Corrections or additions?
This article by Kathleen McGinn Spring was prepared for the
September 4, 2002 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Maxine Ballen & the NJTC: Weathering the Tech Storms
In early January of 1996 newspaper headlines screamed
"New Jersey Breaks a 97-year-old, All-Time Snowfall Total by 1
Inch." The state was paralyzed for a week by the Blizzard of 1996.
Then, just as roads were becoming passable again, another storm hit.
So unusual was the weather — 30.7 inches of snow fell on
in just one day — that Montana State University uses the fierce
Nor’easters in a case study of a brutal winter.
This was the winter in which the New Jersey Technology Council came
to life under the leadership of its founder, Maxine Ballen, a dynamo
who was nearly done in that first harsh winter. A resident of
Ballen was commuting to Princeton that winter, to space in the offices
of law firm Buchanan Ingersoll, which had offered to incubate NJTC.
Ballen recalls the winter of 1996 as one mean season, and not just
because of the weather. "I underestimated how hard it would be
to break into the tech community," she says. The reception she
received for the idea of building an infrastructure to unite and
the state’s many, varied technology industries was as chilly as the
"I thought `Why did I do this?’" she recalls. "I gave
up an easy job in Philadelphia with friends." Many times
that winter she thought how easy it would be to bag the whole NJTC
idea and go back to her former job. But, with a little help from new
friends, she persevered, and saw NJTC go from an idea to a mature
organization with over 1,200 members. On Wednesday, September 4, at
1 p.m. she speaks at the Princeton Chamber’s annual trade fair at
the Merrill Lynch Conference Center on Scudders Mill Road. Her
"New Jersey Technology and You: Perfect Together."
The job Ballen left to start NJTC was the head spot at the Business
Development and Training Center. She was recruited for that position
by developer Bill Rouse, best known for building Liberty Place, the
Philadelphia skyscraper that caused a fuss by rising above William
Penn’s hat, which had put a formerly sacrosanct lid on that city’s
skyline. Rouse also was heavily involved in developing some of the
region’s first suburban office campuses, and recruited Ballen in 1983,
asking her to head up a new initiative he was subsidizing. Its purpose
was to develop support services for technology employees in companies
in the office parks that were just beginning to dot suburbia.
The organization that grew from this initiative was the Business and
Development Training Center, now headquartered in Malvern,
In founding this non-profit, which in many ways was the model for
NJTC, Ballen first came into contact with techies in great numbers.
"I wasn’t a techie," she says. Before starting up Rouse’s
tech initiative, she had thought of technology as "a boy
Soon, however, she was intrigued. "It was like looking at a
she says. "How do you peel the layers?"
As her comfort level with techies increased, she learned that people
immersed in creating the latest technologies have unique needs.
operate 24/7," she says. "They never shut down; they’re never
not connected." As a result, she says, techies need a great deal
From style of dress to the way they do business, techies were
from their business counterparts in the mid-1980s, Ballen says. She
points out, though, that mainstream business has moved a long way
toward imitating the 24/7, totally wired, dress down techie style
in the intervening years. Technology was a foreign land to most of
America in the mid 1980s, and certainly to Ballen, but it was a land
she quickly embraced.
Ballen grew up in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Her father,
Fred Ballen, who is now deceased, was an eye doctor, and her mother,
Bernice Ballen, was a business woman. "My mother still works,"
says Ballen. "She’s store manager for a small dress shop in Center
Ballen attended the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied
and English, earning a bachelor’s degree in 1970. From there she moved
to Boston, studying at Boston College and at Boston University, from
which she earned a graduate degree in clinical psychology. Upon
in the late 1970s, she took a job working as a school psychologist
with special needs youngsters.
She knew the work was not for her.
Growing up in the 1960s, she started in a traditional female path.
"I fell into it," she says, "but I knew it wasn’t for
me. I was a square peg in a round hole." She describes herself
as a "change agent," and says education, with its layers of
bureaucracy, was not for her.
