Whoever steps in for Maxine Ballen as head of the state’s largest tech trade group, the New Jersey Technology Council, will have awfully big shoes to fill. Ballen, who founded the group in 1996, is stepping aside after starting at zero and growing it to its current size of 900 members.
“It’s always difficult stepping in after the founder of any organization,” Ballen says. “But that said, it’s also an exciting opportunity for the council.”
Ballen became interested in technology at a time when it was a male-dominated field. In a 2002 interview, Ballen told U.S. 1 she had thought technology was a “boy thing” until the 1980s, when developer Bill Rouse recruited her to head the Business Development and Training Center in Malvern, Pennsylvania. She became intrigued by the high-tech industry, and learned a lot about it.
To this day, Ballen says, 90 percent of companies in the NJTC are led by men. She laments a seeming lack of female interest in pursuing careers in fields like software engineering and programming, despite programs encouraging women to follow those pursuits. However, she believes the excessive amounts of Y-chromosomes in the tech industry never hindered her career.
“I think being a woman has been to my advantage,” she says.
The state’s tech industry faces challenges beyond its gender imbalance. Ballen says the biggest concern is competition from other states. “New Jersey faces competition from everybody,” she says. “New York, Pennsylvania, Utah, Texas, North Carolina, Boston. There is a lot of competition for luring our tech companies away from New Jersey. One needs to be very cognizant of what the opportunities are around the country and how we can put together a better mousetrap to keep our companies here.”
Ballen grew up in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, in the 1960s. Her father was an eye doctor and her mother was a business owner who a dress shop in Philadelphia. Ballen studied sociology and English at the University of Pittsburgh, graduating in 1969 and moving on to Boston College, where she earned a graduate degree in clinical psychology.
However, she found that a career in psychology was not to her taste, and she moved to Philadelphia and worked for a consortium formed by the Kellogg corporation to promote adult education. She earned her MBA at Wharton by studying at night, before taking the job with Rouse.
Not only did Ballen found and grow the NJTC, she has led it through some tough times. The dotcom crash of the early 2000s hit the state’s tech industry hard. In the 2002 interview, Ballen describes venture capitalists being reluctant to fund any new companies in the industry. Then there was the decline of the pharmaceutical industry that caused an exodus of jobs from the state.
But for Ballen, the tech industry is stronger than any one sector. “What my career has been about is representing all sectors of technology, from life science to IT. We’ve had a birds-eye view. All of our eggs are not in one basket.”
Ballen says the current bright spots in New Jersey’s tech sector are in financial IT. “I’m very excited about fin-tech,” she says. “It’s such an exciting opportunity for our state right now. The whole fintech component is just exploding.” NJTC will hold its third annual financial technology conference Tuesday, June 3, in Jersey City.
To Ballen, the best part about working for NJTC has been that she was able to make a difference to individual business people. She says that she has been contacted by many business owners over the years who told her that connections they made at the trade group’s events have helped them launch their businesses.
She is also proud of the $80 million venture fund that has invested in companies in the state as well as a few in Pennsylvania and New York. “I think we can really take credit for the fact that New Jersey has remained a premier location for tech companies. I think we’re one of the few organizations that’s been able to say, ‘Hey, we made that happen.’”
Ballen will remain head of NJTC until midyear, when the group plans to name a successor. She isn’t retiring. She says she hopes to take the skills she has learned and use them to help individual companies by serving on corporate boards. “I would like to work with a few companies, instead of with tens of thousands of companies,” she says.
New Jersey Technology Council, 1001 Briggs Road, Suite 280, Mount Laurel 08054; 856-787-9700; fax, 856-787-9800. Maxine Ballen, president & CEO. www.NJTC.org.