WENATCHEE — Fax machines and pagers gave way to cell phones and then smart phones in the past 20 years. Dial-up modems and “you’ve got mail” turned into Wi-Fi and the need for cybersecurity. Webhosting was a thing for a while. Microsoft 10 arrived.
Through it all, the Greater Wenatchee Area Technology Alliance, a nonprofit that formed in 1999, helped keep regional businesses in the loop, showcasing those who were using technology to advantage and pushing for policy and training to help make sure the region stayed on the top of the tech game.
GWATA officially became NCW Tech Alliance this year, a move that had been in the works for some time. The group also added employees and overcame hurdles presented by the pandemic to present its Flywheel Investment Conference and Innovator Awards.
The organization jumped into action to help small businesses build and manage their own websites to be better positioned for e-commerce, a need revealed during the pandemic shutdowns.
“We’re committed to creating and innovating programs based on what’s most relevant and needed in our communities,” said NCW Tech Alliance Executive Director Jenny Rojanasthien, noting the website classes as a prime example.
That commitment, she said, hasn’t changed over the years, but the organization, like technology, has evolved. How? That’s what we asked Rojanasthien.
Here is an edited version of the emailed conversation:
Wenatchee Valley Business World: How has the organization's mission changed or refocused from the early years?
Jenny Rojanasthien: Since 1999, NCW Tech Alliance (formerly GWATA — Greater Wenatchee Area Technology Alliance) has been the voice for connecting and supporting technology companies and entrepreneurs.
As the community came together to form our nonprofit, we had one clear goal: to ensure rural Washington was not left behind as technology accelerated.
Our initial focus was fiber development. We worked alongside our public utility districts and internet service providers to share the benefits of fiber with business owners.
Over the years, our focus has broadened to include supporting entrepreneurs and advocating for the next generation of the STEM workforce through our education initiatives. Our programs and events have ranged from cybersecurity classes for business owners to hour-of-code events for kids.
WVBW: Has your membership changed since the organization started?
Rojanasthien: From retailers and restaurants to software and app developers — there is a place for everyone at NCW Tech Alliance. We initially served the greater Wenatchee area but later expanded to include Grant and Okanogan counties. This year, we’ve expanded programs to serve a total of six counties: Adams, Chelan, Douglas, Ferry, Grant and Okanogan.
We’re grateful to our corporate partners like Microsoft and regional partners such as the Chelan Douglas Regional Port Authority. They are among the many organizations who have been consistent supporters to our nonprofit.
Prior to COVID, our membership base was around 185 members. The pandemic slightly decreased the number of members, but we are starting to see an increase again. Anyone who couldn’t pay membership dues but wanted to remain active during the pandemic received a complimentary membership.
WVBW: What tech changes have occurred in the past 20-some years?
Rojanasthien: We’ve seen the development of fiber-optics, the growth of technology in agriculture, the development of data centers, and a thriving entrepreneurial community.
Approximately 10 years after our nonprofit formed, highlighting technology in K-12 education became an area of interest and a primary focus five years later. We adopted STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Math) Education as one of our three focus areas. We cannot maintain or create attractive employment centers for legacy employers or technology startups if we do not have a local workforce pipeline.
The pandemic has accelerated the relocation of tech professionals into our region, highlighted the inequities for individuals and businesses without technology resources, and has permanently changed the way many people live and work.
We believe that technology adoption can positively impact our community, but we know it’s not enough to have technology tools available. Many small to midsize businesses (and nonprofits) look at technology solutions and feel overwhelmed.
At NCW Tech Alliance, we support business owners by meeting them where they are — in person, at their business, at a coffee shop, at the library, etc. We also provide mentorship from tech volunteers, professional service support and celebrate success stories. We create a fun and open learning atmosphere to remove the stigma for people who don’t identify as tech-savvy.
We believe the founders of our nonprofit would be proud when they see that we’ve grown from a volunteer-run organization to a staff of five people who deliver programs year-round.
WVBW: Based on what you're seeing, what tech changes will be coming in the next 10 years?
Rojanasthien: Artificial Intelligence (AI) is going to impact every business in our region.
At NCW Tech Alliance, we feel we have a tremendous opportunity to raise awareness of the opportunity AI presents and integrate it into our skill development programs to support the next generation of technology talent. In the upcoming years, our nonprofit has plans to bring in AI events on topics like automation, data analysis, and how to engage with customers and employees across the region.
We’ll also collaborate with workforce training partners to identify training options for building AI skills. Like all of our programs, sharing successes and technology adoptions by highlighting local stories will be crucial for our awareness strategy.
In August of this year, we hosted the first annual AI Expo in partnership with the North Central Education Service District to further showcase AI. The goal of the AI Expo is to generate curiosity and exploration of AI technology uses in both business and education.