The rise of the tech industry in the Seattle region over the past two decades has been a remarkable driver of economic growth, but that growth is also weighing on the region in the form of more traffic, skyrocketing housing costs and a growing wage gap. That’s the backdrop as Carol Rava takes the helm of the Technology Alliance, a trade association that advocates for the tech industry across the state.
Rava joined us on the latest GeekWire podcast and KIRO Radio show to talk about the key issues in the industry and the region, and her goals in the position, in advance of the Technology Alliance’s annual State of Technology luncheon today in downtown Seattle. Listen to the discussion starting in the second segment below, and continue reading for edited excerpts from the interview.
Todd Bishop: Tell us about yourself, because a lot of people know the previous leader of the Tech Alliance, Susannah Malarkey. She was there for …
John Cook: … 20 years. She was a standby there in the organization. She helped start it really.
Carol Rava: Stepping into Susannah’s shoes is a great honor and certainly one that I take seriously. She led the organization from the beginning for the last 20 years. I’m excited, though, to step in. My background is mostly in education and education policy. Most recently, I was working at and helped to start an education technology startup, nonprofit organization called Get Schooled, which is a digital platform that engages low-income teens on their path through high school and on to college. It’s really like MTV meets the College Board, a lot of sizzle and a little bit of substance, but it takes the best of business technology, recommendation engines, gamification, and applies it to K-12 education and some of the biggest problems that we have in K-12 education around youth engagement. That was a lot of fun and got me excited about the role of technology and the applications in different fields.
JC: What is it about the Technology Alliance that attracted you?
Carol Rava: Well, I think it’s a combination. I certainly was familiar with the history and had worked with Susannah in the past. When I was at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, I had an opportunity to work with the Technology Alliance, so I was familiar with what they had done. I saw this opportunity as a good pivot time to look at the tech sector in Washington state, look at what innovation has driven, and help lead the organization for the next however many years.
JC: Where are we in your view? When Susannah started at the Technology Alliance, the tech community here was just coming into its own. Now, it’s a robust engine. It’s really part of Seattle’s DNA in many ways. Twenty years ago, you’d look at Seattle as a Boeing town and Microsoft was here, but now it’s this really vibrant technology community. How do you see the Seattle community and where it’s headed?
Carol Rava: One of the things that has struck me is that I don’t think there’s any company on the cutting edge today that isn’t a technology company.
Whether you’re Nordstrom and you’re a retailer or you’re Starbucks, Weyerhaeuser, traditional companies, Costco, that we think of in the greater Puget Sound, they’re all driven by technology, and their growth and advancements are coming from how they use technology. One of the things I think about is, how do we define what the opportunities are for this region and for this state from a tech-driven economy across different sectors? That’s something that really interests me. Looking beyond Puget Sound, too, into Eastern Washington, agriculture and energy — what we see over in Eastern Washington in both of those fields I think is really interesting.
I think the technology community in the last few years has kind of gotten a bad rap by some in the community. I think those who work in the industry, us included, see it as this driver of innovation and this creative change and bringing in great jobs, but there’s a component of Seattle and Washington state that sees this industry as problematic, driving up housing prices, making the transportation infrastructure here clogged.
TB: Putting these weird orbs right on the northern edge of downtown Seattle.
JC: Yes, the Amazon biospheres. Not everybody’s adjusting to the change. What role do you think you play in making sure that the entire community embraces and is open to the positive change that comes with a vibrant tech ecosystem?
Carol Rava: That’s a great question because I actually think that’s exactly where the Technology Alliance can add value in the future. I think in the past, particularly when the Technology Alliance started in 1996, the role was more to daylight what the technology economy was looking like.
Who are these companies, what are they doing, what do they need, and now I think it’s more about talking about, what is the impact, what is the societal good — not just the economic impact but what’s the societal good that is coming from this technology-driven economy, and what are the opportunities not just in the companies but what the ecosystems that get built around them so that not everybody needs to be a computer science major and go to be an engineer at Amazon, that there are a ton of opportunities that are being created by this tech-driven economy and there’s a whole range of levels of skills and opportunities that both sit within these companies and in the ecosystem, almost like the supplier ecosystem, that gets built around them.
