Westchester Is Experiencing A Silicon Valley-like (Almost) Tech Growth
For local businesses hoping to capitalize on tech trends such as cloud computing and mobile payment, the best provider might be just down the road.
Much of IBM’s $7 billion cloud computing business is developed at its Armonk headquarters. Even its signature Watson computing system is now available via the cloud.
Broadview Networks, like so many other contemporary tech companies, has a spartan headquarters. Its offices are neat and orderly—no tangles of wires, no rows of clunky computers. After all, Broadview specializes in the cloud, the burgeoning technology that promises to store data safely, quickly, and, perhaps most importantly, out of sight.
But what’s seemingly unusual about Broadview Networks—a company with a 19-year pedigree and clients across the Northeast—is its location. For years, the company has been headquartered not in Manhattan’s Silicon Alley or San Francisco’s sprawling tech community, but in Rye Brook. For Broadview CEO Mike Robinson, the location was an indisputable decision.
“[Westchester] is a sophisticated customer base,” Robinson says. “The area gets it. There are people who have a vision.” Throughout his decade-long tenure at Broadview, Robinson says he’s witnessed Westchester fight to maintain—and improve—its tech savvy.
Broadview, like Westchester, realizes the importance of being nimble: It began as a traditional telecommunications provider but evolved to stay relevant. Now, Broadview provides cloud-based phone systems. The company’s flagship product, OfficeSuite, can supercharge those stodgy office phones that populate cubicle desks. Landlines are brought online, and users’ voicemails, contacts, and more can follow them from one location to another. “It lets you be mobile,” Robinson says. “[We] enable the customer to be present anywhere.”
And those customers are diverse. Consider Polytemp, a Port Chester-based business that designs, installs, and services heating and air-conditioning systems. The cloud and HVAC are an unexpected pair, but Polytemp Vice President Chris Hutchins says Broadview’s services are indispensable.
“I have all my technical notes, pricing documents, quotes, and many more things in the cloud, so I can access all of it when and wherever I need,” Hutchins says. “With the weather we experienced this winter, we were able to turn our phones to cellphones [and keep] our business open, even when we could not make it into the office.”
A bustling business-to-business tech ecosystem
The pairing of Broadview and Polytemp is hardly an outlier. At first blush, one might imagine Westchester unprepared to sustain a robust business-to-business technology ecosystem. But they’d be wrong. Tech companies are anxious to set up shop in Westchester, with its abundance of small and mid-sized businesses and pool of gifted professionals. And local companies—eager to capitalize on key B2B tech trends like cloud computing, big data, and mobile payments—are thrilled to have IT partners just around the corner.
“In today’s world, technology is touching every business in new, meaningful ways,” says Laurence Gottlieb, president of Hudson Valley Economic Development Corporation (HVEDC), an organization that works to boost the economies in Westchester and surrounding counties. From the real estate and healthcare industries to law and finance, Westchester merchants are seeking tech providers to help them stay current and better connect with customers—and their data—Gottlieb explained.
“Westchester has many firms with growing technology challenges in a very tight cluster all within a stone’s throw of New York City,” Gottlieb adds. “It’s ripe, fertile ground for growing a [tech] business.”
Another example of Westchester’s flourishing business-to-business tech scene is the coupling of Katonah’s Caramoor Center for Music & the Arts, and Progressive Computing, a Yonkers-based firm. State-of-the-art technology is essential even for an art enclave, according to Sal Vaccaro, Caramoor’s director of audience services. Progressive Computing helps Caramoor connect and converse with art admirers around the globe, providing network maintenance, software guidance, and a quick hand if there’s an IT emergency. Caramoor is also prepping for a full-scale migration to the cloud—and Progressive Computing is taking them there.
Progressive Computing has long been a fixture of the county’s tech scene. Launched 22 years ago, the company started out writing software for local businesses but has undergone a series of transformations. “We’ve morphed our company three or four times,” says Robert Cioffi, the firm’s CEO and co-founder.
Now, the agency fills a critical role: “We’re the IT department for small and midsized companies,” Cioffi explains. Progressive Computing provides transitions to the cloud, disaster recovery, IT management, and help desk services for nonprofits, real estate companies, and other industries both locally and in Manhattan and the Bronx.
