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How to become part of the NJ "Tech" Scene

(MY NJ TECH MEETUP STORY)

Contributed by: Gil Olsen

In 2012, I was a science teacher in a tragically dysfunctional school in North Jersey.

I had a student that was interested in “technology” in a general sense, but had no idea how to approach it.  His only connection to the internet was the outdated desktop in my classroom, and the speed could best be described as “glacial”.

He was Googling around for tech colleges, navigated to Stevens, and happened upon the NJ Tech Meetup.  He had no way to get there, so I took him.

This was the first interaction we had when we walked in the door:

“Hey, how’s it going? I’m Gil.” 

“Nice to meet you- So… what do you do?”

“I’m a science teacher, and this is Pablo, one of my 8th Grade students. He’s into technology, and saw this event online.  I had never heard of it, but we figured we’d check it out, so I drove him over here and we just walked in the door.What do you do?”

“I’m a venture capitalist, and I come here to see what’s new and exciting.”

He looks past me to Pablo... 

                                                 “So… what are you working on?”

Pablo stuttered a few uncomfortable verbal pauses and then mutters, “I don’t know… we’re working on properties of matter and density and stuff.”

It hits me that this guy is essentially looking for Pablo to describe “the next Instagram”, so I stepped in and explained, “we are newcomers, just there to check out the scene and see what it’s all about. The VC says “that’s great” and wishes us good luck before politely bidding us adieu to continue networking.

Pablo was didn’t quite get what just happened, so I broke it down for him. 

“That dude was basically ready to write you a check for like $100 G’s.  You just needed to give him a good reason.”

“Wait… what?”

I was constantly preaching about the startup scene in my classroom, but it seemed so far removed, so impossibly out of reach for my kids. This was a bit more of a teachable moment. 

“That guy couldn’t give two shits if you are ‘just in 8th grade’. He straight up EXPECTED an awesome idea and opportunity to come from YOU. Right now.”

I could see the switch go off in his head.The opportunities are not out in the world for him to search for like an Easter Egg hunt. At that moment, he understood a key concept…

THE WORLD IS HUNGRY FOR WHATEVER YOU CAN PRODUCE.

We hadn’t even grabbed a slice of pizza yet, and I felt I had accomplished more in 5 minutes than the prior 3 years as a teacher.

We grabbed some food, met about a dozen other interesting people, and then were ushered into a lecture hall, where three startups pitched and then a speaker was set to present.I hadn’t really studied the agenda ahead of time, but it turns out it was Jeff Hoffman. I had never heard of him.Turns out he was the founder of Priceline.

Jeff gave an amazing hour-long chat.It was about his business and experience, but less about technology, and more about understanding people’s needs and figuring out how to provide value to lots of people. He answered some questions at the end, and was available for introductions before most the crowd headed for drinks at a local bar.Pablo and I had to get going.We had to go fill in some bubble tests at 7:20 AM.

I had been spending the better part of the past 3 years trying to sell Pablo and his classmates on the idea that, and while their background and current situation can’t be ignored, it has absolutely nothing to do with their current decisions and future outcomes. 

The kids could see a world of open-ended opportunity.The tough sell was making them believe that it was available to them.  I knew it was true, but I was an outlier amongst my colleagues. Given our surroundings, there were times when I wasn’t even sure if I was feeding my kids a delusional lie. I struggled to provide evidence that I was not crazy.

Jeff Hoffman hit it out of the park with Priceline, and told his whole story in a very accessible way.  The startups had some early traction and prototypes.The VC was looking for an opportunity.The coders and designers were there.The whole ecosystem was there, just a few miles from our classroom. The people that gathered at the NJ Tech Meetup made my case, at least for one kid.

Pablo’s mind was blown. I was inspired.

It may be harder for him than others, but just because it’s hard, doesn’t mean it’s impossible.

STAY CONNECTED. KEEP MOVING.

There is no movie plot ending where a few of my students create a new app and sell it to Facebook for $3 billion 14 months after they start. I keep in touch with a few of my students, and they are doing well. But my experience kept me coming back. I realized that the “tech” community isn’t just for over-glorified startup founders and people with job titles like coder, developer, electrical engineer. It’s made up of optimistic hustlers, curious learners, and simply fans of awesome things. An overwhelming majority of these people are positive, open, and willing to help anyone and everyone.

What is becoming very apparent to me is that that as “technology” becoming more seamlessly integrated with our daily lives, the tech startup ecosystem is becoming less and less about the hard skills previously associated with technology. 

It’s more about creative problem solving.

Hedy Lamar... Hollywood Bombshell by day... Inventor of wifi by night....  

(Listen from the 2 minute mark I the link below.)

This isn’t really a new thing, but if we’ve forgotten it as the scale of our communities, tools, and teams have expanded.  Groups like the NJ Tech Meetup are helping us remember:

The innovation ecosystem is more about a way of thinking.

Rational optimism. Abundance. Openness.  Collaboration. Disciplined creativity. Critical thinking.  Adaptive execution.  Iterative improvement. This community is mostly allergic to thoughtlessness, ignorance, and the habit of defaulting to a pessimist attitude, and whining.

It’s safe to say that collectively, it is responsible for a disproportionate amount of inspiring things in the world today.  It’s definitely not a majority of the population, but it’s growing… fast.    

You don’t have to have any special skills or major credentials to be a part of this community.

You just need to be running the right software... in your mind.

I HOPE YOU JOIN US.

  • The next NJ Tech Meetup HERE.
  • The Hedy Lamar link mentioned above HERE. (~ 5min Starting from 2:20min)
  • A conference and festival to unite the entire NorthEast Innovation Community, HERE

SOME OTHER PEOPLE IN THE COMMUNITY

  • Dave- Founding Sponsor of the NJ Tech Meetup
  • Eugene- Member/Attendee 
  • Gary- Speaker and champion of Jersey Hustle
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