She wanted a change and decided she would not make one if she stayed
in Boston, although she did like the city. She chose Philadelphia
pretty much at random, she says. "I was looking for change,"
she recalls. "I felt I had to uproot myself. I put a push pin
in the map." Well, not quite. She liked the idea of a small city,
one with lots of history. "There was a commonality," she says.
"Boston and Philly felt similar."
Settled in Philadelphia in the early 1980s, Ballen went to work for
a consortium developed by the Kellogg corporation to help attract
adults to colleges and universities, which were seeing a decline in
their traditional base population of recent high school graduates.
"I was the director of marketing," Ballen says. "It was
my job to sell companies on the notion that adult learners were the
next wave." Deciding she enjoyed the business world, she went
to Wharton to earn an MBA at night.
Then Rouse called, and she took on the challenge of learning about
technology. A neophyte, she acquired a TRS 80 computer. "Everyone
called them `trash 80s,’" she recalls with a laugh. And while
she bought into technology enough to learn how to boot up a computer
— no easy task in the mid 1980s — she says she "couldn’t
figure out how one made money from technology."
Way beyond her first computer now, Ballen, who long ago figured out
how to make technology pay, is totally wired herself. If she could
have just one communications device in her life, she is asked, would
it be her telephone, her television, or her computer? "The
could go, definitely," she answers without a pause. The next
is more difficult. "I need my cell phone," she says. But she
would also be lost without her BlackBerry. She uses the PDA for, among
other things, retrieving E-mail. She has become so attached that the
BlackBerry has supplanted her computer in her affections, even doing
away with the need for a laptop, heretofore an essential tool.
"I’m on the go all the time," the busy head of the NJTC says.
She finds she can no longer wait until she returns to the office to
check her E-mail. "I was out all day today," she says on a
Thursday afternoon in late August. By 3 p.m. she had received 85
— only 10 percent of them spam — but not one phone message.
"E-mail is the way people in my world communicate," she says.
But she does cling to her phone for keeping in touch with friends
and family. Some of her friends are unwired; others, however, have
tried to move personal communication from voice to data, and she is
having none of it. "I much prefer personal contact," she says.
"I let my friends know I don’t want them E-ing me, except to set
up a dinner or something like that. You can’t reduce relationships
Having moved into the PDA-dependence zone, Ballen is indeed at one
with the techies for whom she set up office support facilities and
amenities during her years with Rouse. Growing familiar with
industries — and their people — at Liberty, Rouse’s
she began, gradually, to bring that knowledge across the river, to
the area around her home in south Jersey.
She began to play around with the idea of creating a support
for technology companies in the area of New Jersey across the river
from Philadelphia. "I went to Bob Andrews," she says. "He
was a freeholder in Camden. He gave me $25,000 to put together some
activities for technology entrepreneurs, to see if there was enough
activity here to support an organization."
Before the money came through, however, "D’s were
out, R’s were in, and the money went away," says Ballen. As she
continued talking — rapidly and with more than a few abbreviations
standing in for words and phrases — it became clear that she was
referring to Andrews’ political ouster and its effect on her plan
to create a tech support organization.
"I could have quit right then," she recalls. But she didn’t.
"When we were growing up," she says, "we were always
to go out and do things, and if we didn’t like the way things were
going, change them." Back in the 1960s, when passivity was the
norm in grammar school, especially for girls, Ballen’s mother
told her and her sister "`if you’re not happy, talk to the
After her seed money was pulled by the public sector, Ballen went
to talk to the private sector. Many tech companies were enthusiastic,
and provided support. With this backing, Ballen in 1993 founded and
took on the part-time job of leading the South Jersey Entrepreneurs
Network, while continuing with the Business Development and Training
Center across the river in Pennsylvania full time.
