New TechNet CEO: Expanding Access to Tech Is Priority

Rey Ramsey, the new president and CEO of IT lobbying group TechNet, said he's not a person who'll take the group in a traditional direction.

TechNet is a nonpartisan lobbying group made up of senior executives of more than 80 tech vendors, including Cisco Systems, Dell, Google, Microsoft an

d Oracle. Ramsey has a wide range of experience, but his last job, as co-founder and CEO of nonprofit One Economy, often involved pushing tech vendors and government agencies to provide services to minorities and low-income areas.

Ramsey said he wants TechNet to become a group that proactively recommends polices that the U.S. government can take to spur innovation. And pushing out technology to low-income areas will continue to be a major goal in his new role.

IDG News Service recently interviewed Ramsey. Here is an edited transcript.

What made you want to get involved with TechNet?

I am now a convert, a zealot, when it comes to technology. I believe it is one of the greatest instruments when it comes to raising the standard of living for people, for improving our economy, helping in education and a host of areas. It's very similar in what I was trying to do at One Economy -- using technology as an instrument to improve lives.

Now, I'm just doing it from the vantage point of the private sector, but I intend to build bridges to the other sectors, to nongovernmental agencies and to government. The expression I use is that we really want to bring private innovation together with social innovation to produce positive change. That's what I talk about first.

When you talk to someone and they say the Internet is how I got my job, or it's how I got my Cisco certification, you see the power of it.

You've focused on bringing broadband and technology to low-income communities at One Economy. How do the members of TechNet see how that benefits them?

You're creating more customers. If you can bring those products to more people, you're creating more consumers. And, oh by the way, you can also help people improve their standard of living and quality of life. You have what I refer to as a convergence of interests.

It seems that some tech companies have not thought a lot about minorities, or about lower-income people, because they didn't see those as a huge market for them.

I think there are often perceptions that companies have, but over time they change. You look at cable television, those companies got it. The take rate for cable is pretty high if you go into public housing. Look at the explosion of cell phones. Early on, cell phones were for the fancy people. Now, we have a billion and a half cell phones around the world. I think those lines are quickly blurring.

That's why I started One Economy. I thought, "Wow, this is a market, and I've got to connect people to markets and markets to people." We should be thinking of ways to help the mayor of Detroit pivot to an innovation economy. TechNet is well positioned to be able to do that, when you look at the array of companies that are part of it. You can do well and do good, and do good and do well at the same time.

Do you see technology as driving a recovery from the recent recession?

We're all still waiting to see what a full recovery looks like. I don't think anybody can make broad proclamations about that. Clearly, when you look at the economic future of this country, it's inexorably linked to this sector. There's no doubt about it. I view the innovation sector as the American sector. It attaches to every major part of our lives: how we live, how we work, how we play, how we learn.

Take broadband, for example. If we can get broadband real high speed and make it ubiquitous, imagine the kinds of new applications and jobs that are going to be available. You're going to be able to interview for your job from home. It's going to open up a lot of new kinds of jobs we don't see today.

What are TechNet's priorities going forward? There's a lot of activity at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, but tech issues in Congress seem to be going nowhere.

For now. There are a traditional set of issues that we focus on. We care about education, we care about making sure there's a workforce that's equipped for the jobs we have today and the jobs we're going to have tomorrow. Patent reform, making sure we have a coherent tax code that isn't punitive to the sector. Clean technology -- we're very supportive of policies that will foster more innovation around green technology. And, of course, broadband, and making sure that it's affordable, available and adopted.

On a broad basis, I'm most interested in taking all those categories I've described and positioning TechNet to not just play defense on those issues, but to come up with positive policies that can be brought forward at the state level as well as the federal level. You'll see real recommendations. I don't believe in just coming in with buzz phrases -- "21st workforce" or "education reform." They become meaningless over a period of time.

For example, in broadband, we need to make sure that when we building affordable or public housing, that every one of those units have broadband in it. We should look at all our housing policies in America to make sure there's alignment.

You mentioned patent reform as a priority. The debate over how to change the U.S. patent system has been going on for years and doesn't seem to be making much progress.

I don't think there's really a magic bullet. You have to think about who's at the table, and can we sit at the table together and not talk at each other, but really think about where there can be common agenda items. What business wants, in most cases, is a level of certainty. What are the rules of the game? You just strip it down to its basics. That's going to be the approach that we take to a number of things to see if we can get some consensus. Policy makers don't want to move on these things if everybody is at each other from different ways.

Are you hoping to raise the profile of TechNet?

For a purpose. If the profile of TechNet gets raised because we're doing quality work, so be it. If the profile is raised because I think it's important to change the narrative a bit, then so be it. I think it's important that the sector, this innovation sector, is viewed as a sector that cares about the country, that it's a sector that does produce jobs and can produce even more jobs, and that is a sector that is universal. It doesn't know the color of the skin or the traditional biases.

What did you think of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's recent speech on Internet freedom and China?

I'm a big supporter of the secretary of state. I think we have a lot of sorting out to do in thinking through how we handle situations like China. We're all going to have to wait and see how this plays out. Clearly, if it looks like there's going to be continued espionage and cyberattacks on our businesses, that is an unsustainable course. The question is, then, how do you meld fiscal and government policy with corporate policy? This is new territory. The United States is not in the best position, in terms of China as a creditor company.

Clinton suggested that U.S. companies should think twice about doing business in countries that don't allow freedom of speech.

Here's one of the things that's so important about this. If you reach the point where our countries, hypothetically, decided to pull out of some of those places, you will eventually have a ripple effect of hurting jobs in America. We export, we make things here, too. Are we going to start having places that are no longer markets for us? It endangers us because we do some of our manufacturing in these places -- it'll make us less competitive. It will have a ripple effect on the economy if we're chased out of a number of places.

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