On August 26, the godmother of New York City’s Silicon Alley passed away at the age of 88. The story of her life says everything about the mighty, nearly invisible power of culture to transform a community.
You didn’t know Silicon Alley – the city’s nickname for its high-tech cluster – had a godmother? Neither did I and I need to thank The New York Times’ Douglas Martin for bringing this milestone to a fellow New Yorker’s attention.
Mrs. Goldie Burns, known to everyone as Red for the color of her hair, was not an engineer, inventor or entrepreneur. She was not a venture capitalist or an attorney or a political leader. She was a teacher. Beginning in the early 1970s, she worked with a fellow professor at New York University to create a program called the Alternate Media Center. The students in the program came up with a lot of pioneering stuff. One example was a two-way TV system that allowed elderly residents of Reading, Pennsylvania (about 140 miles/224 km west of the city) interact with one another and with government support services.
Then personal computers came along, and Red Burns refocused her program, renaming it the Interactive Telecommunications Program or ITP. It created a refrigerator that projected a picture of a mother’s face on the back wall. When a visitor took a box of chocolates out of the refrigerator, the mother image said “Yeah, that’s just what you need! More chocolate.”
And when the dot-com era began, IPT rolled with it. A 2007 student project put sensors into the soil around plants, which signaled over a telephone line when a plant was thirsty.
Silly stuff? Maybe. But through projects like these, Ms. Burns helped ITP turn out 3,000 highly imaginative graduates. Working for Disney, Microsoft, Apple, Google and small start-ups, they now make up the core talent that drives the success of Silicon Alley. From 2007 to 2011, according to the Center for an Urban Future, almost 500 start-ups received venture financing. That accounts for a 32 percent rise in VC deals at a time when other areas – including Silicon Valley – have seen a decline in new company financing.
This is a critical change in the New York economy, which for decades has been dominated by finance and traditional media, and has suffered the severe ups-and-downs that come with being an almost-one-industry town. Much of the credit goes to Red Burns, who was not an executive, investor, lawyer or other member of the American elite but an educator. Her product was not video refrigerators or telephone-calling plants but a new culture of innovation ideally suited to the today’s intersection of computers, broadband, information and entertainment. Thanks, Red.