, and put someone in place who was more directly acquainted with the Baltimore tech community. Again, this is not a statement against Sharon Webb, it was just an opportunity to move forward with an exceptionally strong candidate. Had the board waited, Hardebeck would likely have moved on to something else.

So, that’s the truth. All of it. Some have accused GBTC of trying to “spin” its PR message, and while it’s true that the group cares deeply about protecting the reputation and feelings of the folks involved in a potentially challenging situation, there has certainly been no effort made to conceal the truth.

Others have even gone so far to say that there are tones of sexism in this action by GBTC, and that GBTC’s board must be dominated by “white males.” This is a particularly daft unfounded line of thinking, as the board is quite large and is made up of a large contingent of brilliant, strong, women and men, including many people of color and diverse backgrounds. While white males are not under-represented, charges of sexism (or any other -ism) are completely unwarranted. Historically this is a board that employed Lewandowski, Gunner, a staff of females, and hired Webb. Enough conspiracy talk.

About Jason Hardebeck

If you’ve not had a chance to meet Jason Hardebeck yet, I encourage you to do so. He’s smart, understands entrepreneurship, and Baltimore Tech. He’s already making changes at GBTC, including blowing up its office in order to put its staff out into the community.

Some people know Jason’s story and background, but others don’t. Some have asked me, “So, he sued Facebook and sold them some patents. Sounds like a patent troll. Can I really look up to that?”

But the full story is complex. As mentioned, he started WhoGlue, one of the very first social networking companies — before LinkedIn or Facebook, back in about 2001. He was probably too early. He pursued alumni association contracts and built a successful business. Around 2003, he acquired a product (and an associated set of patents and a developer) from Siemens, the German communications firm, which would help him to expand his company’s product. He did that and expanded its capabilities, and continued to expand his business. However, due to a variety of factors, his product did not evolve into LinkedIn or Facebook, despite being early to the social networking market.

However, he owned some valuable intellectual property, namely patents for mechanisms for controlling what information people can see about each other in the context of a social network. He put these patents up for auction, and there was considerable interest.

My understanding is at this point he contacted Facebook to inform them that they were in violation of his patent portfolio, and to inquire about a settlement. I believe they responded with a cordial, “So sue us.” (Facebook’s approach to IP has been from the start to settle on an as-needed basis.) So he did. This led to a settlement and acquisition deal, which I suspect Jason can’t say much about himself because of the terms of that arrangement.

So, to dismiss Jason as a mere “patent troll” is to severely misunderstand his background and motivations. He was early to market, made substantial investments in building a business, did so, and then acted to leverage the assets he had built up using the laws afforded by our system. This is totally reasonable, and if you spend some time talking to Jason, you’ll see that he totally “gets” both entrepreneurship and technology. I don’t say this about many folks.

Going Forward

There is a cohesive vision for tech in Baltimore coming together now, between GBTC board members and others in the community. People like me, Jason Hardebeck, Greg Cangialosi, Mike Brenner, Jason Pappas, Tom Loveland, Mike Subelsky, Ann Quinn, Newt Fowler, Ellen Hemmerly, Ann Lansinger, and many others are starting to coalesce around a common set of goals, and agree about what the future can look like. There is more agreement than disagreement.

Tomorrow I’ll start to outline more of that vision. But I’ll leave you with one last thought.

If you don’t feel like your voice is represented in the conversation about Baltimore Tech, speak up. If you don’t think GBTC represents your views, we invite you to ask to join (or present to) the board. GBTC is all of us. There is no wall keeping out certain kinds of voices. It’s all about participation.

I volunteered my voice in 2004. There’s no one stopping you from doing the same today. In fact, it’s more urgent than ever.

P.S. – For what it’s worth, I did not run this post past anyone at GBTC, its chairman (Jason Pappas), or the board. It’s the truth, and I believe the truth is always the best PR.


Baltimore Election 2011: Lessons Learned

For the many of us who are anxious to move beyond the broken status quo in Baltimore, yesterday’s primary election was disappointing and frustrating.

Still, there’s a lot of valuable information to be gleaned that helps us build a better map of Baltimore’s electorate – from its many problems to its deep divisions.

