Dynamo helps Bay Area Jewish high tech group get its mojo going

Tanya Okmyansky is used to being asked how she manages her time, but she still hasn’t come up with any tricks to share.

“Yeah, I get that a lot,” the president of the Jewish High Tech Community says with a laugh. Her position as the head of the JHTC — a vibrant and growing network of Jewish professionals in the Bay Area’s tech industry — is volunteer, but she also has a full-time job at Apple.

So the Kiev, Ukraine native is accustomed to juggling.

“I think the only real answer is that I’m passionate about what I do. It [JHTC] doesn’t feel like work. It’s never felt like a burden,” she says.

Tanya Okmyansky

Okmyansky’s family moved to the United States when she was 8. She attended Lincoln High School in San Francisco, followed by Hillsdale High School in San Mateo, then earned a degree in business, marketing and computer office systems at San Francisco State University.

In an interview for this story, she’s speaking on the phone, on a headset, driving home from work at Apple headquarters in Cupertino. By day, every day, she’s a senior software program manager at the company; she’s worked there in some capacity since 2001. But her work isn’t over when she leaves the office.

Since she first became involved with the JHTC in 2008, the group — a 23-year-old organization, now a nonprofit, founded in cooperation with the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley during the beginning of the tech boom in the late 1980s — has flourished in a number of ways, according to members.

As one of three board members on an all-volunteer staff, Okmyansky has helped to bring back monthly and sometimes twice-monthly events and dinners (post–dot-com burst, they had been reduced to every other month). Also, she has used her industry connections to attract stars of the tech world to speak at JHTC events. That list includes people such as Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist; Jonathan Medved, a venture capitalist named by the New York Times in 2008 as one of the 10 most influential Americans in Israel; and Noah Alper, founder of Noah’s Bagels.

And, perhaps unsurprisingly, she’s overseen a huge uptick in membership.

“She just mixed things up in a really good way,” says Andrew Salop, a JHTC member who’s worked with Adobe, Skype and a handful of other tech companies. He’s known Okmyansky for roughly 15 years; the two were once co-workers at Apple.

“I was aware of [JHTC] for a long time, but when she got involved, the program just got more interesting,” Salop says. “It used to be a pretty small group, really geared toward a highly technical clientele. But when Tanya got involved, you could see she was going to take it to the next level — the membership expanded, broadened geographically. She started organizing more interactive, educational programming, and more social gatherings, like for Purim and Chanukah. She cultivated a really salon-like atmosphere. It’s basically a high-tech kumzitz [gathering].”

Most events last about 2 1/2 to 3 hours and begin with attendees spending about 45 minutes socializing and networking while enjoying wine, other beverages and appetizers. Time is provided for anyone who wants to announce that they’re looking for a job, or that their company is hiring. Then the evening’s guest speaker or panel takes over, after which there is time for questions and a discussion. More time for networking follows.

Okmyansky, who also finds time to volunteer with the Silicon Valley Jewish Film Festival as a screening committee member, says people now regularly come from San Francisco and farther for JHTC events. She’s also getting used to out-of-towners who are in Silicon Valley on business showing up and saying, “I heard about the JHTC.” Not all members are Jewish, she notes — it’s gaining a reputation as a casual, intimate center for job networking, tech education and socializing.

Members pay $150 a year for entry to all events, including meals, while individuals can register for specific talks for $15, with special prices for seniors and students. As none of the staff are paid, funds go directly back toward upcoming JHTC events.

At a recent “speed networking” event in Mountain View, around 80 professionals — ranging in age from their 20s to their 60s and beyond — gathered to exchange business cards and resumes and to discuss opportunities at each others’ companies. Modeled after a speed dating session, attendees could meet with upwards of 20 different employers and/or job-seekers for a few minutes each.

“I lost my voice that night,” says Okmyansky. “This crowd, people don’t always listen when the bell rings!”

Attendees that night — and at other JHTC events, as well — could be heard speaking English, Hebrew and Russian. It’s an interesting dynamic for groups that are not necessarily known for their eagerness to mingle in the same Jewish organizations.

“I think when people see that we have all these similar passions, that we’re holding interesting events, it really doesn’t matter what your background is,” said Okmyansky, whose connections with the Eastern European immigrant community have led to a surge in JHTC members from Russia and former Soviet Union countries.

Another commonality of the members and other attendees: a love of food. The evening of the speed-networking event, since it was the week of Passover, the spread included matzah ball soup, gefilte fish and kosher wine.

“That one was very successful,” says Peter Hoffman, a JHTC board member who’s been involved with the group for a little more than two years. “I had quite a few people call me and email me saying that it was a great event, that they’d made some useful connections.”

The next JHTC event will be a discussion May 8 on “Transforming Education Through Technology,” held at Fenwick & West in Mountain View. The moderator will be Martin Griss, the director of the Silicon Valley campus of Carnegie Mellon University.

Hoffman gives a good deal of credit to Okmyansky for both her creativity and managerial skills.

“She’s just stellar as a leader,” says Hoffman, a San Jose resident who works for a digital textbook company, Kno. “She not only holds a big vision as to what we’re trying to achieve, she’s also very good at managing details, and she’s incredibly well-networked. It was a successful organization before, but she was able to really breathe new life into it.”

Okmyansky deflects much of this praise, but she will admit she’s proud of how the organization has grown in recent years — especially in terms of backgrounds and culture.

“At some events, we basically have the U.N.,” she says. “I think it’s just getting around by word of mouth that we’re here, we’re doing interesting things and we’re open to the community. Whether you’re looking for a job, or you just moved here and you’re looking for other people who have similar interests, we can be sort of a hub for that.”

Hoffman says that the chance to help change people’s lives is a driving factor in his participation.

“For one person to make a connection at one of these events, and have it lead to a new job — that can turn a life around, and we want to be an organization that helps create that type of opportunity,” he says. “It might be one small conversation, but that can have a huge, positive impact on that person’s family and their community. That can be life-changing.”

Jewish High Tech Community lists information and upcoming events on its Facebook page and at http://jhtc.org

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.