New York Senator Chuck Schumer Tells Local Entrepreneurs the City Can Surpass Silicon Valley as the High-Tech Capital of America

Senator Charles “Chuck” Schumer, the publicity-loving Democrat from New York, has his share of critics—but none seemed to be in attendance this morning at Internet Week New York, where he gave the kickoff keynote speech. The audience of journalists and Internet entrepreneurs ate up Schumer’s message: New York, he said, can and should surpass Silicon Valley as the leading tech center by 2035.

“What we need to do is figure out the right ways to nurture you, to encourage more people like to you come here, and to support you and those that join you, so that the businesses represented here today can thrive and grow,” the senator said.

The fourth annual Internet Week New York features 200 events and is expected to draw 25,000 attendees, according to David-Michel Davies, who chairs the event. Schumer’s keynote address was a late addition, with word coming on June 2 that he would be there. But Schumer was clearly happy to be on the menu. Just before his speech, he looked out at the crowd that had gathered at the Metropolitan Pavilion on West 18th Street—where Internet Week is hosting a large trade show and several events—and smiled. “You’re here the whole week?” Schumer asked Davies, who nodded in response. “Great.”

As he took the stage, Schumer spoke with enthusiasm and conviction about his goal of transforming NYC into a tech juggernaut. Schumer pointed out that New York is the second-largest recipient of high-tech venture capital, behind Silicon Valley. “We passed Boston this year,” he said. The city employs more high-tech workers than any other region in the country—300,000 in 22,000 companies. And, he added, it’s not just the giants like Google and Yahoo that are employing all those people. “We are home to small startups too numerous to count, many of which are showing signs of breaking through to become even more successful.”

So how can the city support all those entrepreneurs? Schumer used the Internet Week stage to put a call out to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Andrew Cuomo. Schumer urged them to create a working group and charge it with the challenge of surpassing Silicon Valley as a tech center by 2035. The effort, Schumer said, should be a private/public partnership that brings together leading figures from several New York industries—including finance, real estate, media, and education—to establish a plan for growing the high-tech sector.

Part of the plan needs to focus on recruiting young people to New York, Schumer pointed out. “When I talk to people in the Internet industry, one of the things they tell me is that when they go recruit at colleges and universities, many students are often surprised to learn how much activity there is in the high-tech sector in New York,” Schumer said. “They often end up in Boston or the West Coast because they didn’t even know to consider New York as a destination.” That has to change, he said.

Reaching the 2035 goal “requires us to keep investing in the future—at the federal, the state, and the local level,” Schumer said. “I know that in many quarters, government spending is a dirty word. But the simple truth is that we cannot expect to compete in the next century if we do not invest.”

Schumer stressed that fostering the growth of the biotech and cleantech space is also important for NYC’s growth. He pointed to a few examples—such as the public/private partnership that led to the establishment of the Alexandria Science Park on the East River.

Then Schumer asked the audience what state was the most energy efficient? Turns out the answer is California—a fact Schumer credited to Governor Jerry Brown, who pushed through building codes in the 1970s (during his first stint as governor) that mandated energy efficiency. “Energy efficiency is going to be a central component of moving us towards a clean energy future,” Schumer said.

Part of the challenge of fostering the growth of the high-tech sectors rests on attracting immigrant entrepreneurs to the city, Schumer believes. Towards that end, he is co-sponsoring a bill designed to woo skilled workers to the U.S. His proposals include awarding a green card to any immigrant with a degree in science, technology, engineering, or math from a U.S. university. He also proposes creating a new visa for immigrants who intend to start up companies and employ American workers. “We need to reward entrepreneurism, not push it away,” he said.

Schumer concluded by urging government leaders on the state and local level to step up their game. “The vitality of the city has always been a draw for people from everywhere who want to come and share in that, and feed on it. But it does not happen without effort, without foresight, and without commitment.”

Following Schumer’s speech, the Senator sat down with Davies for a Q&A that spanned topics ranging from Internet privacy to bicycling laws in Brooklyn. On Internet privacy, Schumer said that key watchwords should be “transparency” and “consent.”

“People should know how they’re being tracked,” he said. But he was quick to add one caveat: “We don’t want to go overboard so the Internet loses its vitality.”

Davies asked Schumer to comment on some recent lapses in Internet security, including China diverting Internet traffic for a short time. “I was just in China. They don’t get it,” Schumer said. “The leaders in China are afraid of the Internet. They saw what happened in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria. China will limit information to its citizens—at its peril. They will learn that rather soon. You cannot control a huge economy in terms of the information [people] get.”

On the question of voting via the Internet, Schumer had a bold prediction. “Internet technology will allow same-day registration—you could register the day you vote. It will happen.” He noted that some politicians in some states are trying to prevent Internet voting, but he predicted they wouldn’t succeed, and quoted Martin Luther King in his explanation. “The arc of history is long but it bends in the direction of justice,” King often said, Schumer noted. “That is so true. When it comes to voting it’s going to bend rather quickly.”

As some questions to Schumer came via Twitter and were broadcast onto the stage, the Senator mused about his own evolution as a communicator. He referred to himself as a member of the “older generation” who’s been a bit slow to make the transition to the Internet. But now, “I have 12,000 followers on Twitter, which isn’t bad. I have a staff guy who follows me around and tell him what to say,” he said. “I think social media is essential. Social media is one of the most effective ways to reach people.”

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