When Maxine Ballen and John Martinson began to design what would eventually become the New Jersey Technology Council, they knew they were working on a project that would introduce the business community to the inevitable:
The future of business was in technology. And, with the N.J. Tech Council now celebrating its 20th year, time has more than proven them correct.
“It was introducing a new concept and a way of getting legislators to realize that this is an important sector that they need to give attention to,” Ballen said. “It was also a way to make the more traditional businesses realize that they needed to start to understand the needs of the technology companies.”
Ballen, who served as CEO of the Tech Council for 18 years, cites accounting, banking and law as industries that all needed to grow to understand what dealing with technology and early-stage companies meant for how they approach their own services.
“There were specialties that needed to be implemented, such as how you handle the accounting on a tech company, which is different than a traditional manufacturer or retail store,” she said. “Lawyers needed to be more innovative in terms of reducing fees to give the entrepreneurs a chance to grow their company to the point where they could begin to afford the traditional fees.”
Ballen said that, as these more traditional companies get involved, the entrepreneurial spirit became infectious.
“A lot of them learned how to do that, and even get very entrepreneurial themselves,” she said. “I think, as a result, you saw a whole entrepreneurial nature take over the more traditional enterprises, so it was good for everybody.”
Martinson, who was working as a venture capitalist when he and Ballen were designing the early stages of the council, said other investors saw the Tech Council as a way to develop new business and attract clients. That fact alone led them to be early adopters of the council.
“We quickly developed a core sponsor group and had demand for programs and services,” he said. “But we started by finding Maxine as our leader, and she was already proven as an organizer and a quick study to recognize the opportunity and needs.”
David Sorin, head of the venture capital and emerging growth companies practice at McCarter & English, also remembers industries being quick to recognize the needs that the Tech Council was able to serve.
“We had no statewide network that had been established to nurture that marketplace and provide the kind of information and network that allows an ecosystem to develop, so we decided to create one under Maxine’s leadership,” Sorin said. “The market was so hungry for that at the time, and I remember how quickly entrepreneurs, middle-market companies and even larger companies either joined the council or participated in the events.”
Jim Barrood, who assumed Ballen’s position as CEO in 2015, said the Tech Council is taking its time to celebrate its milestone, but it’s still looking toward the future.
One advancement made this year was the launching of the Tech Council’s second venture fund.
“We’re the only council in the country that has launched a venture fund and an angel network,” Barrood said. “Now, we’re on our second venture fund.
“We’re really proud of that, because our role is to support this ecosystem,” he said, “and if we can’t support the young companies and startups in this state that are really the pipeline of growth companies that help with hiring employees and retaining and attracting talent, then we’re not doing our job.”
To that end, Barrood said the council is always looking for ways to evolve and continue to provide these services as the landscape changes.
That drive, Barrood said, is perfectly encapsulated by the Tech Council’s relocation from Mount Laurel to New Brunswick, which was completed in March.
“We want to be in the center of the state, in a city with mass transit for better access,” he said. “We’re quite literally at the center of everything and in a great place to work even more closely with universities and industry.”
Sorin said the need for the Tech Council to establish that centricity was one it created for itself.
“I think, because of what the Tech Council did, you can see technology in all four corners of the state,” Sorin said. “It’s not limited to any one smaller geographic region, which is a wonderful.”
He added that the growth of the technology industry in the state has also created more competition for the council.
“Over the last few years, as entrepreneurship, innovation and startup companies have become more ubiquitous, there’s been a lot of challenges to the Tech Council, such as the proliferation of meetups and other industry groups that fill needs that the entrepreneurial community has,” he said.
But he said the Tech Council continues to remain relevant.
“Even so, I think that the Tech Council has managed to morph, evolve and change with the times so that it still remains an important part of the technology and entrepreneurial ecosystem in the state.”
Ballen also noted this change in the state’s dynamics, but commends Barrood for his work in keeping the council fresh and vibrant.
“It’s a challenging time for organizations, but Jim is weathering those challenges very nicely,” Ballen said. “I think that the energy that Jim brings to the organization has been greatly appreciated and valued.”
Looking back over the last 20 years, Martinson said that, the council has made a habit of breaking his expectations.
“Maxine far surpassed my vision,” he said. “When we first started, I was anticipating that we would have a monthly program, and she had developed a weekly program and (was) doing that around the state.”
And he said the Tech Council has still maintained its value after two decades.
“I think it’s proven to be effective networking, where companies realize they can get the services they need right here in New Jersey,” he said. “It’s helped established a vision broader than just companies and service providers, to incorporate universities, government and nonprofits to become one of the most successful state-level organizations in the country.”
For Ballen, she wouldn’t have it any other way.
“If I would’ve thought, in 1996, about where we would be in 20 years, I would’ve hoped we’d be where we are,” she said. “So, when I look at my legacy, I feel very proud of it.”
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