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Photography by Greg Powers

The Smart Set

by Brittney Dunkins | DC magazine | October 27, 2011

High-tech isn’t confined to West Coast cool. The rising tide of the top 11 up-and-coming DC digiphiles proves that in 2011 Washington is plugged in and ready for prime time.

1. The Game Changer
Four years ago, Digital Capital Week co-founder Peter Corbett, 31, left the corporate confines of ad agency life. He paved his own way by launching iStrategyLabs, a social-media and marketing firm that’s now the brightest young tech thing in town. Boasting a client list that includes Disney, American Eagle and Ford, iStrategy has just rolled out its first product, an app that helps companies monetize Facebook “likes” and Foursquare check-ins. Grandstand is the frequent-user card of the digital set, where check-ins grant users a chance at a tangible reward. The hope is to increase actual traffic, not just virtual. A top connector within the grassroots DC tech set, Corbett is practically a poster child for economic stimulus.

2. The Sartorial Savant
A design mind who once worked for Herman Miller and as creative director for Coca-Cola’s e-commerce redesign, Lisa Morales-Hellebo, 37, wanted to revamp personal shopping online. A series of “vividly creative dreams” propelled her to establish shopsy.com with the tagline, “Life is complicated. Putting together an outfit shouldn’t be.” Formerly ShopSuey, the site relaunched this fall with more than a new moniker. Users create a profile, then watch an array of recommended looks appear. Editing the options and browsing other shoppers’ outfits rezones retail. Morales-Hellebo’s 10-year vision takes Shopsy to the streets, where, she says, “just by holding up your phone,” you’d scan images of style-savvy passersby “and literally shop their outfits in real time.”

3. The Connector
Co-founder of the DC Tech Meetup, Proudly Made in DC and co-organizer of last year’s Digital Capital Week, 27-year-old Zvi Band is a master of relationship building. So it’s hardly surprising that this month Band is launching Contactually, a 24-hour monitoring system that aims to turn email contacts into BFFs—or, at least, repeat clients. Already praised on tech blogs, the virtual assistant syncs all publicly available info from Twitter, LinkedIn and Facebook and automatically updates any existing Customer Relationship Manager. “From when you send the first email, a program tracks who you’ve done business with,” says the web developer and serial entrepreneur. “We automatically send their general information to your database.” In this case, it’s not only who you know.

4. The Mixologists
Downloading on the latest and greatest doings in the virtual world with your fellow tech-obsesseds should feel like a party. That’s the idea that Frank Gruber, then toiling for Internet giant AOL, had in mind when he started Tech Cocktail five years ago. The must-read tech blog is now a full-blown media company that fêtes industry players in both the virtual and real worlds. This summer Gruber relaunched and added value to the brand with the help of longtime collaborator Jen Consalvo, who came aboard last year as COO and co-editor. With a masthead of 30 and a loaded calendar of mixers and meetups, this dynamic duo has rebooted stereotypically stale conferences into see-and-be-seen events. So what’s next? Acing the Tech Cocktail formula overseas.

5. The Ringer
Michael Mayernick wants to play every position on the District’s digital squad. He founded Spinnakr, a tech-based analytics company, while establishing Proudly Made in DC, a movement connecting local digital entrepreneurs. In his spare time, Mayernick curates StartupDigest, an online roundup of tech doings in the District. “People didn’t know tech in DC,” says the 27-year-old champion of hyperlocal ventures. “They just thought it was a government town.” Add to all that a fall launch of Spn.ee, an analytics software that measures an organization’s social media productivity, and a headliner’s spot at the Washington Post’s Disruptathon. It would seem Mayernick has yet to find a role he can’t field.

6. The Smooth Operator
Stephanie Hay never guessed that trying to get off the hold button would dial her into the ranks of techpreneurs. But, yes, at a meetup she arranged for fellow digiphiles, the 31-year-old web copywriter nerded out with Paul Singh and Aaron Dragushan who had just prototyped FastCustomer, an app that may silence hold-music forever. With a single click, iPhone and Android users calling Delta, Comcast and Verizon—all among FastCustomer’s 2,000 clients—get to skip the wait for a live person and go straight to a customer-service rep. Or, they can have a staffer call them back, thanks to a nifty new FastCustomer widget. The company claims to have saved users more than 680,000 minutes and counting—freeing up plenty of valuable face time.

7. The Angel
Bobby Ocampo may have been raised in the heart of Silicon Valley, but investing in his own backyard was a lot less enticing than seeding new startups in the District. Rising through the ranks of Grotech Ventures, the 26-year-old VC star says he looks for entrepreneurs “who dream precisely and have a plan,” not to mention those “who want to change the world.” Case in point: the retail-revolutionizing LivingSocial, a local blockbuster that Grotech invested in early. Other firms that won Ocampo’s patronage: HelloWallet, a personal finance site, and NexGen Storage Inc., an online storage and cloud provider. As for DC’s future prospects, Ocampo is bullish: “We could be the next Silicon Valley.”

8. The Operative
A love of all things tech is wired into Daphna Kalman’s DNA. “My dad really fostered that in me,” says the George Washington University grad. “It’s something we’ve always shared.” So it was no surprise that when her father wanted a universal remote to link up his various gadgets, and her uncle crafted one to install in the iPod Touch, Kalman turned the whim into a business. This summer, her company Mashed Pixel launched Surc, a swish app and cell-case combo that turns a smartphone into a remote for a TV, a sound system and most other infrared-powered device within 15 feet. Already approved by Apple and available for the iPhone, the Surc for Android and iPad are in development. Gadget-lovers, start the countdown.

9. The Advocate
After a 2004 tornado in her home state of Tennessee, 36-year-old Marci Harris came to the Hill lobbying for disaster relief. The move launched a new career as a congressional staffer and opened a window on the byzantine channels of communication between Congress and constituents. “I was on the receiving end of so many personal stories and I was touched,” says Harris. In response, she and two partners developed POPVOX, a virtual soapbox where voters can peruse proposed legislation and cast their own yays or nays. Maxed out with social media features, POPVOX also has plenty of space for civil commentary—revamping the notion of democratic dialogue altogether.

10. The Wunderkind
Allen Gannett has the expertise to start a website about getting into college. After all, at 20 years old, the George Washington University senior went through the process less than four years ago. CampusSplash, a portal where prospective students can question experts about all things higher-ed, was initially born of an ingenius Facebook app that Gannett developed. The program’s algorithm can take a student’s academic information and determine the likelihood of acceptance to 1,500 schools. “I saw a pattern of students under-applying to schools because they didn’t have enough information,” he says. Since August, Gannett’s new company has logged over 3,000 queries. Foregoing the Zuckerberg route, Gannett plans to don his cap and gown next year.

11. The Patriot
With degrees from Vanderbilt and Harvard Business School, not to mention six years in the U.S. Army, Blake Hall knows how to devise and execute a plan under pressure. This year the 28-year-old son of a West Point colonel took a budding MBA project and fleshed it out in the world of e-commerce. His TroopSwap site offers retail discounts to service members in the vein of LivingSocial, at the same time employing only veterans and their spouses. What’s more, TroopSwap donates a percentage of all sales to Wounded Warriors. This month you can absorb Hall’s sharpshooting MO at Digital Capital Week, where he’ll be hawking TroopSwap’s brand-new travel and adventure deals.