NJTC’s Events

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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

Philadelphia

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

Haddonfield,

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

support

the state’s many, varied technology industries was as chilly as the

weather.

"I thought `Why did I do this?’" she recalls. "I gave

up an easy job in Philadelphia with friends." Many times

throughout

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

subject:

"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,

Pennsylvania.

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

thing."

Soon, however, she was intrigued. "It was like looking at a

marble,"

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.

"They

operate 24/7," she says. "They never shut down; they’re never

not connected." As a result, she says, techies need a great deal

of flexibility.

From style of dress to the way they do business, techies were

different

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

City Philly."

Ballen attended the University of Pittsburgh, where she studied

sociology

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

graduation

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

television

could go, definitely," she answers without a pause. The next

choice

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

E-mails

— 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

to E-mail."

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

technology

industries — and their people — at Liberty, Rouse’s

organization,

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

organization

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

encouraged

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

repeatedly

told her and her sister "`if you’re not happy, talk to the

teacher.’"

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

companies.

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

technology

companies in the state, and was interested in what Ballen was doing

in south Jersey. "We had a very fragmented technology

industry,"

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

weakness,"

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

herself."

He did not hesitate to offer the space in which to get NJTC off the

ground.

"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

winter,

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

(EDA).

"That was the breakthrough moment," Ballen exclaims.

"Caren

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

reality.

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

partnership

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

Princeton

Softech, who is now a partner with the Edison Venture Fund, the

Software

Association was trying to corral some of the same players Ballen

wanted

to fold into NJTC.

NJTC planned to have a number of industry divisions, including

software.

Instead of going head-to-head, Allegra agreed that his Software

Association

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

against

another group."

"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

companies

in its membership rolls. It has six industry networks —

communications;

eBusiness, multimedia and consumer technologies; electronics and

advanced

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

high-tech

Yellow Page directories, a financing manual, and specialty

publications.

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.

"Every

sector but telecom is doing well." She is seeing exciting

developments

in E-learning, nanotechnology, life sciences, telemedicine,

Internet-based

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

in nothing."

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

Jersey’s

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

membership

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

non-profit,

but its operating budget, which Ballen says is "a couple of

million,"

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.

Top Of Page
NJTC’s Events

The Technology Council offers scores of different events

for all facets of New Jersey’s technology community. Among the

upcoming

events:

Wednesday, September 18, at 5 p.m. : "Skyrocketing

Insurance Premiums," CFO peer program. $70. Clelland Green, CEO,

America’s Choice Healthplans; John Merrigan, Dir/Risk Mgmt, PWC;

Michael

Losch, CFO, Tellium; Jeff Carlson, Fleet Insurance; Bill Tully, Chubb

Insurance. Fleet Bank headquarters, Carnegie Center.

Thursday, September 19, at 8:30 a.m. : Legislative

Roundtable Technology Tour, $20. Mitra Corporation/Quintum

Technologies,

Eatontown.

Friday, September 20, at 8:30 a.m.: "Life Sciences

& Environmental," CEO breakfast series. Time to Eat Diner, 270

Route 202/206, Bridgewater.

Tuesday, September 24, at 1 p.m. : "Working

with the Government," call for price. Princeton Plasma Physics

Lab.

Friday, October 4, from 7:30 a.m. to 2:15 p.m. : NJTC

Growth Company Showcase. Wyndham Newark Airport, Elizabeth.

Thursday, October 10, at 8:30 a.m. : Harbor Technologies

Conference, cosponsored by Rutgers’ Institute for Marine Sciences

(IMS) and Center for Advanced Information Processing (CAIP). Cook

College, New Brunswick.

Friday, November 22: NJTC awards gala. Mayfair Farms,

West Orange,

For information on New Jersey Technology Council events

call 856-787-9700 or visit www.njtc.org.


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