On the upper floor of a squat, non-descript building in the heart of South Lake Union sit several startup technology companies that work, side by side, in a big room filled with the silent tapping of keyboards and teammates huddled in discussion.
In the basement is an event space, complete with whiteboards, wet bar, a ping-pong table, and enough room that a hundred or so local Jews connected to the tech world can meet, drink, and hear from members of their own community.
That was the idea behind the opening event for J-Tech, and the turnout exceeded its organizers’ expectations threefold.
“We were looking at 30 people, and we ended up at 100 people, which is pretty spectacular,” said event organizer Kevin Nider, online communications manager for the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle.
The idea for J-Tech actually started more than a year ago, with Joshua “Red” Russak. Russak’s own startup resides in that upstairs room — an entrepreneurs’ concierge service called StartupSeattle. He created a group last year on online networking site meetup.com as “kind of as a joke,” he said, but left it at that. Other pressing concerns kept him from following up until Nider and David Chivo, the Federation’s Center for Jewish Philanthropy’s vice president, came calling.
“Given their Rolodex of who they know in the community, and my ability to really tie together the community…we paired up,” Russak said.
As a draw for J-Tech’s debut event, the organizers pulled out the big guns: Spencer Rascoff, CEO of the popular online real estate site Zillow, spent 20 minutes talking about the company’s recent initial public offering and how his career and knowledge in the tech space have evolved. Before and after Rascoff spoke, the attendees chatted and traded business cards over beers and hors d’oeuvres.
Shayna Rosen, a development associate for the Federation, said having an affinity group for tech professionals like it does for doctors or lawyers should be a natural fit in a city like Seattle.
“Most of us have been wondering for a while, ‘Where’s our tech group?’” Rosen said. “We did know that we needed to be very careful and do it differently [than those groups], because this is a very unique group of people with unique wants and unique styles of getting together.”
So in addition to the Federation using its normal communications channels to bring in the audience, Russak used his network of contacts to spread the word.
“The people who came to this event came because they knew someone who asked them,” Rosen said. “It was very grassroots based.”
While by almost any measure the event can be billed as a success, the founders of J-Tech see it as only the first step in an evolving group that they hope will yield fruit not just for the organizations that planned it, but for the attendees as well.
“As an entrepreneur, it’s like a religion on its own and I want to know who’s in that club,” Russak said, “and when I go to my Jewish community, I want to know, these are the other players. It’s a community within a community. It’s an internal support system.”
Russak sees this sub-community as a group of people who understand each other, but he also said he believes the high level of expectation for success within the Jewish community allows for mentorship opportunities that might not be found elsewhere.
“There are people who beg to meet Spencer Rascoff, and here he is, coming up humbly and speaking at a Jewish meet-up, and I get five minutes with him to talk about my startup? That doesn’t happen unless there’s that point of connection,” he said.
Ultimately, he said, he wants to see the relationships people create within J-Tech to expand outside of the group. But like every startup that works furiously to improve upon its product for its next release, J-Tech must do the same.
Russak envisions building a mentorship program beyond the meetup.com group. Nider and Rosen envision, in addition to a second event planned for December, smaller meetups as well as a repository to match local Jewish organizations in need of technical help with volunteers who can provide the service.
“The way that this will be successful and continue to be successful is with the right people connected, and the right people with the right networks,” Rosen said.