by Raphaela Sapire
This feature is from the Verily teaser issue.
At eighteen, I moved to New York for college and fell in love. Not with a man, but with the innovative entrepreneurial community dispersed around downtown Manhattan, fondly called Silicon Alley after its West Coast counterpart. If you are a tech-startup enthusiast like me, there are names you just know, and Jessica Lawrence is one of them.
Jessica leads the highly lauded NY Tech Meetup, a group of 22,000 geeks enthused about tech innovation. Her work centers around managing monthly events where an average of 800 members with coveted tickets gather to watch emerging companies demo new ideas, hear leading-edge thinking on tech topics, and build their networks to develop their businesses. All this, and she is only 31 years old.
Yet Jessica describes herself as “not someone who comes up with a life plan.” She attended two colleges, tried several majors, and took a year off to work before finishing her degree online. After graduating, she moved to California without a job to be near her boyfriend at the time.
Once there, she landed a job in development at the Girl Scouts of San Gorgonio Council, a regional arm of the national nonprofit, and worked her way up to CEO owing to her ability to innovate in the group’s ever-changing environment and escape from “typical” static solutions.
Despite her quick rise and six and a half years of service, two conversations inspired Jessica to question whether staying with the organization was the best fit for her. The first was at a conference, where a sixteen-year-old named Emily Anne Rigal—founder of WeStopHate.org—pulled Jessica aside and suggested that she might be better fulfilled elsewhere. The second was with Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos. When Jessica explained that the organization didn’t seem to match her personal goals, he simply asked, “So what are you doing working there?” “Later that night,” Jessica admits, “I went home and bawled my eyes out because I knew he was right.”
Making the Big Leap East
After quitting, all Jessica knew was that she wanted to live in New York City. So she packed her bags and moved across the country—without a set plan.
Wasn’t she scared? “Sure,” Jessica says, “there were nights where I couldn’t fall asleep and was scared to death of making such a big leap.” But then she thought, “If everything falls apart and nothing works, what’s going to happen to me? And if that’s the worst-case scenario, then what should I be scared of?”
On arrival in the Big Apple, she attended a NY Tech Meetup event, where they announced that they were looking to hire their first managing director. Jessica applied, and the rest is history.
New York City has grown into a hot spot for tech start-ups. In 2011, New York City–based companies saw 241 venture capital—also known as VC—funding rounds, compared to 175 in 2010. Dubbed the “Tech VC King of the East,” New York has outpaced Massachusetts, another giant VC hub, in funding over the past couple of years. According to Jessica, “NYTM has played a key part in getting New York on the map in terms of getting people to pay attention to it as a place building new tech.”
Moving forward, Jessica is focusing on how NYTM can support the tech community. In particular, she wants to be at the forefront of the conversations about women and technology. Jessica insists, “I don’t believe in equalizing the ratio just because it’s fair or how it should be.”
Women are over 70 percent of consumers on sites like Groupon, Zappos and Etsy. Yet they are only a small percentage of developers creating the products. For instance, at Etsy, where the businesses of hundreds of thousands of female entrepreneurs are supported through their online “handmade marketplace,” only about 4 out of 100 developers are female. Jessica points out that “multiple perspectives are valuable.” She is active in the push to build a larger community of female coders, because “coding is the language our futures are being written in.”
Jessica is leveraging her network at NYTM to develop creative ways to support women entrepreneurs, engineers and designers within the tech-startup community. She isn’t the only one—many organizations are working on initiatives to promote diversity in IT and computing in order to promote the design of tech that is as broad and innovative as the population it serves. Given the large discrepancy, even a small change can have a large impact. Which is why it’s great that companies like Etsy are making moves. It launched their Hacker Grants scholarship program in April 2012 to focus on bringing more women into engineering jobs at Etsy and across the country.
In an industry with great potential and still plenty of room for growth, especially for women, Jessica has found an organization where her innovative outlook is both appreciated and needed. “If this was it, if this was all that would happen in my life, I’d be happy with that.” When asked what’s next, Jessica dismisses the premise of the question and replies, “My personal goals are based on things I want to keep doing. I want to be curious. I want to always explore.”
On her blog she writes, “There are three things that I never want to be: boring, mediocre, and full of regret.” Even as I consider how to incorporate her outlook into my own life, Jessica warns against taking anyone’s advice as truth; “It should never be about you defining yourself around other people’s ambitions, other people’s goals, other people’s meaning.” Jessica’s frank challenge for us to constantly innovate is both exciting and daunting; it is not difficult, therefore, to imagine why New York City has become such fertile ground for the entrepreneurial spirit.