When Jack Hidary announced his bid to be mayor of New York City last Wednesday, most New Yorkers who caught the news had just one question on their minds:
Hidary is, by all accounts, an underdog in this campaign. He entered the race late as an independent candidate, running against frontrunners like Christine Quinn and Anthony Weiner, who are regularly making national news (whether they mean to or not). But Hidary insists he has one advantage no other candidate has: a background as a successful tech entrepreneur.
In 1995, Hidary and his brother Murray launched EarthWeb, a company that provided tutorials and resource directories to the tech community. In 1999, a year after going public, EarthWeb acquired Dice.com, now one of the country's leading tech career sites.
As Hidary spoke to a small, but eager group of New Yorkers last week at his campaign launch event, he explained why he believes his tech background makes him the only right choice for New York City. It was no accident the event was held in a back room at the Manhattan-based co-working space, Alley NYC. "More and more of these spaces are erupting all over New York City. My vision is to bring this kind of creativity to all five boroughs," Hidary told the crowd, which consisted primarily friends, family, and volunteers. "Technology's not just about the tech sector. It's infused in and changing every single industry. That's an opportunity. If we can provide training in centers like these, we can change New York City."
I caught up with Hidary after the event to talk more about his start-up days and why he believes entrepreneurship is such a crucial part of New York City's future.
How did you first get started as an entrepreneur?
Growing up, almost every person in my family started a business. My dad and his uncles have been running their business for 65 years now. It's called M. Hidary and Company. They make sports clothing, brands like Champion and Fila. So that was my childhood, working in the warehouse with my dad, building the family business. That's where I learned about building to last and about teamwork.
I was also a big nerd. I got my first computer when I was really young, and I went to computer camp and everything. In the 90s, it dawned on me that techies were building stuff for healthcare, banking, finance, travel, but no one was building stuff for techies. I realized they were like the cobblers' children with no shoes, so I said, let's build a company just for techies.
What did that entail?
EarthWeb was basically a series of websites my brother and I built with a guy named Nova Spivack. In 1995, we built the world's first site dedicated to the Java programming language. We built the first crowdsourced Java programming code library, because we felt the best way to learn Java would be to tap into other developers and share the code. We also realized career was a huge market, so we found a website called Dice.com, a small 10-person company in Iowa, and we acquired it. Dice became so big, we changed the name to Dice Inc.
How do you think the skills you learned as CEO could translate to being Mayor of New York City?
The first skill is you've got to bring in a great team. Entrepreneurs often feel they can do it all, but more seasoned entrepreneurs realize you need a great team. I also learned the importance of resiliency, which is something we have to build into this city. A lot of business was lost in the city after Hurricane Sandy. In other countries, where they don't assume the grid will be on all the time, they build solar panels into the street lamps. I want to do the same thing in New York. It's good for business continuity, and it allows us to continue to function even in the face of those challenges.
Why did you walk away from Dice in 2001?
I really wanted to focus on some of my other passions. I had a deep passion for microfinance and helping other business owners start companies. I joined the board of the microfinance institution Trickle Up, where I got involved in helping low-income individuals here in NYC start businesses. I got politically involved almost right away. For the past 12 or 13 years I've been involved in Washington and New York. I had the privilege of working with senators and the city council in New York City and supporting their work. I got very active in an issue in 2005 around converting taxi cabs to hybrid vehicles.
You've never held public office before. Why shoot straight for the Mayor's office?
I'm not sure why I would run for something else if I want to lead New York City. I'm not a career politician. That's an advantage. I don't think a career politician is best suited to run this city. It's absolutely critical to have a mayor who is engaged in technology, the core driver of our economy. I can go to Silicon Valley and other countries and bring business here. Being Mayor of New York helps. But there are a lot of mayors around the world competing for those dollars. The Mayor of London, Sao Paolo, Shanghai--a lot of mayors are competing for those dollars so relationships count.
You're running on your own Jobs and Education Party. Lets talk about the ways you plan on creating jobs and fixing education.
First, jobs. The city has already done a great job partnering with organizations like New York University and the Council of Fashion Designers of America to create incubators. I want to create additional partnerships to bring these incubators to all of the boroughs. I also want to attract other businesses to New York. And these are not just tech businesses. We have a hugely successful food industry. Another big area for New York is 3D printing, with Shapeways in Queens and Makerbot in Brooklyn. Recently, there was a Queens tech forum where someone asked the candidate a question about 3D printing. Not one of them knew what it was. One candidate even asked if Makerbot was a craft beer. We have candidates out there who don't know the basics and aren't in a position to prepare our students for the jobs of today and tomorrow.
Which brings us to education. What's your plan to fix New York City schools?
We need to see a move away from pure textbook learning and memorization to blended learning. There are already some models of this in New York, like P-Tech. It's a collaboration between IBM and New York City's school system. There's The Academy of Software Engineering, a school where students get hands-on education in software and design. It's a wonderful program that was championed by Fred Wilson. I want to see more public-private partnerships like these. These schools are proving it can be done at or below the current costs.
There are some skeptics who doubt you can win this election and wonder if you might be running for publicity. What do you say to that?
I don't need to do this. I have had a successful career building companies, I'm active in public service and elsewhere. I didn't need to run for mayor. I chose to run because this is a moment when I believe New York needs a leader with the combination of experience I have. Other cities are not sitting still. There's global demand for the best human and financial capital. Money moves where it's best suited. We in New York must fight. We must compete. As an entrepreneur, I've competed at the world stage, and I've won. We've got to make sure we have a leader who's done that.