Why We Needed CUNY Tech Meetup

Dawn Barber—co-founder of NY Tech Meetup, the largest Meetup group in the world, angel investor in early-stage startups like PhilanTech, and Civic Hall member—has a new side project: CUNY Tech Meetup. CUNY, or the City University of New York, is the third-largest university system in the country, after the New York and California state systems, and has one of the most diverse student bodies in the U.S. In December, our Microsoft Technology & Civic Engagement team hosted CUNY Tech Meetup at Microsoft’s New York headquarters to introduce students to the pioneering civic tech work being done by Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer, Noel Hidalgo of BetaNYC, Jeanne Brooks of DataKind, Noelle Francois of Heat Seek, Andrew Hoppin of NuCivic, Deanna Zandt of Lux Digital, and David Moore of Councilmatic. I interviewed Dawn about how CUNY Tech Meetup seeks to connect New York’s thriving tech community and the city’s public college system.

[Ed. note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity. And, full disclosure, Civic Hall co-founder Andrew Rasiej is chairman of the NY Tech Meetup board.]

Matt Stempeck: You already founded this huge meetup, NY Tech Meetup—why a spin-off? Why is it important to cultivate the tech community at CUNY specifically?

Dawn Barber: I like to think of the New York tech community as generous folks. We want to nurture our community and we want to give back to younger people. I felt that we already had a pretty good relationship with NYU and Columbia students, through different programs, and that CUNY students weren’t on the map in the same way, or integrated into our tech community in that same way.

It was my friend Art Chang at Tipping Point Partners who asked me to come and speak to this small group of students. He started a program called CUNY Tech Apprenticeship Program, and he was the one who came up with the idea and told the folks at CUNY they should have a tech meetup.

CUNY is kind of all over the place in the city: Queens, Brooklyn, Manhattan, uptown, downtown. I think it’s hard for them even to communicate to all the students in a cohesive way. It’s a big population. I thought, well, I can take a lot of what I’ve learned from NY Tech Meetup and apply that. The meetup can be for CUNY students, CUNY faculty, CUNY staff, and I want to bring  our industry friends to these meetups to interact with the students, so that hopefully those students will be part of the workforce of New York tech companies in the future. I don’t want it to be only NYU and Columbia kids. These are our city kids, and often more immigrant kids who might not have the money to do internships where they don’t get paid, or something like that. And so it’s meaningful to them, to hear from some of our folks and to have the opportunity to network.

I mean, you’re the one who approached me about CUNY Tech Meetup. That’s so awesome, to have someone at a place like Microsoft come to me and say, “this looks like it’s really important for New York and I’d love to help out, maybe we can sponsor something.”

MS: I think part of getting an awesome job in the tech industry is first being aware that these jobs exist, especially the ones in civic tech that are sort of social impact plus tech—you might not even know it’s a thing that you can get paid for. And then also having the access and connections.

DB: That’s exactly right, and we ask our speakers to stick around after so students have the opportunity to start a conversation with them. It’s important for CUNY to have a networking component.

MS: I understand you’re a believer in taking the scenic route in life, and I really appreciate that. How do you translate that open-stance approach to college students who are often really concerned about finding a job out of college?

DB: Tech is new. It’s not like finance or some of these other industries where there’s a very specific route to go. We’re all over the place. There’s no road map really. Mark Zuckerberg’s doing one thing and Sheryl Sandberg’s doing something else, and our New York companies have taken a whole range of paths to get to where they are. And I think it’s wide open.

MS: I think whether or not someone feels the agency to go and build something is huge, especially when we get to the world of civic tech where many of us are trying to build these platforms for democracy or to change cities, and are often affecting other people’s lives in doing so. I think it’s incredibly important that everybody feel invited to help redesign society, if that’s what we’re doing. It can’t just be a select few of us with tech skills and connections. Everybody needs to feel like they can contribute to that process.

DB: I think that’s absolutely right. That’s what we should be using technology for—to make the world better. It’s not easy, and it doesn’t always work. That’s a whole other component of tech, the failure part of it. I don’t even like to use the word “failure,” it’s really the iteration process. We have to keep trying stuff, particularly when it relates to civic tech. It is not figured out yet at all. And we need to get more people involved who are trying. That’s all we can ask. You don’t have to necessarily get it right—it’s great if you do, more power to you—but try.

MS: That’s what I love about CUNY Tech Meetup and why it was great having a roster of people in civic tech present in December, because we really do need more talent and future founders and everything else in the pipeline.

If people who don’t currently have any interaction with the CUNY system want to contribute, what can they do?

DB: Come to CUNY Tech Meetup! It’s free to join.

It is a little bit of a branding challenge that it’s called CUNY Tech Meetup, and it is for the CUNY community, but the mission is to integrate them into our larger tech community. I want tech community people like us to come, whether you want to speak or even to just come and network after with the students. If you’re looking for developers, I want these students to be the CTOs of the future. Just come.

MS: Last question: It’s a Leap Year so you have a full 24 extra hours. What’s the next meetup you’re going to start?

DB: I’ve always wanted to start a bulldogs meetup. I’m a big bulldog lover.