  • Turnout was pathetically low: 70,416 of 380,000 (18.5%). Some have said that “the issues didn’t resonate with voters,” and that could be true. However, a bigger trend to watch for is the decline of turnout generally. Many “seniors,” who made up the core of the voting population, are now dead or dying. How will we address this trend?
  • Voters are either displeased with, or not sure about, Rawlings-Blake’s leadership. 48% of voters felt we are definitely on the wrong track with Stephanie Rawlings-Blake. Many more aren’t sure, but wanted to give her a chance with a full term in office. And there are 310,000 other voters who must feel so disconnected that they declined to express any opinion at all. There is no mandate here.
  • Otis Rolley swept the online progressive community. Any observer of the online world would have told you that Otis would have won in a landslide; his supporters kept a steady drumbeat on Twitter, Facebook, and on blogs throughout the campaign, and especially election day. But however strong he may have been in that community, he garnered just shy of 9,000 votes. No other candidate received any measurable online presence. This is further proof of Baltimore’s deep digital divide.
  • Too many candidates spoil the race. This would have been a very different race if Rolley, Pugh, Landers and Conaway had teamed up to challenge the Mayor. Pugh had nothing to lose by running; she keeps her Senate seat. Landers could have assisted Rolley with his tax plan. Conaway had no business being in the race at all. A two-way race between a Pugh-endorsed Rolley and Rawlings-Blake would have had a very different donor make-up, would have told a different story in the press, and would have had a different outcome.
  • Name recognition still carries weight. Dithering City Councilman Carl Stokes won again in the 12th district, despite a strong and credible challenge from the earnest and organized Odette Ramos. “Pistol Pete” Welch held his (inherited) seat, despite challenges from Abigail Breiseth and Christopher Taylor. These were both split-field races against “name brand” incumbents that also demonstrated the persistent racial divides in Baltimore.
  • Foolishness and incompetence will eventually get you booted. In a bright spot, it was nothing short of refreshing to see that Belinda Conaway was ousted from her seat by newcomer Nick Mosby. Conaway, in suing blogger Adam Meister for $21M (for his factual articles about her place of residence), spurred Mosby to run, and he won – 2,747 to 2099. One bear down, two to go.
  • City Council is broken. Baltimore’s system of government has a strong executive (Mayor) and a weak legislature (City Council). The City Council has been such a refuge of scoundrels that few want to be associated with it. Some suggested that Landers or Rolley should run for City Council president as a way to some day be mayor. Frankly, I wouldn’t trust a Mayoral candidate that was coming from City Council. There’s too much incompetence and corruption.
  • Our elections are broken. It’s ridiculous that our choice of Mayor would be made in a September primary, but with no viable Republican or Independent candidates, it’s the way things are. We need to get open primaries, or hold a run-off in November. My understanding is that this can be changed via petition and referendum, which means it is doable outside of the current political structure. This needs to be pursued immediately. Too many voters were disenfranchised in this process, and it’s unreasonable to ask people to switch parties in order to vote.
  • The Mayor spent (wasted?) roughly $2 Million on just 37,000 votes. In an election with just 71,000 votes cast, nearly $4 Million was spent. In a real way, the Mayor (and her tax-break seeking contributors) bought the election. The cost in the end to her was roughly $54 per vote. In a city with so much pain and brokenness, I find this morally repugnant. It’s worth nothing that Otis Rolley also spent roughly $50 per vote, so this metric is not a coincidence. It’s the “acquisition cost” of a vote in a top-tier modern Baltimore City election. We need to focus on lowering that cost.
  • The incumbent Mayor always wins. This is because the incumbent Mayor influences city business, and city contractors and developers know Baltimore is a “pay to play” town. They pay, they get favors. This allows the incumbent to buy votes – for $54 each.
  • Kiefaber was the favorite protest vote. Tom Kiefaber, the embattled former owner of the Senator Theater, who has been raising red flags about Baltimore Development Corporation (and interrupting City Council meetings) was the runner-up protest vote in the contest for City Council president with 5,390 votes. While Jack Young won in a landslide, the fact that a candidate like Kiefaber could get any traction at all shows just how deeply folks distrust – and ridicule – that body and its leadership.
  • The Sun missed a chance to create a better horse race. Jody Landers was right to complain that only 2 of the 5 members of the Sun Editorial board live in the city; there is also only one African American. If the Sun is going to pretend to have opinions relevant to city residents, those ideas should come from people that will have to live with the consequences. The editorial bent of the Sun’s coverage did not develop any kind of horse race between candidates, and frankly seemed to be pushing for the incumbent all along. In my opinion this was not just bad for Baltimore, but bad for business for the Sun. How many more papers could they have sold by developing a more compelling narrative?

Those of you that know me know that my support for Otis Rolley was born out of a belief that Baltimore is worth fighting for, and that Baltimore deserves better. I share that belief with Otis, and with Tom Loveland, Aaron Meisner, Brian LeGette, Terry Meyerhoff Rubenstein, and so many others who supported his campaign. I supported Otis because of my beliefs; my beliefs are not shaped because of my support of Otis.