Three years later, John Martinson, managing partner of the Edison
Venture Fund on Lenox Drive, was looking for someone to head NJTC,
for which he was raising seed money. He interviewed just one person
for the job, and Ballen, who like so many women of her generation,
had begun her career in a traditional job, took on the challenge of
creating a statewide organization to support cutting-edge technology
NJTC’s backers wanted the new organization to be headquartered in
the center of the state, and more specifically in Princeton, with
its cache and central location. Ballen agreed, but without a lot of
enthusiasm, and moved her infant operation into the Forrestal Center
offices of Buchanan Ingersoll where John Sorin, who has since joined
Hale and Door, was building a thriving law practice with a client
base of technology companies.
Sorin first met Ballen when she formed the South Jersey Entrepreneurs
Network. He was concerned about the lack of infrastructure for
companies in the state, and was interested in what Ballen was doing
in south Jersey. "We had a very fragmented technology
he says. "We didn’t have an identity of our own."
"She was one of a handful of people early on in the state who
saw the potential of technology in New Jersey — and the
he says. "Rather than wring her hands, she did something about
it." Along with Martinson and NJTC’s other early supporters, Sorin
says he "so believed in what she was doing, and in Maxine
He did not hesitate to offer the space in which to get NJTC off the
"When NJTC was founded everyone agreed it should be in central
New Jersey," says Sorin. The new organization’s backers wanted
its offices easily accessible to every part of the state. For Ballen,
though, Princeton was terra incognita, and she found some of its mores
as strange as she once thought those of the tech industry were.
"I call it the schizophrenia zone," she says with a chuckle.
"When half the people say they saw something in the `paper,’ they
mean the New York Times. When the rest say `paper,’ they mean the
Philadelphia Inquirer." Little idiosyncrasies aside, Ballen’s
main complaint about Princeton was its distance from her home, and
two years ago she moved NJTC’s offices to Mount Laurel, a short drive
from her home, where she lives with her husband, John Jones, a family
law attorney. Traveling all over the state on business, Ballen says
she didn’t want to have a long drive to get to her office, and Sorin
and NJTC’s other backers readily agreed.
During that first winter, that historically snowy
commuting, unpleasant as it was, was the least of Ballen’s problems.
"She went to university after university, service provider after
service provider, company after company," Sorin recalls.
"The reception was not warm and fuzzy," says Ballen.
Forging ahead, but with wavering confidence, Ballen called on Caren
Franzini, director of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority
"That was the breakthrough moment," Ballen exclaims.
Franzini gave me the support I needed to go forward. She said `We
need you. You’re great. Now how can we help you?’"
With this support at her back, Ballen had a renewed will to break
down intra-state and inter-industry barriers and to make NJTC a
The organization held its first event, a venture fair, in the April
following the snowy winter. Response was strong. "I began to say
`okay, I can try to do this,’" she recalls. "By the end of
the year, we had a black tie gala, and several hundred turned out.
I thought `okay, it’s getting better.’"
NJTC was on its way, and Sorin says a key reason the organization
took off was Ballen’s shrewd use of partnerships. Ballen’s first
was with a potential competitor. Just as she was trying to round up
support for a brand-new NJTC, the Software Association of New Jersey
was springing to life. Started by Joe Allegra, the founder of
Softech, who is now a partner with the Edison Venture Fund, the
Association was trying to corral some of the same players Ballen
to fold into NJTC.
NJTC planned to have a number of industry divisions, including
Instead of going head-to-head, Allegra agreed that his Software
would become NJTC’s software division. As he said at the time (U.S.
1, February 21, 1996): "There really is no ego involved in this
thing. I have a business to run here. It seemed silly to compete
"Maxine had the vision to partner with other professionals,"
says Sorin. "The issues she has been confronting are huge and
require assembly of a huge team. She partnered with leading attorneys,
accountants, schools. And what a wonderful partner she has found in
Caren Franzini at EDA. Government is rarely a solution in itself,
but partnering with the government has been."
