Meg Weber is the executive director of TAG, a Bellingham-based non-profit that connects, informs and advocates for technology and innovation companies in the Northwest.
What brought you to Bellingham?
I went to graduate school in Rochester, New York. A lot of people in Rochester have connections with people in Seattle. So I thought a lot about moving to Seattle, but I was a single mom and had a young son. I was doing the math and realized I’d never see him because I’d be stuck in Seattle traffic jams. I found out about a position supporting and developing companies for the business school at Western. It was a really good match for my skills and abilities.
What hooked me was that I went on a run at Lake Padden, through the horse trails. It’s just so surreal there. Then I had an interview down at Boulevard Park. Then I had to drive along the waterfront because I had a meeting downtown. I was blown away by all the natural beauty.
I also moved here during the recession so there was tons of downtown vacancy with a dormant waterfront. I wondered what was going to happen here in twenty years. I thought about what it would be like to be a part of what is happening. It was the expectancy of this place. I felt like I could do something good here.
So ten years ago you made that drive and saw nothing but potential. If you make that same drive today what do you see?
I find it very exciting to see how much development has happened downtown and how much more of the space is occupied—productively and accurately occupied with tenants that make sense in the spaces. I see good growth opportunities like Faithlife. There has been a lot of expansion. The waterfront is starting to take off which is really exciting. Mostly what I’m seeing is slower indicators like pocket companies coming in. A company will have headquarters in Utah, Denver or Seattle and one person will say, “I want to work in Bellingham.” Then that one person will say, “I need a team that I can motivate, inspire, and drive from here.” And all of a sudden that team grows. You don’t see those two to ten person companies taking as much of the downtown real estate but they are definitely present within the tech community.
In a few more years we will see more property development in that space. For five to seven years there wasn’t a lot going on. People were kind of struggling with the economics of what was happening in the recession.
When I tell my friends—either at tech conferences outside the area or friends from other parts of the world—to check out Bellingham they immediately go onto Google Earth and see a big vacant space on the waterfront. There is a ton of opportunity for us to tap into. If we are open to it I think that we are going to end up with a less subdued culture here.
So what’s your favorite spot downtown?
I have to say the Pickford. I am on the board there. We went from a vacant shell to building a theater. It has been so fun to be a part of that.
My favorite thing to do downtown is run. A couple of friends and I will run from downtown to Fairhaven and back on a lunch break. That’s a great way to break up the day and get some fresh air. It’s really expectant when you are running on the waterfront.
What does Bellingham need? What is missing?
I have a couple of thoughts about that.
One of the surprising elements in Bellingham has been how hard it is for full-time, working parents to plug into play. You have a ton of efficiencies in terms of transportation, good work-life balance, all those factors that let you have more time with your children. But we don’t have as much structured activities around play or downtown, urban parks. There is an opportunity for more family-based play. For me that was and has been a hurdle. The simplest thing that we need downtown is a playground. [Laughs] Did you know we don’t have a playground in downtown?
We also need more tech workers and companies downtown and throughout the region. I think attracting more innovative, nimble companies will really make a big difference here.
On that front—tell me about TAG. What is TAG and what is its’ mission?
TAG has been around for 17 years now. Over the course of TAG’s life the goal has been to focus on technology, which is the application of science and innovation. We work to create a ready and nimble workforce that is interested in science, technology, engineering, and math positions. Over that last many years we’ve gone through a discovery process. We have realized that many businesses need access to innovative minds—digital natives that are consistently and persistently in technology.
The reason for TAG is that knowledge workers need and deserve enrichment. Technology and innovation companies have a distinct set of needs and requirements in order to be competitive in a marketplace. Most technology professionals don’t want to go to a broad based networking event but they would love to go learn something and happen to have fun with their peers and colleagues. In my experience people respond well to the pairing of education and fun. Our membership seeks that more than other memberships do.
We have also offered scholarships for students in Science and Technology for the last 14 years. That creates expectation and hope in those students while highlighting to our community that we have all these institutions of higher education. Our goal is to retain students from the University and the colleges and keep them active in Bellingham. TAG is a point of introduction into the tech community. Our goal is to have Bellingham be a home for innovative people that want to think about and discuss interesting topics and iterative improvement. We want to keep the Western, Whatcom, BTC, and Northwest Indian college residents here.
Our TAG events are stretch events. We will often cover concepts that don’t fully make sense and then have follow up sessions on them. We want to expose our members to things that stretch them and leave them really curious. On April 22 we will have our Tech Expo which is a job fair, but as part of the fair we really like to showcase the diversity that is happening in our tech community. Last year we started doing demonstrations. The positive output is that we have such a rich technology culture. People are thinking about crazy concepts that far exceed anything I would think about in my daily routine.