This is an important distinction. Too often when folks think “politics” they think it’s about pitting candidates against each other, and insider interests and gaining financial advantage. But in this case, that has nothing to do with it. I simply believe that we are on the wrong track and that we can do better. I have nothing to gain in my support of Otis – unless you count living in a city that might have a shot at being strong again, and one where its leaders listen to citizens.

But we also learned something else. It’s tempting to think that real change can occur through online organizing and Twitter and Facebook and the coming-alive of the “new” Baltimore or the youth vote, or via SMS messages or what have you. And sure, those things will play a part in any election going forward.

But the most important lesson is that Baltimore is a city of tribes: poor, rich, black, white, Hispanic, digital, homeless, addicted, corrupt, idealistic, and blue-collar – to name only a few. Few of us ever break out of our own tribe. We surround ourselves with our own points-of-view and hear what we want to hear.

For Baltimore to grow, we need to break free of our tribes. We need to be occasionally uncomfortable. We need to do real public service, and build up the kind of roots in our community that ultimately allow meaningful change to occur.

As Otis said last night, this is just the beginning of a campaign to take back our city and stand up for Baltimore’s future. But that won’t be easy. Done right, it will make us uncomfortable, as we reach out across tribes. It will take serious commitment, and much more than “Likes” on Facebook.

In the end, it will require our full and unconditional love – of our fellow citizens, and our city.

Time to Break Free: Baltimore Votes

I’ve been vocal about the 2011 Mayoral Race in Baltimore. It’s an opportunity to break free of the machine and finally put the city first.

But there’s a sorry timidity in Baltimore politics. Everyone agrees we need change. But too many are resigned to the way things have been, and whose “turn” it is. Who owes who favors. But this is a democracy, you say. Every vote counts, right?

That’s not how things have been. In Baltimore, the fix has always been in. However, last year we started to see the machine creak. Upstart young candidate Bill Ferguson unseated 27-year incumbent George Della. Gregg Bernstein defeated long-time incumbent Pat Jessamy. Cynics would point out that Ferguson was adopted by a clique of developers, or that Jessamy ran a horrible, entitled campaign. But still, this wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

There is other evidence of the decline and fall of the system. Ridiculous and incompetent Belinda Conaway filed a $21M suit against a blogger – which backfired. Now her challenger Nick Mosby has a real shot at upending the ludicrous and long-time Conaway “three bears” platform. And her father Frank appears more ridiculous every day.

I want more for Baltimore. That’s why I’ve supported Otis Rolley in his campaign for mayor. I’m simply tired of business-as-usual in Baltimore.

Specifically, I’m tired of developers being offered tax breaks in exchange for campaign contributions. I’m tired of city contractors being given lucrative no-bid contracts in exchange for campaign contributions. I’m tired of the same old tribe of corrupt, cynical power brokers doing what they have always done.

A vote for Otis is a vote for new blood – and for entirely different people. Don’t kid yourself. When you vote, you’re not voting for policies or a platform. You’re voting for a power structure. You’re voting for a group of people.

  • Stephanie’s people: out-of-state contractors, developers, city contractors, democratic party operatives, county-based people with interests in the city, friends of her father’s, the Governor, the Governor’s brother, attorneys, KAGRO (the trade group that represents the Korean corner-grocers profiting from Baltimore’s food deserts), casino operators, scrap metal dealers, city employees. These people have either “paid to play” or are actively benefiting from the decline, fall, and eventual ruin of Baltimore – or want to have a finger on exactly how Baltimore is run.
  • Otis Rolley’s people: real citizens of Baltimore (rich and poor; more individual donations than any other candidate); tech people, urban farming people, entrepreneurs, designers, patrons of the arts, folks from ALL of Baltimore’s neighborhoods.
  • Catherine Pugh’s people: contacts from her work in Annapolis, aerospace contractors (?), some decent and concerned folks throughout Baltimore, a computer repair shop on Fayette street, Scott Donahoo (used car dealer).
  • Jody Landers’ people: folks primarily concerned with the property tax issue, strong base in NE Baltimore, realtors, and many individuals associated with real-estate issues and encouraging residency in the city. (Ed. note: this post previously made reference to Live Baltimore, on whose board of directors I serve. There was no intention to associate Live Baltimore with any candidate or agenda.) Not many others.

I like and respect Jody Landers and Catherine Pugh. However, I had hoped that Jody would weigh his chances, drop out of the race, and back Otis. I, and others, asked him to do just that. And I think Catherine Pugh can do more for Baltimore by continuing to serve as a State Senator in Annapolis. She had nothing to lose by running for Mayor.

The conventional wisdom (The Sun, with its one poll and its feeble, lackluster endorsement of Rawlings-Blake) says that the fix is in, and we should just accept our fate.