Investing in startups in the region
JC: A part of the Technology Alliance that many people may not know about was that it started the Alliance of Angels, which is a network of angel investors, and really identifying a problem many years ago that there’s been a shortage of capital here in the Pacific Northwest as it relates to funding startup companies. The Alliance of Angels has been really filling an important gap there, but many would argue it hasn’t done quite enough. What are your views just on fostering more capital formation here for startup companies and really building up the entrepreneurial ecosystem as part of the Technology Alliance’s mission? Because I know that’s part of what you spend a lot of time thinking about.
Carol Rava: Yeah, absolutely. I think the Technology Alliance historically has really focused its work on three pillars that are seen as fundamental to any successful innovation, tech-driven economy: entrepreneurship and support of entrepreneurial climate, education, both K-12 and at the university level, and research capacity. I think on the entrepreneurship, as you mentioned, one of the early things the Tech Alliance did was identify, wow, there was a gap, there wasn’t a really great angel community in Seattle, this is in the mid-90s to the late-90s, and so created the Alliance of Angels, which then became its own entity.
As you mentioned, it’s really filled an ongoing need here. Not even from the Tech Alliance standpoint but when you look at the VC and angel funding in Seattle, I think there’s still a need for more local funders and local funding groups.
JC: Yeah, it’s a real oddity in the Northwest. Having covered the venture capital beat and the startup beat here for a number of years, foras much wealth as has been created in the Seattle tech community, not as much of that gets funneled back into the startup ecosystem, and it’s a real mystery. People I meet in the entrepreneurial community are always talking about this and looking at ways that more of that money could be recycled back into the community.
Carol Rava: In conversations I’ve had just in my first month at the helm at the Tech Alliance, trying to understand why it’s important to have the money, at least a big bulk of it, come locally instead of from New York or from the Bay Area, (one reason) is that there is a whole network of connections and support that you get when the money’s in your backyard, so you don’t just get the cash infusion but you get connections to potential board members or a new CTO or CFO because they open their Rolodex and it’s a local Rolodex, in addition to the national contacts, and then the growth of the local companies begets more of the talent, and other entrepreneurs spring from that.
TB: Why aren’t more people who make money here spending their money in investing in tech companies?
JC: Gosh, I’ve a bunch of theories on that. One of them I think is that we haven’t seen as much turnover in the bigger tech companies here. A great example is a company like Concur or a company like Tableau Software, which have been enormously successful. If you look at the management teams of those organizations, they’re largely intact. Those people haven’t left and gone out and tried to do something new. Same case with Zillow, where most of the management team is there. They haven’t receded into new startup organizations. We just haven’t had the critical mass of companies like you see in the Bay Area where there’s been an Instagram-style success or in the Bay Area that you hear about the PayPal Mafia. In the Seattle area, there used to be the McCaw Mafia, which was from McCaw Cellular, and all those wireless people got into angel investing or entrepreneurship and started bankrolling a number of new companies, and we have a pretty robust wireless ecosystem here because of that. Boy, that was in the 80s. We haven’t seen as much of that sort of activity here in the last 10 or 15 years.
What I have seen, I think this is another factor here, is that you do have people that have made money in the tech sector here, whether it’s at Expedia or Amazon or Microsoft, where they are involved in philanthropic efforts, and so there’s a huge philanthropic community here and I think that sucks up some of the money.
TB: Well, what’s wrong with that?
JC: There’s nothing wrong with it. That is great that that’s here, but it does take some of the steam out of the startup ecosystem, that that doesn’t get as much love. I think that does have an impact here.
TB: What’s your take on that, Carol?
Carol Rava: I just got back last week, I was with a Seattle delegation of business leaders in Miami and looking at their very nascent tech-startup scene, very nascent.
JC: Yeah, I can only imagine. Yes. I’ve never heard of a tech company coming out of Miami.
Carol Rava: They’re working on it. They’re working on it. … The interesting thing is Miami has a ton of wealth, and they’re having a very similar issue as to what we’re talking about here, but it’s actually just locked up, period. They neither have the philanthropic community from the locked-up wealth nor do they have the entrepreneurial climate, so they’re struggling on both fronts, and so they were looking to us for answers on …
JC: On the questions we’re trying to solve as well.
Carol Rava: Exactly.
JC: We’re just at a different degree of it.
Carol Rava: I think one thing the Tech Alliance has tried to do is to showcase innovative ideas that are actually in their very early stage, too, many of them coming out of our great research universities and entities in the state. I don’t know if there’s a way to try to do that on a more far-reaching level, to try to almost tease some of those potential entrepreneurs who are really comfortable in their jobs and they’re not quite ready or don’t think they’re ready to take the next step, and if there’s a way to by elevating some of these great ideas and people who have resources and actually the business acumen, if there’s a way that we can try to connect the two.
