What exactly does it mean to be an “influential” leader in the tech world? The whole notion seems to have changed over these past 26 months.
Putting together a list like the Globe’s Tech Power Players 50 used to be a fairly straightforward project: You had companies cutting the ribbon on sparkling new buildings, executives showing up to chair fund-raising galas or lobby on Beacon Hill, trade association meetings that would invite key movers and shakers to dole out awards or deliver keynotes. The influential people were easy to spot, like whitecaps on the top of waves.
But a lot of that activity was paused by the pandemic. The tech world became more heads-down and distributed.
When I’ve spoken to people both on and off this list recently, it has been in a Zoom box, at an outdoor event, or in a visit to a largely empty headquarters. Most have had what I call the “COVID glaze” — two-plus years of trying to figure out the right approach to mask-wearing and hand-shaking, return to office, keeping employees engaged without seeing them in person, balancing work with family demands, and a million e-mails.
And just about everyone’s personal sphere of influence seemed to shrink.
“I think we all withdrew into smaller circles than we had before,” says Mike Troiano, a venture capitalist at G20 Ventures in Boston. “Instead of going to an event with 60 people, most of whom I didn’t know well, I found myself in smaller circles of people I did know well — on walks, in outdoor activities, and around fire pits.”
Many chief executives no longer occupied corner offices, or addressed the troops from behind a podium or desk; Mike Salguero, the CEO of ButcherBox, an online retailer of meat, told me in the pandemic’s early months that he was spending a good chunk of his day walking around Fresh Pond in Cambridge, taking a string of phone meetings.
Prior to the pandemic, Steve Kaufer of Tripadvisor had built Route 128′s answer to the Googleplex, the amenity-rich headquarters of Google in Silicon Valley. Based in Needham, Tripadvisor’s office was designed to obliterate any negative feelings about your commute with plenty of cold brew coffee on tap, pool tables, outdoor decks, and a fitness center with live instructors. The company operated a second Tripadvisor outpost near the Boston Garden, for any employees who didn’t find it convenient to get out to the ‘burbs. Influence meant a trophy office space, bustling with an ever-growing number of employees. (See also Akamai’s space in Kendall Square.)
But now, for many of the tech employers on this list, like Wayfair, Drift, and Toast, job openings are typically labeled with “remote.” When companies are creating software, and selling it over videoconferences and e-mails, it’s a competitive advantage for them to be able to hire people anywhere in the country.
A new definition of “influential” will likely need to include entrepreneurs building successful companies that may never lease an office in Massachusetts, and may hire the bulk of their employees outside of the state. (One of the companies on the list, HubSpot, saw this trend coming, and created a job called “remote work and inclusion manager,” to help employees working from home feel like part of the team — in early 2021.)
But part of what has made Boston resilient through booms and busts is that we don’t just start one kind of company, or invent one kind of thing here. (Some greatest hits: the first e-mail, the microwave oven, the video game, the robot vacuum cleaner.)
To balance out the tech companies that are departing the real world for Zoom land, there are companies working on fusion reactors, robots that monitor construction sites, COVID testing and trend analysis, and giant batteries to store sustainably generated electricity until it’s needed. Nearly all of those companies still have scientists and engineers working together in shared labs, building and testing complex prototypes, and collaboratively honing them into products that someone will buy.
Another counterbalance to the virtualization and dispersion trends are shared workspaces that provide in-person teams with access to expensive equipment: places like MassRobotics, Greentown Labs, and The Engine. MassRobotics, located in the Seaport, opened an expanded space in early 2020; The Engine, a venture capital fund for startups tied to MIT, is building a 150,000-square-foot complex on the fringes of Kendall Square that will open this fall.
And then, of course, there’s addressing the pandemic itself.
From the earliest days of COVID, many of the people and companies on this list swung into action to respond. In addition to Moderna, that included CIC — an operator of co-working spaces — starting up a new arm, CIC Health, to make COVID testing and vaccinations more accessible; Biobot Analytics helping cities understand COVID peaks and troughs among their citizens by analyzing waste water; and providers of restaurant-ordering technology, like ezCater and Toast, finding ways to support that industry when eating in offices and restaurants suddenly screeched to a halt.
Others are tackling urgent issues of equity. The creators of Hack Diversity, Black Tech Pipeline, and the Deshpande Foundation’s Entrepreneurship for All program are working to bring more people of color, and people from nontraditional backgrounds, into the startup ecosystem.
“These last few years have made me more resolute in what I believe and will push to influence,” says Jana Eggers, CEO of the artificial intelligence company Nara Logics. For Eggers, that includes Black Lives Matter, LGBTQ rights, and protecting access to voting — as well as the potential ethical and bias issues surrounding AI software.
A big part of the story of the second half of 2022 will be how tech leaders steer their companies through the stock market’s slide, avoiding layoffs, fund-raising rounds with onerous terms, or the pressure to sell their companies at a fire sale price.
It’s too early to tell how deep or prolonged this turmoil will last. Eric Paley, a venture capitalist at Founder Collective, says: “Are we seeing a marketwide correction that will go down in history like the dot-com bust of 2001 or the global financial crisis of 2008?” Or will it be more of a recalibration in markets that got overheated? Paley tends to believe that “this is going to be a bigger, more painful period than we’ve seen in over a decade, but it’s important to avoid being swept up in what might be a short-term shakeup.”
Looking back on this list a decade from now, I think we’ll see three major types of power, impact, and influence, at three different scales.
One is influence on the local economy — leaders who stay focused primarily on creating successful companies.
The second is power expressed by nudging the evolution of new technologies, from robotics to cryptocurrency to synthetic biology to software algorithms, in (hopefully) constructive directions. All of those areas have a potentially positive or negative impact on jobs, energy usage, traditional agriculture, and information flow. (One thing that has made Boston such a vibrant place is that it is home to both builders and analyzers — the people driven by creating new things and those who seek to understand their impact.)
The third may prove the most important of all: planet-scale impact, by funding and creating new energy and materials technologies that help slow emissions and climate change.
Those included on this list certainly have their work cut out for them.
Scott Kirsner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @ScottKirsner.