Emerging Technology Centers’ (ETC Baltimore) longtime executive director and president Deb Tillett has left her role for still-unclear reasons and created a leadership void at the Highlandtown coworking space and startup incubation hub.
Tillett led ETC for about 10 years. During that time, ETC partnered with Technical.ly to launch Baltimore Innovation Week before taking on its primary organizing role; helped launch several entrepreneurial careers by offering affordable coworking space; and made an early case for Baltimore’s entrepreneurial economy before more historic corporations put their foot in it.
Put simply: ETC and Tillett sat at the center of tremendous economic evolution. Yet neither she nor the Baltimore Development Corporation (BDC), which counts ETC among its principal ventures, publicly announced her October 2022 departure until this week.
According to a memorandum Technical.ly received last week as an ETC tenant, BDC and ETC’s board of directors recently named BDC Executive Vice President Kim Clark as acting executive director and president. That memo was signed by Clark and dated March 6, though Technical.ly received it a day later.
Clark’s memo said ETC’s board appointed her as BDC’s acting president to handle decision-making and administrative tasks. BDC staffer Beverly Lanier will continue to manage the facility, with support from ETC facility coordinator Valerie Ellis.
Without listing any specific queries, Clark also acknowledged tenants’ alleged questions about ETC’s lease on North Haven Street: “We will be able to better address the question by the end of April and will inform everyone of the decision.”
Clark did not directly answer any of Technical.ly’s outreach for comment on the memo. Instead, BDC spokesperson Susan Yum, citing Clark’s busy schedule, funneled that outreach to BDC President Colin Tarbert and ETC Board of Directors President Margaret Roth Falzon.
What led ETC here?
Tarbert, Roth Falzon and Tillett all used a variation of the word “retire” to describe Tillett’s exit, though the circumstances remain disputed.
Tarbert told Technical.ly in a joint phone interview with Roth Falzon that Tillett retired of her own accord. While both he and Roth Falzon praised Tillett’s work over her decade-long tenure, neither offered an additional explanation for why she exited.
“I cannot speak to her personal decision as to why she decided to retire at that time,” Roth Falzon explained in an email. “As you know, she led the ETC for the last 10 years and took ETC to new levels with the opening of the 101 North Haven Street ETC location, creation of the AccelerateBaltimore program in 2012, and the BeehiveBaltimore coworking program in 2013. The pandemic certainly changed the nature of co-working and shut down the ETC for a period of time. These factors made the last few years a challenging time and set things in motion to consider what the ETC’s future will be.”
Tillett disagreed with Tarbert’s and Roth Falzon’s description and told Technical.ly that BDC leaders asked her to retire. She declined to elaborate more about the situation on the record.
“I had an amazing tenure at ETC and feel, in these times and under my direction, that ETC really was in a great position,” she said.
Tillett pointed to studies by the University of Baltimore’s Jacob France Institute that she said evidenced ETC’s impact on Baltimore’s entrepreneurial world during its earliest stages.
“I used to always say that my job was to make an economic impact on the city of Baltimore, one entrepreneur at a time,” Tillett said.
Where will ETC go next?
BDC this week announced a new partnership with HR&A Advisors, which will undertake a strategic planning process for ETC’s future. The multi-location consulting firm will help BDC and ETC’s board (on which Clark and BDC CFO Jeffrey Pillas currently sit) to determine how to best support Baltimore’s tech and entrepreneurship sectors. This process will include a search for a new executive director, which the press release noted will begin this summer.
“The strategic planning process will address best practices the ETC needs to remain a highly effective asset to the Baltimore entrepreneurial ecosystem moving forward with an intentional focus on supporting BIPOC and women founders,” the announcement read. “It will also help BDC identify and define the type of leadership and staff the ETC will need in its next decade of growth.”
Read the full announcement here.
Tarbert told Technical.ly the aforementioned collaborators will also work with some of HR&A’s existing partners, including the self-described “urban consultancy practice” Brick & Story, to focus on community engagement components.
“[What’s] going to be really important to having a successful ETC moving forward is understanding what the community needs — ‘community’ being the entrepreneur and startup scene in the city,” Tarbert said. “What do they feel they need to be successful, and how can ETC, hopefully, fill that need?”
Roth Falzon’s email noted that as ETC’s North Haven Street lease ends in November, the strategic planning partners will explore where ETC should actually be.
Tillett, who’s been working on her own as a business development consultant, believes this strategic planning process is starting too late to be truly effective.
“When I took over ETC, we’d been around the longest, we were the only game in town, we had the only coworking space,” she said. Now, “you’ve got the influence of UpSurge, Techstars and all the other coworking spaces. … It’s the right thing to do, to do a study about the future, but it’s just too late.”
This is a developing story.
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