JC: It’s happening to some degree. You see organizations like Pioneer Square Labs or Madrona Venture Labs, which are operating in that realm, trying to match the talent with the ideas. I think that’s germinating to some degree, but certainly more you can do.
Carol Rava: UW with their CoMotion, as well.
Transforming technology education
JC: I want to switch gears just for a second because I think one of the coolest programs at the Technology Alliance is Ada Developers Academy. Why don’t you explain what that is and why it’s such a unique program.
Carol Rava: I think one of the things that’s interesting, we mentioned this earlier in the podcast, that the Tech Alliance has had a history of identifying problems and then showing one piece of the solution, starting it and then often incubating it and spinning it off as we did with the Alliance of Angels. Ada Developers Academy is the exact same thing, recognizing that there was a shortage of women programmers and that you need multiple solutions, there is no silver bullet, you need to address this issue from the whole pipeline, K-12, higher ed professional workforce, etc. Ada Developer Academy was designed to connect early-career women who wanted to make a career switch with the in-depth training and education they would need to go to be a full-time programmer.
JC: Right. You have nurses and psychologists and teachers that are making the transition into coding.
Carol Rava: As I said, they’re early-career switchers. It’s a very competitive program. They are in class for eight or nine months, and then they are set up with an internship with some of the top companies in the greater Puget Sound who sponsor the positions. I think they have 100% of those who graduate, 100% job placement, which is just tremendous. Again, it’s a slice of the problem. Each cohort is about 25 women, and I think they run three cohorts through the calendar year.
JC: This is probably an impossible question to answer, but how do you get at the bigger problem? I know this is one slice of it, but how do you try to tackle the bigger problem of women in tech?
Carol Rava: I guess I would say two big things for that. One, as I mentioned, is addressing the pipeline and all components of it. We have some great efforts going on in Washington state right now, whether that’d be Code.org and trying to get more young people to take AP computer science, to even the Tech Alliance has a youth apps program, which is getting kids and teachers feet, just dipping their toes, in this idea of programming. It’s nowhere near the AP computer science, but again, the spectrum. You have programs like Washington State Opportunity Scholarship which provides scholarships for women and underrepresented populations in the tech world who want to stay in state and study STEM-related fields. I do think that you have to tackle it along the whole pipeline.
I think the second component of addressing the shortage of women in technology is recognizing that there are lots of different roles and ways that women can be a part of the tech sector, it’s not just as a programmer or computer science major, and so trying to surface some of those other opportunities as well.
TB: Just to illustrate this point, we had a great series from a woman who went through the Ada program. Her name is Sally Moore. She was a clinical psychologist, so not a programmer at all, and she went into the program, basically went through Ada Developers Academy, and came out as a Dev. It is never too late to jump into it, and I think that’s really what this program illustrates.
JC: It is a cool program, but it is a limited number of students that get into it. Are there any plans to try to expand it? I’m sure you’ve been contacted by other organizations in other communities that say they want to emulate this or copy it in some way.
Carol Rava: Yes, we should look at the ability to expand it, and then again it’s no longer part of the Tech Alliance, so that sits with them. I do think that there’s opportunity and certainly capacity in the field for expansion. I think the other piece of this is looking at what are the other niches in this problem around women in technology where you can have other solutions, not just one that you continue to expand. That’s an early-career one.
There’s an effort actually being led by Starbucks nationally to connect more 16- to 24-year-olds who are out of work, out of a job, with workforce training and a variety of skills for workforce training, as they think about getting their first and then their second job and maybe going back to school. I think there are lots of places in the pipeline and different ways of looking at it, can we look at workforce training and change the way that that is working in our community.
TB: What are your biggest goals in your initial early days here at the Tech Alliance?
Carol Rava: I think the biggest goal that I have for the Tech Alliance right now is helping tell the story of the public impact, the societal good that is happening from the tech economy, the innovation-driven tech economy that we have in Washington state. Everyone is a part of this, we all are users, we all benefit, and what is the giveback that we’re seeing from the tech economy? I think that that’s probably one of the biggest roles that the Tech Alliance can play.
TB: We’ve been speaking with Carol Rava. She is the new CEO of the Technology Alliance, which has its annual State of Technology Luncheon coming up on May 2nd, Monday, in downtown Seattle. Carol, good luck in the job, and thanks for being here.
Carol Rava: Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.