Interview: Sharon Webb transforming GBTC

The Internet and social media are radically reshaping many organizations — even, in an odd twist, a technology trade association.

This is the reality that confronts Sharon Webb, the chief executive who's been in charge of the Greater Baltimore Tech Council since December. Webb took over at the association in January and has spent the past year on its transformation.

Before the rise of social media and easy online networking, the GBTC was the go-to source for events geared toward technology pros and entrepreneurs in Baltimore. For the most part, it still is — its annual TechNite event is Thursday, and it is still considered the Baltimore region's top showcase for technology entrepreneurs.

But the GBTC has competition, including small groups forming on Facebook and LinkedIn, and gyms that are starting to organize networking events for their members. The weak economy compelled dozens of its members to forgo paying thousands of dollars in annual membership dues and drop out.

Webb realizes that for the GBTC to stay relevant, it not only has to organize events, but act as a catalyst for others in the innovation community — and even to support other events.

She credits her experience in building new business ventures within established global companies as a handy background for her current task at the GBTC. The 46-year-old also has the tough but nurturing, do-it-all attitude of a wife and mother of four children, including triplets. The Baltimore Sun recently spoke with Webb about her experience trying to transform the GBTC.

Since you've taken over the GBTC, what's been the biggest challenge?

I think the biggest challenge is appropriately positioning ourselves as a steward and amplifier of this region. There's a lot of fragmentation in the market around the kinds of resources available in the region. There are many organizations like mine, or colleges and universities. There are a number of papers in town that offer tech events. There are even gyms that want to offer tech events. That one I didn't see coming.

If social media is here and people can make these connections without us, is it time to fold up the tent? Our market research doesn't show us that. We sit in right in the middle of all that. We are well positioned to be a conduit and a catalyst between the interaction of all these groups.

The GBTC used to be too expensive for the small entrepreneur to join? Now you're courting them?

We definitely are. The landscape changed. Everybody's talking about how entrepreneurs are a huge lever in the recovery of our country. I think we must open the doors, not just to large organizations that can afford memberships. … We are revamping our membership model to create a low-point entry, to shortcut the time it would take for them to make the connections

So, really, technology has disrupted the technology trade association?

That's right. To me that's a great thing. We are in the one industry where you can not become complacent.

TechNite is next week, the region's big annual showcase put on by the GBTC. What's different this year?

We're giving away a community award. The community award will be [manufactured] that night on a 3-D printer. … And for the first time ever: Top two corporate sponsor are tech companies, not professional service providers. [The companies are and Millennial Media.]

So what do you call these changes for the GBTC?

Clearly, it's a transformation. To me, it's almost a no-brainer. Our goal is above all to help lift up the formation and success of businesses in this region.

What do you think is missing from Baltimore's tech scene that would help it grow? More risk-taking investors? More daring entrepreneurs? More involvement from established, successful tech companies to nurture the new ones?

I think you hit two that stick in my mind. The greatest need is investment. I keep hearing how New York is flush with cash to throw at entrepreneurs, and Baltimore isn't. It's been a vulnerability for the GBTC where we haven't had enough relationships in that arena [investors and venture capital]. What we should be able to do in the short term is help our entrepreneurs fine-tune their pitches and business plans.

I think we can play a role in going to these large-size employers in talking about the importance of the fabric of this growing business community. ... If larger orgs are struggling to hire really good software engineers, what can we do to help?

How has having four kids helped your career?

I always used to joke once we had the triplets, it was the best management training I've ever had. I think it has certainly brought perspective so I can be a lot more efficient with my time. I can prioritize very quickly. I used to joke in consulting that there wasn't a client who could ever be as demanding as one of my kids.

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