The fruit of these partnerships, and of what Sorin terms Ballen’s
"incredibly hard work," is an organization with a staff of
14 that has united New Jersey’s disparate, geographically dispersed
technology companies. Few days now go by without an NJTC breakfast,
tech tour, after-work seminar, workshop, fair, showcase, or dinner
somewhere in the state. The organization counts more than 1,200
in its membership rolls. It has six industry networks —
eBusiness, multimedia and consumer technologies; electronics and
manufacturing; environment, energy and engineering; life sciences;
and IT/software. It has separate peer networks for CEOs, CFOs, CIOs,
venture capital and financing sources, and women in technology. The
organization also publishes a magazine, New Jersey TechNews, two
Yellow Page directories, a financing manual, and specialty
Beyond providing myriad networking and learning opportunities, NJTC
has brought money to New Jersey’s young technology companies. Ballen
was instrumental in lobbying for $160 million from former Governor
Whitman to promote technology in the state. The money was spent to
market New Jersey as a tech state, to provide loans and grants for
tech companies, to build six incubators to house new companies, and
for school construction to foster secondary technology education.
In 2000 Ballen founded the NJTC Venture Fund to provide
early stage venture capital to technology companies. She is a partner
in the fund, which aims for a 5 to 20 percent return, but does not
have a hand in day-to-day operations. The fund, with $30 million in
assets, invested in four companies in 2001 and, Ballen says, "is
close to making three or four more investments."
Ballen, who became chairman of the Council of Regional Information
Technology Associations, a national organization, earlier this year,
says she hopes other technology organizations around the country will
use NJTC’s venture fund as a model.
In her view, there are plenty of investment opportunities out there.
She is disheartened by both media reporting of a tech collapse and
by investors’ aversion to all things technology related. "Tech
is not dead, despite what Wall Street says," she emphasizes.
sector but telecom is doing well." She is seeing exciting
in E-learning, nanotechnology, life sciences, telemedicine,
record keeping, ID security, and bioinformatics.
"Now," she says, "the problem is access to capital. The
venture community has gone from investing in everything to investing
The tech slump has hit Ballen’s organization, too, but not too hard,
she says. Membership is down about 10 percent, but she says New
diversity, which created problems for getting NJTC up and running,
is now its salvation. Tech support organizations in other states —
states with only a handful of tech industries — have seen
plunge 20 to 50 percent over the past two years, making NJTC’s 10
percent drop look almost like good news.
Technology companies in New Jersey will survive this capital drought,
Ballen says, and will emerge stronger for having to develop more solid
business plans. A sudden withdrawal of financial support can be a
good thing, she has learned. After she lost the $25,000 promised her
by the Camden freeholder when she was trying to start up the South
Jersey Entrepreneurs Association, she made a vow. Never again would
she rely on "soft money." And she hasn’t. NJTC is a
but its operating budget, which Ballen says is "a couple of
comes entirely from money it raises, largely through membership and
fees for events.
NJTC made it through a record-breaking winter, and Ballen is convinced
that New Jersey’s tech entrepreneurs will do the same.
The Technology Council offers scores of different events
for all facets of New Jersey’s technology community. Among the
Insurance Premiums," CFO peer program. $70. Clelland Green, CEO,
America’s Choice Healthplans; John Merrigan, Dir/Risk Mgmt, PWC;
Losch, CFO, Tellium; Jeff Carlson, Fleet Insurance; Bill Tully, Chubb
Insurance. Fleet Bank headquarters, Carnegie Center.
Roundtable Technology Tour, $20. Mitra Corporation/Quintum
& Environmental," CEO breakfast series. Time to Eat Diner, 270
Route 202/206, Bridgewater.
with the Government," call for price. Princeton Plasma Physics
Growth Company Showcase. Wyndham Newark Airport, Elizabeth.
Conference, cosponsored by Rutgers’ Institute for Marine Sciences
(IMS) and Center for Advanced Information Processing (CAIP). Cook
College, New Brunswick.
call 856-787-9700 or visit www.njtc.org.
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