MEET TIM RITCHIE, THE EXTRAORDINARY PRESIDENT OF OUR SILICON VALLEY’S WORLD FAMOUS THE TECH MUSEUM OF INNOVATION

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I recently had the great pleasure of meeting and talking with Tim Ritchie, President of The Tech Museum of Innovation, in downtown San Jose, located at the Cesar Chavez Plaza.

My conversation with him was so insightful and inspiring.  Technology is in many ways determining our world’s present and our future.  Technology is such, that for all ages, especially our youth, we need to be able to grasp it … and find our confidence in it. 

Tim arrived at The Tech in October, 2011. There is a genuine excitement as The Tech welcomes 400,000 to 500,000 visitors a year, and an additional 150,000 visitors to the adjoining, very special in its own right, The Hackworth IMAX® Theater.  The mission of The Tech is: “To inspire the innovator in everyone”.  Clearly, if just one thing, it’s this: “THE TECH MUSEUM IS NOT A MUSEUM.  IT’S AN EXPERIENCE!”

The concept of The Tech came from an idea for a “Tech Challenge”.  The idea was for students to discover the innovator in them and gain confidence.  It’s not about the world outside, as much as it is the world inside of themselves.  To learn and be inspired with this grand experience. 

The IMAX Theater, too, is an absolutely stunning experience.  It is the largest IMAX Dome screen in the West.  It’s such a different experience than the flat screen.  If you have seen a film here, you know.  If you haven’t, you really should.  It’s that great.

In 1978, more than 30 years ago, a group of women from the Junior League of Palo Alto wanted to see a science challenge, and then a Science Center.  They breathed life into this by making a few key calls – They called Bob Noyce (Intel), who responded: “Let’s get this thing going”.  He called Bill Hewlett and David Packard (Hewlett-Packard), and they responded: “Let’s make this happen.”  And Gordon Moore (Intel), too.  Quite the Dream Team.    

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It’s a Who’s Who of Silicon Valley that created The Tech.  The 1st The Tech Challenge took place in 1987, 27 years ago.  It started where The Tech offices are now located, next to the Civic Center in downtown in San Jose.  Then, the dream behind the beautiful The Tech in its present state opened 15 years ago.  Indeed, Palo Alto, Mountain View, Sunnyvale all wanted it.  But it was the City of San Jose that became the Champion of this cause.   No one wanted this more than San Jose … and no one more than it’s Mayor, Tom McEnery.

Tim Ritchie was born and raised in Louisville, KY.  He received his B.A. from Davidson College in North Carolina, his J.D. from Duke Law School, and his M.P.A. from Harvard University.

Was there something in particular that inspired Tim early on? The answer was a definite “Yes”.  It was as early as the 8th Grade. Tim read a book that truly inspired him and influenced his life: How To Start Your Own School and Why You Need To Start One.  It was about learning and society and, as he said, “I knew how much I loved learning.  The premise being: How institutions of learning can and do make a difference … and, if and how we can master it, this is vital for a better world.”                         

Tim’s career, his love and appreciation of learning, serving others and making a difference for society, became very apparent.  From 1998 to 2002, Tim, a lawyer at the time, felt there was a different course meant for him to make a more significant difference.  At that time, he had been doing volunteer work in Birmingham, AL.  It was impactful and he was enjoying it.  His greatest ambition and love was to help people toward imagination and success.

I asked Tim if there were people along the way who inspired him.  He responded by saying, yes, that there were many.  In particular, there was his father.  His father excelled in starting entrepreneurial things and was never afraid of taking a risk.  That confidence, to think “Big”, to try and try again, would become special in Tim’s way of thinking – in overcoming challenges and accomplishing – about possibility.  And his father volunteered, helping those in poverty.  This would influence Tim as well.

By 2004, Tim ran the McWane Science Center in Birmingham, AL.  It was this experience at McWane, as well as his outstanding previous professional upbringing in law, in community development, in education, in finding solutions and in community leadership that prepared him very well for what soon would be his calling at The Tech. 
As Tim puts it, “I have a good sense for what ‘there’ looks like, what success looks like, and how to get ‘there’.  The definition of success and good leadership is how to move institutions from ‘here’ to ‘there’” … indeed, important for the direction of The Tech in the 21st Century. 

“At The Tech, the students are greeted as our treasured guests.  We believe there’s a light bulb within each and every one.  When we see that light bulb turn on, there’s hope.  The key is keeping that light on.”  

“Students need a safety net to fail.  They also need: an ‘I want to’.  I want this so badly, that ‘I’ll stick with it to the end’.  Here at The Tech, it’s safe to fail and we instill the wanting.   Enter the confidence, the encouragement, the ‘it’s OK,’ the perseverance, the want to keep on going.  Yes – I want to … It’s safe to … and I can do it.  Indeed, it’s all enriching.” 

Is there a book that stands out that Tim would highly recommend?  “Yes, there is. The Boy Who Harnessed The Wind is a great book, one, I feel, everyone should read.  It’s an inspirational true story of how one boy’s idea improved the lives of everyone in his community including himself … harnessing technology to make the world a better place.   

“There are challenges we face, and we need to find solutions.  Technology is really a means to an end, a way to solve problems.  There has to be a better way, which means, we have to find a way to figure these things out.  Such solutions will come from technology.  We are in trouble if we do not find technological answers to the problems we face.”

Tim is also a big champion for the role of women in technology and science.  He definitely believes it’s important that more women be involved in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) careers.  It’s our future and women’s influences needs to be included.  Numbers are rising for women in technology and science, but not as much as they are in law and medicine.  He added that high tech companies are indeed very enthusiastic and supportive with women in scholarship and hiring women.   

It’s all happening at The Tech … This year’s The Tech Challenge had more than 2,000 participants and more than 40% of them girls.   “We are very excited about the program and we want to make it more accessible for more students wanting to participate.  In addition, “there are now 350 volunteers at The Tech with ages ranging from high school to adults in their 80’s … even 90’s.”

Robotics is also big – 30,000 square feet big.  That’s enormous.  The Tech’s newest experience, Social Robots, is an open-ended design challenge which helps create confidence and encourages perseverance.  This is popular among all ages.  There’s much to be said for the creativity that is seen here.     

The Tech is in the middle of a $50 million dollar capital campaign to revitalize the entire museum including exhibits and educational programs. The IMAX Theater is also looking at raising $3 million to convert to digital and be able to continue and expand its educational capabilities. 

“The Tech is not a museum.  It’s an experience.  People need to come and experience it.”  With Tim Ritchie at the helm, it’s a VERY special experience, getting better and better all the time as a model, for our children, our community and our society … to enrich, grow and become the best they can be.

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