Packed Town Hall Meeting in Newark Shows City on the Verge of Tech Renaissance

Photo: It was standing room only at the Tech Town Hall meeting Photo Credit: Courtesy = Space
It was standing room only at the Tech Town Hall meeting | Courtesy = Space

Building on the shoulders of the announcement of Newark Venture Partners’s $50 million venture fund and plans for a new accelerator, Newark tech leaders held a town hall meeting with Mayor Ras J. Baraka at the coworking venue =Space on July 20.

It was literally standing room only at the site, as it overflowed with various stakeholders in Newark’s tech industry.

Attending were many of the men and women who had been trying to build the technology scene in Newark over the last five years.

As Medina (who goes by this single name), cofounder of =Space and creative director of MEDINA = CITI,  explained, “We wanted to have an active dialog” involving “city, private, and not-for- profit [entities] all in a great conversation about how we are going to move forward with tech” in the city.

During the meeting, Mayor Ras Baraka engaged in a question-and-answer session, which we covered here. Many Newark tech community members also spoke, as did some others with an interest in helping the city’s tech renaissance.

Commitments to Open Data and Inexpensive Training

Addressing the crowd, Seth Wainer, CIO of the City of Newark’s Office of Information Technology, talked about how Newark has been digitizing its processes to bring them up to date. He described the city’s pledge to make city data open to citizens.

He also said that Newark is “highly committed to having a broad tech pipeline that will enable you” take advantage of digital Newark. If you want to get involved in the information economy, you will be able to get involved.” This pipeline includes coding classes, access to resources, advice and training on job readiness, and help securing jobs, he said.

“The idea is to take what is a very high-cost product” in New York (e.g., coding classes) and make it relevant to Newark. “Let’s find a cheaper more cost-effective way to give anyone who is interested in the information economy in Newark a place at the table,” Wainer said.

Photo: Newark is dedicated to bringing its city and its people into the digital economy: Seth Wainer Photo Credit: =Space
Newark is dedicated to bringing its city and its people into the digital economy: Seth Wainer | =Space

He also talked about the most recent app from the city government, “Newark One-Stop,” now in Beta. Finding a job through the One-Stop Career Center is a cumbersome process, said Wainer, but “everyone has a smart phone. You say what job you are interested in and you get a notification when a new job comes in. We think that this will have a powerful effect, not just in terms of placing jobs but also to allow people to be engaged in this conversation that have not previously been engaged.

 “Today we announced, along with, Prudential and many other partners like NJIT and Rutgers, the fastest free outdoor internet in the United States,” Wainer stated. The 802.11connection runs at 100 Mbps or (with a fancy computer) 200 Mbps, he added.

If You Take NVPs Money, You’ll Grow Your Company in Newark: Wisniewski

Following Wainer, Tom Wisniewski, managing partner of Newark Venture Partners, discussed the new venture fund and the accelerator he envisioned. The accelerator, which will be in located at Newark’s One Washington Park, will have 150 seats for companies from everywhere.

 “If you are going to take our money, you will be coming to Newark to grow your company,” he told the group. “We have the fund, we have the space, and we have Audible’s commitment … to have their people available to us.”

Speaking about Amazon, the parent company of Audible, Wisniewski said, “Amazon is the largest provider of cloud computing in the world. … We will be able to provide our people with cloud infrastructure and provide them with experts to show them how to use it.”

The same public Wi-Fi speeds will be available to the companies in the accelerator. “There is already someone (on the street) who has downloaded five terabytes of data,” he said. Regarding the bandwidth, he said, “I think it’s much better than the bandwidth available in Manhattan.”

Payne Talks Newark Community Involvement

Congressman Donald Payne Jr., a Newark native who spoke next, said that the prospects for Newark Venture Partners seems promising, but he cautioned that it cannot be a success without bringing the Newark community along.

 “As a member of Congress, I have an overall federal and national perspective.” He talked about the CBC Tech 2020 (covered here), and then pointed out that the introduction of the fund and accelerator were great public relations opportunities, but now, “We have to see how many people are able to be involved in this movement” who actually are from Newark.

There are also issues relating to hiring and retention, with the key being retention, he noted. “A lot of times we see a lot of people who are hired, but we never talk about retention” after six months or two years.

