Fanning the Flames of an Industry Hot Spot

New York is fast becoming one of the nation's most dynamic tech hubs. Minerva Tantoco, the city's first-ever CTO, intends to take it to new heights.

Candice Helfand-Rogers By Candice Helfand-Rogers

Credit: Anders Jildén, StockSnap

Credit: Anders Jildén, StockSnap

New York City is a thriving metropolis that’s home to tens of thousands of businesses. This includes a fast-growing cadre of technology companies, nurtured by a decade of public policy initiatives that have helped turn the Big Apple into a true tech center.

To keep charging ahead, Mayor Bill de Blasio last year hired business-savvy technologist Minerva Tantoco to serve as the city’s first-ever chief technology officer — a long-awaited move, and a signal that the tech-friendly policies of former Mayor Mike Bloomberg would continue.

Credit: Mark Malabrigo

Credit: Mark Malabrigo

By the numbers, those policies appear to have been rather effective: The city’s Economic Development Corp. estimates that in 2013 NYC’s “tech ecosystem” included 291,000 mostly high-wage tech-industry jobs as well as tech jobs in other industries — 45,000 more than in 2003. It generated $87.1 billion in gross regional product, $124.7 billion in total spending and $5.6 billion in tax revenue (or 12 percent of the city’s total tax take).

Growth capital is also piling into Silicon Alley. Venture capital investment in New York firms grew 13.3 percent annually between 2003 and 2013, twice Silicon Valley’s 6.4 percent growth pace and dwarfing Massachusetts’ negative 1.7 percent rate, according to research from Endeavor Insight (a nonprofit that supports high-growth entrepreneurs).

This tech boom has greatly benefited Gotham’s women, with studies ranking New York City high for female tech-company founders per capita and reports indicating that the city’s tech workforce is 40 percent female — again besting Silicon Valley, where women have started just 3 percent of tech companies and account for only 30 percent of the tech workforce.

As the city’s economic vitality becomes increasingly tied to the success of the tech industry, and as that success continues to benefit female denizens, it’s crucial that someone continue to push the city’s tech industry forward.

Enter Minerva Tantoco. As CTO, she directs the Mayor’s Office of Technology and Innovation and aims to revolutionize citywide tech strategy, while ensuring free or affordable high-speed Internet access for every city resident. It’s a daunting task, but as an industry veteran who knows NYC like the back of her hand, Tantoco thinks big.

The Path to Becoming NYC’s First CTO

Tantoco, a native New Yorker, grew up in Flushing, Queens, and attended the city’s public schools, graduating from the famed Bronx High School of Science in 1981. She likens her time in the city’s diverse schools to “winning a lottery.”

She went on to Vassar College, initially majoring in pre-med but switching to cognitive science after discovering a love of computers. She earned her Bachelor’s degree in 1986 — but not before taking time off to launch her first tech startup, Manageware Inc., which she successfully sold five years later.

Now three decades into her career, Tantoco has held leadership roles at several large companies, including financial-services firms Fannie Mae and Merrill Lynch. Prior to being tapped by Mayor Bill de Blasio to join his administration, she was CTO of client-facing technology at UBS, the global bank.

In those roles, Tantoco collaborated with industry giants like IBM, AOL and Nextel (now owned by Sprint), and even found time to secure four software innovation patents. It’s an impressive resume, rife with experiences that influence how she approaches improving 8.4 million New Yorkers’ access to technology.

The Techie Gotham Needs

As CTO of New York City, Tantoco has been instrumental in setting up LinkNYC, a connectivity service that will bring fast WiFi service to those millions of residents by turning unused payphones into hotspots. She encouraged the online publication of the City Record, once a printed resource on public hearings, proposed rules and more that, today, is a searchable online database. And she has worked with the de Blasio administration to rethink the city’s tech-vendor procurement strategy.

Tantoco is also spearheading public outreach efforts. She launched Call for Innovations, an effort to solicit external ideas on how to address city-specific problems. And she regularly appears at events hosted by organizations like Girls Who CodeStartup Grind and Lesbians Who Tech, often speaking about humanizing and diversifying the tech industry.

Not bad for someone who’s only been on the job for about a year.

While Tantoco cites her culturally diverse New York City upbringing as partial inspiration for her desire to support all types of people, she credits her entrepreneurial experience for the confidence she’s feels — and has always felt — in approaching her work. “No one told me I couldn’t [start a business]. I just did it. And so that immunized me against later situations in which people thought I couldn’t do something, because I had already done it,” she says.

Her history also prepared her for her work as CTO. Mayor de Blasio “needed someone who could talk to startups, but who also understood how large enterprises worked,” she says, so the city could build relationships with all kinds of companies. “I think that [experience] informs my job every day.”

Diversity (and Motherhood) in Tech

As a woman of color, Tantoco’s time in the tech industry has resulted in long-term exposure to what she referred to as an “ambient unwelcomeness” for those outside the white, male paradigm of tech entrepreneurship and employment. She sees it as a pain point that’s holding back not only generations of people, but also, the tech industry itself.

“If young girls and minorities don’t see someone that looks like them leading as a CIO or CTO of a company, then that feels like it’s not something for them,” she says. “And it’s worse the further that gets whittled down — if you’re LGBT, if you’re a person of color, if you’re all three, or a person with disabilities, or any of those categories that aren’t the public image of a techie.”

Her solution? “I think it’s important to have champions that have that compassion and understanding of what it feels like” to be excluded. And she’s leading by example in New York City, working with a diverse team of women to achieve her CTO goals.

Motherhood has also impacted her professional worldview — right from the moment she found out she was expecting. During a TEDx Talk she gave earlier this year, Tantoco revealed that she discovered that she was pregnant while interviewing for her first CTO job.

It was daunting news at the time, but years later (she’s now the proud mother of a teenager), she feels that being a parent has made her a better technologist by giving her a whole new perspective — and a new set of problems to solve.

Including people of all backgrounds in tech is critical to furthering innovation, she argues. “I think that if we focus on what people need, what humans need, and solve those human problems with technology — and all of us are humans, in all of our diversity and different perspectives — that’s gonna make better tech.”

Posted: September 11, 2015

Candice Helfand-RogersFanning the Flames of an Industry Hot Spot