Cioffi has had a front-row seat watching Westchester’s businesses cautiously experiment with tech trends—and then embrace them fully. When cloud computing first arrived, he says, “There was an initial feeling of, ‘It’s not here. It’s not in my office, therefore I don’t own it, and I don’t trust it.’ But with time, the small businesses I deal with have grown to accept [that the cloud] is not only a trusted source, but they need it to run their operations cost effectively or to provide layers of protection.”
Fortunately, that acceptance was complemented by a potent local tech scene. “There are local tech companies—and even a data center or two—right here in our backyard that people can go to for their business solutions,” Cioffi says.
In recent years, these resources have proliferated. A recent example is Level 3 Communications, the global telecommunications carrier that opened a Tarrytown location in August 2014. Level 3 provides data services, security, and other offerings to businesses in more than 60 countries. Now, they’re expanding their influence here in the Hudson Valley.
“We are focused on empowering our customers to grow their businesses by providing local-to-global connectivity backed by end-to-end reliability and security,” says Carl Bonitz, the Tarrytown location’s general manager. In Westchester specifically, Level 3 is working with businesses in the healthcare, financial services, and manufacturing sectors, among others.
MasterCard Labs in Purchase is a hub for the company’s experiments in payment technology.
A hub for innovation
The influence of this tech ecosystem extends far beyond the county’s borders. John Sheldon is a senior vice president of innovation management at MasterCard’s headquarters in Purchase, and it’s here that he helps to oversee MasterCard Labs, a petri dish for the company’s experiments in payment technology.
“MasterCard Labs was started about four years ago in recognition of the tremendous upheaval that’s going on in the commerce payment landscape,” Sheldon explains. “It’s an organization focused on helping us look three to five years out…and getting ahead of the changes consumers are demanding.”
Labs is a “safe space” for innovation, Sheldon says, where new concepts are often treated as independent startups. Currently, two of these concepts are in the mobile payments realm. The first—titled QkR!—allows stadium attendees to order food and drinks without leaving their seats. It’s currently being tested in Yankee Stadium, but it will soon make its way into school lunchrooms in Australia and restaurants in the United Kingdom, Sheldon says.
The second idea, titled Simplify Commerce, is particularly relevant to small businesses: It allows merchants to implement electronic payment methods on their websites. For the jewelry maker or baker, for instance, it’s a way to reach customers who are too far-flung to set foot in a brick-and-mortar location. Simplify Commerce helps local business owners “participate in the broader commerce sphere,” Sheldon explains.
Just six miles north of MasterCard is IBM’s headquarters, nestled in the grassy hills of Armonk. Here—and at nearby IBM locations in Somers and Yorktown Heights—the tech giant perfects its cloud offerings. IBM’s cloud technology is used by 47 of the top 50 Fortune 500 companies, and cloud technology netted IBM some $7 billion in revenue in 2014.
Shiva Kumar, a vice president of corporate strategy with IBM, who works in Armonk and lives in Scarsdale, says Westchester is a hub for IBM’s cloud success. “Our cloud business is a global business,” he notes. “That said, Westchester typically has all the leaders of the different units.”
In Westchester, business development, investing, and technical experts come together to make the cloud a reality. “Many of the research innovations that happen in the space come from our labs in Yorktown Heights. And while the corporate function is located in Armonk, various product, services, and marketing teams are in Somers.”
A matter of course
Westchester’s penchant for tech dates back decades: Pace University’s Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems, based in Pleasantville, was founded in 1983. “Pace University was one of the first universities in the country to have a school of computing, which is currently the Seidenberg School of Computer Science and Information Systems,” says Bernice Houle, an assistant dean with the institution. The university offers bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral programs in computer science, information systems, telecommunications, and software engineering.
Houle notes many students balance their coursework with internships at Westchester-based tech companies—and upon graduation, alums don’t have to migrate to San Francisco or Manhattan. “There are a myriad of business opportunities [in Westchester],” Houle says. “There are more job opportunities than there are students to fill them.”
Houle notes Seidenberg is part of a greater local environment where STEM (science, technology, math, and science) education is thoroughly embraced. She points to the 12 Westchester school districts that recently participated in Seidenberg’s robotics tournament.
“Pace can continue to provide the education for students to go further, but it really starts in K through 12, ” Houle says. “Westchester County has a focus in STEM and technology. And I think that’s really important.”