Brian Jepson had attempted to form a number of groups before the Providence Geeks. However, by his admission, they never really went anywhere.
Maybe it’s a change in the “geek” culture. Maybe it’s the way the group runs its monthly meetings. But whatever it is, it seems to be working this time.
Formed in January 2006, the Providence Geeks is a social networking group that brings together information technology workers from a wide array of industries. Monthly dinners held at AS220 downtown attract people from large and small businesses, government, nonprofits and academia. People attending serve in many different positions – some are developers, some are designers, some are students and some are investors.
The events have been drawing as many 100 people on a monthly basis, even at points when Jepson thought they wouldn’t be able to maintain a strong turnout.
“We’re surprised to see so much activity – even in the summer months, when typically a lot of things slow down,” Jepson said.
While the rapid growth may come as a surprise to Jepson and co-founding Geek Jack Templin, the wealth of talent in the state that regularly attends the meetings has not.
When the two founded the group, they sought to focus on innovation and the role it has played in developing the state’s digital media story – as well as connect the individuals involved.
In a state that boasts a number of young technology startups and institutions such as the University of Rhode Island and Brown University, Jepson and Templin knew that the people were out there. The key was bringing them together. Once they did, the number of people aligning themselves with the geek movement began to grow.
“The word is getting out more and more that something is happening,” Templin said. “It’s really viral organic growth.”
Perhaps some of the group’s success is rooted in the casual nature of its organization. According to both Jepson and Templin, the Providence Geeks is a deliberately “low-overhead” organization.” The two serve as its lead volunteers, while four other volunteers round out the core group; decisions are made by consensus of the group.
There is no formal membership program, and the Geeks don’t charge any fees. Instead, the group focuses on organizing events, maintaining a blog, ProvidenceGeeks.org, and taking advantage of networking Web sites such as Eventful.com and Frappr.com to reach others.
While the group’s blog and use of other sites helps connect people through the Internet, the monthly Geek Dinners have been successful in putting people in one room to encourage collaboration.
At the meetings, people have been able to link up, share ideas and create new partnerships. Investments have been made, as venture capitalists have been put face to face with the people with the ideas.
Also, through the group’s online job posting forum and at the monthly meetings, people have been able to land new jobs.
All of this ties into precisely what the two men were looking to do when they first sought to bring the state’s “geeks” together. But while it’s a good start, Templin said the ultimate goal – one they are on their way to achieving – is to build an IT culture in the state.
“I think we’re really going to create a culturing community that’s conducive to collaboration,” Templin said, adding that the aim is to help IT workers “not only feel more a part of a community, but also give them easy access to other people, ideas and technologies that are complementary to innovation and entrepreneurship.”
At the monthly meetings, attendees are afforded educational opportunities and presentations from a number of speakers.
In recent months, presenters have included DigiEducation and Public Display. This month, Traction Software is slated to present.
According to Jepson and Templin, the unstructured time format and the thought-provoking nature of the presentations leads to discussions that encourage the development of new ideas and collaboration among the participants.
In the application submitted for the award they received, Jepson and Templin included several testimonials to the group’s work. One of them, provided by Tizra co-founder David Durand, said that the Providence Geeks allows innovators the opportunity to present their ideas to a savvy audience.
“I attend Providence Geeks events as often as I can, and I’ve made new contacts, met people that I might hire in the future, and renewed old ties, as well as swapped new-company stories with other entrepreneurs and startup staff,” Durand wrote. “Only months after Tizra started, we chose Providence Geeks as the first public forum for a technology demonstration of elements of our new product, at a stage when a savvy audience is as helpful as it is hard to find.”
Being chosen as this year’s Innovation Champion award recipients, Jepson said, shows that the work they are committed to is actually starting to make a difference in the state. “It validates our sense of connection to the people in Rhode Island,” Jepson said. “It grounds us.”
But is the rest of the state catching on the lead the Geeks are playing in trumpeting IT?
It didn’t seem that way at first, but it does now, Templin said. Around the time the group formed, Templin had said that he and other people in the industry felt that information technology was taking a back a seat to the state’s interests to develop a viable biotechnology economy. But in the nearly two years since the group has formed, his opinion has morphed.
“We’ve really come to appreciate how much the state values the sector,” Templin said. “The R.I. Economic Development Corporation has really supported us. We did think earlier that we were a stepchild to biotech, but I don’t think that anybody feels that way anymore.” •