Princeton Tech Meetup sparks connections

Every month, members of the Princeton area technology community pack into the community room at the Princeton Public Library to exchange ideas, plans and business cards.

The Princeton Tech Meetup, now in its sixth year, brings together coders, investors, engineers and other people associated with central New Jersey’s tech industry. The meetup group has grown to more than 5,000 members, with events attracting lively crowds every month. The Princeton Tech Meetup is the brainchild of Venu Moola and Chris Boraski, two local entrepreneurs who created the event because they saw a need in the Central New Jersey area.

“We did not have a single event or a group like this in a 35-mile radius of Princeton,” Moola said. “So we thought we’d just start on our own and see how it goes. It worked out really well.”

“The feedback on the events themselves have been really positive, almost always,” Boraski added. “That’s always gratifying to hear. The whole thing is to try to have people learn something and get value out of what we’re doing.”

The crowd at the meetups ranges from middle-aged investors to 11 year-olds and everyone in between. One of the younger attendees at a recent event was Iccha Singh, a rising sophomore at Montgomery High School and the president of Techsters, a student organization aiming to get more women involved in technological professions. She’s been to a few meetups, undeterred by the fact that the majority of the crowd is nearly twice her age.

“Age doesn’t really define what you can do,” Singh said. “I feel like I’ve been put into a lot of environments where I am either the only girl there or the only high schooler or teenager there,” she said. “If I just present myself confidently and I’m passionate about what I’m talking about – which I am – my age won’t factor into people taking me less seriously.”

Other meetup participants at a recent meeting either owned or worked in tech companies. Vanessa Constant works at Glasssquid.io, a startup in Princeton that hopes to build a platform for businesses to more easily find information technology professionals. For her, the meetup is a chance to meet like-minded individuals and exchange ideas.

“The thing that I love is really seeing how much innovation is happening and how much they’re pushing the boundary of what technology can do,” Constant said of the meeting’s regular participants.

Organizing the meetup is a small part-time job for both Moola and Boraski, who estimates that both of them spend between 10 and 20 hours per month planning for meetings. Preparation includes booking speakers, arranging a space and making sure there are no competing tech meetups in nearby areas.

One of the most important parts of meetup preparation is selecting a theme. There are 15 to 20 regulars that attend almost every month; the rest of the crowd varies based on what is being discussed that evening. At a recent meeting, the theme was “design thinking and technology for democracy,” one of the more popular ideas in recent memory. Some of the featured projects included a platform where voters can interact with politicians directly and a competition that matched teams of tech professionals to local government agencies.

“Since the election there’s been a lot of activity around the political space and we’re seeing it now in tech circles,” said Ben Bakelaar, the evening’s keynote speaker and an adjunct professor at Rutgers University. Bakelaar emphasized ventures that are conceived primarily to solve people’s problems with profit as a secondary motive.

“You could say that any product that fails is likely to have some issues with meeting the user’s needs…if you have a technology first approach, you might say ‘what can we do with a particular technology,’ then build something based on that without thinking about what the user wants,” he said.

After Bakelaar and other entrepreneurs presented, a few members of the crowd went up to the front to make announcements. The rest stayed around to network, stepping into the adjacent courtyard when the library closed for the evening. Some partook in the time-honored closing activity of a Princeton Tech Meetup — going to Winberie’s for a drink.

The Princeton Tech Meetup is one of the many gatherings posted on Meetup, an app and website for finding public events. Eric Kainer, a founding partner at a firm that deals mostly with energy technology, went to a tech event in Hoboken several times before finding the Princeton one, which is much closer to his home. Kainer says that the Princeton meetup allows him to find out what other professionals are up to, which is well worth the time investment.

“I’m a native busybody. I always want to know what everyone is doing,” he said. “Quite frankly, there’s a terrific diaspora of ideas just within this community.”

Enthusiasm for Princeton’s tech industry was the common thread that bound the diverse group of attendees together. The consensus seemed to be that the tech community in the Princeton area is supportive. Singh, for instance, attended tech meetups in part to find mentors for fellow high school students in her organization. Plenty of people have been willing to take her up on the offer, she said.

“Every time I’ve come in here to speak or ask for help, everybody is so willing to kind of put out there hand and say, ‘hey I can take you under my wing, I can help you, I can give you opportunities’,” she said. “They’re supportive and innovative and always thinking of new ideas to help people.”

Bringing that group of people under a single roof is Princeton Tech Meetup’s raison d’etre, says Moola.

“The community is growing and it’s growing fast and a lot of people say, ‘I wish I’d known about the meetup before’,” Moola said. “It’s a nice place to mingle and meet like-minded folks who talk the same language as you do.”