An App to Help Ex-Offenders Get Jobs

Photo: The student winner of the Wolf Den contest has an app to help ex-offenders. Photo Credit: Courtesy Propel Media
The student winner of the Wolf Den contest has an app to help ex-offenders. | Courtesy Propel Media

Following the congressman, a Newark high school student presented his app idea, called “Hire Up.” Jerome (last name withheld) had been a winner in the May 20 Shark Tank-like contest called “Wolf Den,” hosted by =Space.

As part of the Wolf Den competition, for 12 weeks students at People’s Prep Charter School used the Dream See Do platform, which encourages young people to discover their passions. Then they developed apps around this knowledge. The judges were Isaiah Little, project manager at Newark’s Office of  Information Technology; Talia Young, assistant vice president of public and government relations at City National Bank; Anthony Frasier, cofounder of The Phat Startup; and Andaiye Taylor, founder of Brick City Live.

Jerome said that he called his app “Hire Up” because “it helps our youth get higher up in the world, and it helps businesses get employees.” He added that he was trying to solve a specific problem: the difficulty of getting a job after serving prison time.

Companies or individuals willing to hire ex-offenders would be able to input job information on the app. Ex-offenders would use the app to apply for those jobs. Employers could look at the  applicants’ past employment ratings (if they have held previous jobs), the applicants’ interests and skills and their available working hours. Employment ratings could help ex-offenders get better jobs in the future if their employers endorse their work, he explained.

TapFactory’s Newark Startup Story

Wainer introduced Taseen Peterson, cofounder and CEO of TapFactory and creator of the Newark One-Stop app. Peterson noted that he had started TapFactory in an apartment in Newark around the time the iPhone first came out. “A lot of people were infatuated with the device, but we took our infatuation to another level. We had no experience. We were not programmers or techies or anything like that. We started tinkering with the device and began building mobile apps.”

He recalled that his group didn’t even own a Macintosh computer, which is necessary for developing iPhone apps, so they hacked together a Dell laptop, and were able to generate a mobile app. That mobile app called Notefuly was successful, and now has had 5 million downloads.

“We are not those guys who came from somewhere else to Newark. We were right here tinkering in our apartments,” he pointed out.

Code Crew to Offer Low Cost Software Training

Jamal O’Garro, cofounder of Code Crew came to the meeting with the news that this New York educational company would be providing software training courses in Newark. The company had given a number of courses at the Newark popup Converge workspace last summer. This year it will be offering a course in the basic skills people will need to get jobs writing code using hot technologies. “My goal is to teach the people of Newark, and give places like Newark, a roadmap to success.”

The Life Ark Startup

Ray Rivera, founder and CEO of The Life Ark, presented his concept for a way to memorialize loved ones, which was prompted by the fact that his daughter didn’t remember his mother. The Life Ark allows people to archive important pieces of information for the next generation, including videos, pictures or even phone conversations. People can scan in images for safekeeping. All this information is private, and is only shared with the intended members of the family.

Earlier in the meeting, Judith Sheft of the New Jersey Innovation Institute, an NJIT corporation, said that NJIT “was an early supporter of economic development as a mission for the university and we work across various industry clusters to help drive economic growth.”

Photo: Isaiah Little introduced the Code for Newark members. Photo Credit: Courtesy =Space
Isaiah Little introduced the Code for Newark members. | Courtesy =Space

Isaiah Little also introduced the members of the “Code for Newark” brigade of Code for America, an organization that works on open data initiatives in the city.

Join Together With Other Urban Tech Ecosystems, Banks Urges

The final speaker for the evening was Clayton Banks, founder of Silicon Harlem, which is growing the tech ecosystem in Harlem.

His group has been working for a while in Harlem, and Banks noted that, “when you start to galvanize your community, and that is really the key … you absolutely make progress. That progress isn’t measured by how many millionaires and how many tech companies are created. That progress is measured by the reduction in the crime, measured by the increase of the success of our kids, measured by having people fully engaged in the workforce. It is really measured, at the end of the day, by the quality of life we all dream of.”

Urban markets will be the economic engines of the 21st century, he said, so it’s important that we have flourishing tech hubs. Urban centers have to come together and become a network of tech hubs that share with and cheer for each other, so they can all succeed, he concluded.

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