Dignitaries On the Doorstep
By Cynthia L. Webb
Thursday, April 26, 2001; Page E01
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Mikhail Gorbachev. King Abdullah of Jordan. Vice President Cheney. Leaders not likely to make pit stops in the same month in Anytown U.S.A. to talk to techies or CEOs. But all three have visited this month with Washington area technology executives.
It's a perk of doing business in or near the nation's capital. Just as Washington area businesses often have an entree to federal government business, the region houses a network of embassies and regularly hosts high-profile diplomats. In these leaner economic times, the high-profile meet-and-greet opportunities offer yet another outlet for entrepreneurs looking for business.
On Tuesday, about 150 entrepreneurs heard Gorbachev give a 20-minute speech at the posh Tower Club in Tysons Corner. Through an interpreter, he encouraged firms to use Russian-based tech workers and partner with Russian companies.
The Northern Virginia Technology Council helped organize the invitation-only event with Diane Cadenhead, a Marylander who works with a Washington-based charity group that helps needy children in the former Soviet Union. (She has adopted three Russian children.)
Gorbachev was already slated to attend a fundraiser last weekend at the Russian Embassy for Frank Foundation Child Assistance International, the group Cadenhead volunteers for. The former Russian leader, whose wife died of leukemia in 1999, wanted to raise money for leukemia research, to encourage U.S. companies to use Russian tech workers and to promote his nonprofit technology initiative, the High Technology Foundation/Gorbachev Project.
He was only the latest dignitary to come to the region. On April 18, the NVTC nabbed Cheney for the keynote speech at its spring banquet. (NVTC President Bobbie Kilberg's connections don't hurt. She served in the Nixon, Ford and first Bush administrations and helped secure the Cheney-Bush team's transition office space.)
And when King Abdullah came to town this month to meet with President Bush, the Jordanian leader zipped over to Reston to meet with a local king of technology: AOL Time Warner Inc. Chairman Steve Case. The two first met at the World Economic Forum in Switzerland last year.
Case hosted a breakfast meeting on April 10 for Abdullah, his ministers and a handful of local technology executives (mostly NVTC folks). The topic? Abdullah's interest in developing a strong tech sector in Jordan as well as business prospects for Washington area companies in his country, according to an AOL spokesman and the NVTC. Attendees included tech guru Mario Morino and Caren DeWitt, co-founder of Fairfax software firm WebMethods Inc.
Not every international networking opportunity involves a world leader. One group, Washington-based Tradebuilders Inc., uses Web-based software to operate "virtual" trade missions on the Internet to connect local entrepreneurs with workers and companies abroad.
The company, founded in 1999, ran its first online trade mission between Canada and the United States last October. A second mission was launched last week between the United States and India, said Elizabeth A. Vazquez, Tradebuilders' president.
About 30 companies and entrepreneurs from the United States and 20 from India are participating -- at a cost of $100 per company. Participants have a month to log into a secure site and enter different "rooms," where they can post notes online to introduce themselves and potentially broker business by trading tales of their skills and needs.
The rooms are set up to emulate resources that would be found on a real trade trip that a company or group might take to another country.
On Tuesday, three companies were using a "private boardroom" on the site that lets them post business plans and negotiate deals. The site also provides templates for writing letters of intent for a deal, as well as a library with Web links and access to data about both countries.
Participants include an electronics and software promotion council that's part of India's information technology ministry; the online exchange Indiamarkets.com; Arlington software firm Caucus Systems Inc., whose software is being used to run the trade missions; Ernst & Young's India business group; and Arlington-based Cvent, a provider of Web-based event-planning software.
Gaithersburg business owner Ken Weiss said he logged on only last week, is already corresponding with five Indian companies and is likely to do business with one of them. Weiss runs the consulting firm Plans and Solutions Inc. that sells market studies and business plans. He has done international work but said he had no Indian contacts until the online event.
Ted Theologis, a Greek-born entrepreneur, took a different route to start a business with an international bent. He launched a company in November 1999 in McLean to sell telecommunications services to U.S.-based Hispanics, including discounted long-distance rates to Latin America and low-rate calling cards.
LatinoFon.com's three founders started the firm with about $100,000 but closed last June for lack of funding, he said.
Theologis, who doesn't speak Spanish, said he had a hard time finding partners who spoke Spanish and had telecommunications experience. One snag was not finding a networking group that was dedicated to tech workers doing business focused on U.S. Hispanics or Latinos abroad.
After his firm folded, the 27-year-old started a monthly networking group by putting ads in local newspapers. About 40 people attended the first Latin eMixer happy hour last summer. Earlier this month, Theologis organized a forum featuring Washington area companies focused on doing business in Latin America, including Fairfax-based ZonaFinanciera.com and Washington-based Diveo Broadband Networks Inc. He said he didn't make a profit on the events, but they gave him insight into how to make contacts.
The Tower Club, the members-only hangout for the tech elite in Tysons Corner, is relaxing its dress code -- a little. In the past, coats were required at lunch and dinner in the main dining room. The board decided to experiment this summer with a policy of "jackets preferred," reports club board member Mark Bisnow, the MicroStrategy alum who is now senior vice president at WebMethods.
The change, he told staff writer Neil Irwin, was made to accommodate younger members. "It's more useful in entertaining and bringing friends if they don't have to remind them to go to their closet for a jacket," he said.
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