The other big reason that TAG exists is that tech companies want to know that there are other interesting people to connect with and that they can hone and develop their skill set. The great thing about TAG is that we are so focused on serving the innovation market, bringing new people here and retaining the talent we already have. We can invite unique people and business here who wouldn’t otherwise come.
For example at Predictions we had about thirty people from Vancouver and Seattle. They came to an event that was innovation and technology based to be with peers, have interesting conversations, and attended special events. After Predictions we did Bellingham tours and a VIP reception. They got to come along and see what it might look like to work next to business leaders in Bellingham who are dealing with similar issues like access to capital—who are thinking about tech issues.
We have a CEO group that is quite strong. Our CEOs are all struggling with, how do I get and retain the talent that I need. When you are a knowledge-based company that is your primary obstacle. Because we deal in the knowledge space we can help address those issues. Whereas the Chamber speaks more broadly to serve CEOs from a variety of industries, not just the tech.
So I hear from people in the tech space that there is a point that a community will reach critical mass, when several large tech companies are in close proximity and it becomes easier to recruit because it gives the employees options. What will it take to get Bellingham to that point of critical mass where Faithlife has other peers?
Well I think that’s our job at TAG. I joke about no playground in downtown, but really what we need to do is attract more tech companies. We do the job fair, job board, the job workshop, training and development. We always have a lot of positions that aren’t open and posted within our community. If the right person came along I would have some form of introductions that would be appropriate for them. I would say there is fear about finding a second tech job here in Bellingham. We need to do a better job this year communicating that there are tons of other jobs but they are in those two to ten person companies. It may be a pivot for someone to jump into a startup, but it could also be very exciting.
A big part of my background is in HR. I can get a resume from an applicant and say well you have all these skills and abilities. I know these five members that tend to hire towards these things. Why don’t you ask them out to coffee? Bellingham’s still one of those communities with a very large hidden job market.
One of my goals for TAG this year is to bring some of the hidden job market to the surface.
What do people most often misunderstand about TAG and your role in particular?
Were starting to refer to ourselves as just TAG. The reason for that is when people think of technology they don’t think of innovation—the application of thought and science. They think of IT. Often the people that get the most out of being involved TAG are not the people who the technologist but they are people in technology—leaders who need to think through innovation more quickly. Technology does not mean IT.
A lot of the work that we do is not evident on the surface. A lot of it is longer-reaching economic development work, creating relationships with Portland, Seattle, and Vancouver. And that’s really exciting but it’s not evident until something big happens. It is so important to help people to feel welcome and that they belong.
Our events aren’t containers for relationships. Predictions is a good illustration of this. We have been doing that for a number of years and the relationships and thought that comes out of that multiplies across the Pacific Northwest.
We did a cybersecurity conference two years ago with Whatcom and that brought a lot of attention to the cybersecurity program and has allowed us to have further conversations about how that program should get more investment and has helped to underscore what’s happening between Western and Whatcom.
People, as professionals, don’t often have awareness for what they can bring to what the community has to offer to the outside world. Extra resources, energy and positive esteem. It’s really hard to understand the joys of a community until you are a part of it. That’s one of the things that I hear the most when people start getting engaged or join a committee. They say: Wow! I can really make a difference here.
We’re writing the future of what this community looks like. There will be huge things that happen here. It’s largely gonna be innovation companies doing that—science, technology, medical, and knowledge workers. That’s who’s going to occupy the waterfront. The more that we can support those companies as they are testing the waters here the faster we will find those good matches.
You were on the tech levy committee for the Bellingham School District. Tell me about what that process was like?
Being a part of the levy process was awesome. The committee took it on like you would a business startup and did a lot of due diligence. I think we landed on a really good solution. It was informed by a lot of really solid research that was done over twenty years.
I have an eight year old boy. When I moved here I was surprised by how far behind we are in computing in the K-12 schools. Since the levy passed, we will be getting more laptops and we’ll have a 1:1 program starting soon. Much of it was a replacement levy to get rid of old equipment. We’re starting to see modern equipment entering the classroom and as soon as it does the kid’s interest is peaked. A year and a half, two years from now we’ll start seeing more application in the classrooms.
This will be a big deal for technology workers. We’re able to be competitive now as a school district. We’re able to make that promise as we are recruiting employees. Quality of life includes access to wonderful education for your children. So I am very excited that the levy passed. Those are the types of things that an industry association plays the role of. Being in tech I was able to have events and sessions about the levy and get some really good feedback. We were able to be the industry voice saying this is will create a more innovative K-12 system. That’s a benefit of being focused on thought leadership.