On a recent evening, dozens of New York entrepreneurs gathered at Gracie Mansion, the longtime home of the city’s mayors, to celebrate the city’s tech community.
There was plenty to celebrate. The rapid growth of start-ups has turned New York City into the nation's fastest growing tech sector and a viable alternative to Silicon Valley.
As guests sipped wine and sampled hor d'oeuvres, the 29-year-old woman promoting the city's tech boom was making the rounds, nodding intently as startup founders explained their ideas and how the mayor could help.
Her name is Rachel Haot, and as the city’s first chief digital officer, she is the public face of one of Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s signature initiatives: to make New York “the world’s leading digital city.”
Nearly two years into her job, Haot ticks off a list of accomplishments. The city has expanded free Wi-Fi in city parks and subways, introduced new high-tech graduate schools to create more engineers, and doubled the size of its social media audience. But observers say her biggest challenge is reaching the thousands of public-housing residents who struggle to get online.
Her work, she says, is "about making sure that digital technology touches all New Yorkers, improves quality of life, increases economic development, and creates jobs."
Haot, who recently changed her name from Sterne after getting married, is a well-connected, tireless promoter of the city’s tech community. Much of her time is spent visiting startups' offices, listening to their needs, and highlighting their accomplishments to her more than 37,000 Twitter followers.
Young and ambitious, Hoat has been named on media lists of “30 under 30” and “40 under 40.” She was chosen to be a judge for this year's Webby Awards, which recognizes excellence in Internet innovation. Dressed frequently in designer clothes and high heels, her fashion sense was featured in a photo spread last fall in Vogue.
Even her recent wedding had a digital presence. In July, she married Max Haot, a founder and the chief executive of Livestream in New York. The couple created a private live-stream for their wedding to include guests who couldn't be there.
“With Rachel in this role I feel like there is someone in city government who is thinking about the needs of entrepreneurs and making the city a friendlier place to start and scale their companies,” said Jennifer Hyman, co-founder of Rent The Runway, a New York startup that rents out designer dresses.
In an interview at City Hall, Haot said she often hears complaints from tech entrepreneurs who say they can't hire enough talented engineers. In response, the city recently announced the creation of a high-tech graduate school campus on Roosevelt Island run by Cornell, and another in downtown Brooklyn run by NYU.
"That’s the kind of thing that will really be a game-changer," Haot said. "That’s the kind of investment that is going to put our city in a good position for decades to come."
Before taking the job, which pays her $116,000 a year, Haot worked at the file-sharing site LimeWire, founded the citizen journalism site GroundReport, and launched her own digital consulting firm. Some say her background has helped her be an effective liaison between the mayor's office and 20-somethings who spend their days writing code.
“Rachel started a startup,” said Andrew Rasiej, chairman of NY Tech Meetup. “She knows what a startup is like."
But others have questioned her policy credentials. Her “greatest accomplishment may be that she has risen as high and as rapidly as she has without demonstrating any real accomplishments,” Dylan Byers wrote last year in AdWeek.
Her first task last year was to produce a “Road Map for the Digital City,” a 62-page report that aims to expand Internet access, engage residents via social media, improve government transparency, and bolster ties with the tech community. This summer, the city said it had completed 80 percent of its objectives.
Haot has overseen the expansion of City Hall’s social media presence, with the city now having more than 2.4 million followers across more than 280 channels, including Facebook, Twitter, Foursquare. A city-run Tumblr page enables residents to report potholes, and more than 33,000 people follow the city's Twitter account for 311 services --@311NYC.
Social media, she says, is transforming the way city government communicates with citizens.
"We use it a lot to keep people aware, be transparent in new ways, and be more relevant to people who really live online and get a lot of their news online," Haot said.
But while Haot has focused on ways to help entrepreneurs and reach tech-savvy residents, some say she should focus more on helping low-income residents who don't have Internet access.
Of the estimated 420,000 residents living in New York City public housing, about 40 percent have no Internet in their apartments, largely because they can’t afford computers, Internet connections, or both, according to the New York City Housing Authority. The average family income of NYCHA’s residents is about $23,000.
The city has installed Wi-Fi in city parks, subway stations and payphone kiosks, parked mobile computer labs outside public housing complexes, and used federal funding to help low-income middle school students afford computers and broadband access.
But Doug Frazier said the city should be expanding Wi-Fi in all of the city’s housing projects so residents can access the Web without having to leave their apartments. Frazier's organization, the Digital Divide Partnership, has been working for years on bringing Internet to low-income neighborhoods like the South Bronx.
Haot “is launching things for people who already have the Internet,” Frazier said. “She's the chief digital officer, but not for the poor people.”
Councilmember Gale Brewer, who previously chaired the city’s technology committee, said the so-called “digital divide” is rarely discussed by the mayor's office and Haot could do more to make it a more prominent part of the conversation.
“I think she’s been doing a good job, but the digital divide needs more attention,” Brewer said. “The city should be talking about it more.”
Others say Haot does not have the resources to tackle a complex issue like expanding Internet access. Her office, NYC Digital, only has five people.
“She has a tiny staff,” said John Kaehny, executive director of Reinvent Albany, which advocates for greater government transparency. “Her position is very much that of a promoter, marketer and cheerleader for the city’s economic development efforts to encourage digital startups.”
For her part, Haot acknowledges that more can be done to help low-income residents take advantage of City Hall's digital outreach. She said the city is considering a public awareness campaign to explain why the Internet is important.
While that is useful, surveys show one of the largest barriers to Internet adoption is cost. Haot said by 2014 every New Yorker will be able to choose between Time Warner or Verizon for Internet service. That competition will keep down the cost of Internet access, she said.
"But we always need to be doing more," she said. “It doesn’t matter how great all these innovations are if people can’t take advantage of them."