There is one way that this race can end differently, and that is to turn out votes for Otis Rolley tomorrow.

The same set of jaded old political pundits (Barry Rascovar, Frasier Smith, Matthew Crenson – I’m looking at you) who will tell you that the “race is in the bag” for Stephanie are the same ones who also predict that turnout will be atrociously low on Tuesday.

Wonder why that would be? Maybe folks are tired of being told how to vote, and that races are over before they start.

It’s true. The internet and social media are not the drivers of voting behavior in Baltimore yet. But the Ferguson, Bernstein, Mosby, Ramos, and Rolley candidacies have received a boost from discussion by “networked citizens” that is unprecedented in Baltimore. And that’s something that the Sun’s lone pollster and our 1980’s era political pundits seem incapable of understanding. And the sentiment on Twitter has been overwhelmingly in favor of Otis Rolley (with almost no mention of Sen. Pugh, and few positive comments for the Mayor.)

It’s impossible to predict the outcome of tomorrow’s race. But know this: YOU can change it. You have a voice. Go vote. Get others to vote. Baltimore deserves that.

And beyond tomorrow, there’s another truth: 5th most violent, the 6th dirtiest and the 7th most murderous is no longer good enough for Baltimore.

To all those who say “stay the course,” please get out of the way. Baltimore deserves the best. We’re done waiting.

Check out Tom Loveland’s insider view of this election (and accompanying post). The reality will surprise you.

Otis Rolley delivers this powerful “closing argument” on why you should choose him as your next Mayor.

Otis shows his deep love for Baltimore, and understanding of cities, at TEDxMidAtlantic 2010.

Is Baltimore’s Mayor Corrupt?

A public official is said to be corrupt when they place their own personal gain ahead of the people whom they are supposed to serve.

I have come to believe that, based on this simple definition, Baltimore’s interim Mayor is corrupt. Here is why.

In the 2007 Mayoral election, there were just 86,125 votes cast, in a city of 640,000 people. Sheila Dixon won that election with 54,381 votes, a majority and 63% of the vote.

It’s quite likely that turnout in the September 2011 primary will be comparable. Early polls indicate that in the current four-way race between Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, Otis Rolley, Jody Landers, and Catherine Pugh, the winning candidate will need just over 30,000 votes.

Reports indicate that Rawlings-Blake has raised and will spend close to $2 Million in her attempt to capture that pool of about 30,000 votes.

That’s $67 per vote.

Under pressure to compete with her, the other candidates will, combined, likely raise another $1 Million or more. That means that in total, over $3 Million will be spent on this election. Overall, that’s about $37 per vote.

If Ms. Rawlings-Blake has such a knack for fundraising, perhaps she should be out rounding up money to keep rec centers and pools open.

If she had said that she was capping her total fundraising for this election at $500,000, and devoting her time and energy to working for the city she professes to love, that would have been a tremendous gesture. And it would show true magnanimity, and foster a renewal of public trust.

Instead, she has abused the power of her office to aid her campaign fundraising. To me, gift cards or not, that is corrupt behavior. I want a mayor that’s out working for my city, striking imaginative deals that shape our future in a meaningful way, and creating a real dialog with citizens. Instead, we get a Mayor that hides from candidates forums and refuses debates, but finds time to play I-Spy as part of a campaign stunt.

I want a mayor that’s learning from best practices from all over the world instead of mired in local political drama and grooming her enemies-list.

It’s not time to “give her a chance,” it’s time for her to find a new gig. She’s been in office for 17 years. She’s had her chance. If you want someone to preside over decline, she seems to be capable of doing a middling job of that. If you want someone to lead the city into the future, we need someone who can lead, and who thinks about the future.

As Baltimore’s Grand Prix fiasco approaches (brilliantly, comically placed and timed in a tidal basin at the height of hurricane season), ask yourself if it represents meaningful leadership. Ask yourself if it is corrupt leadership.

I believe it’s bread and circuses. I believe it is rule by cronies and developers. And I believe it is political puppetry of the highest form; the Mayor is wired to do the bidding of Governor O’Malley. I don’t want four more years of that. I want out. What’s best for the Governor may or may not be best for Baltimore. That should be self-evident to any thinking person.

You may know that I was an early and vocal supporter of Otis Rolley. And I stand behind Otis today. We can debate the specifics of his plans, but at least he has real plans and ideas, and is open to input and discussion. And he will put Baltimore and its citizens first.

So when you vote on September 13 (YES, September 13 – it’s the primary that will decide this election, not the General) ask yourself whether you’re going to let the Mayor get her money’s-worth.

Will you let your vote be bought for $67?