FIRST LADY OF TECH
By Karin Tanabe, for Bisnow on Business
On June 12, 1970, a young Bobbie Kilberg kept her eyes glued to the window of her West Wing White House office waiting to see an elephant walk by sporting the words “Bobbie, will you marry me?” The astute woman who would be running the Northern Virginia Technology Council 37 years later had been assured by her boyfriend Bill, a fellow Fellow, that he was going to propose to her that day by having an elephant walk through the Southwest Gate. “But what if the President sees it!” she screamed.
She asked the White House guards who confirmed that, sure enough, the President’s house was going to be transformed into a Barnum & Bailey Circus for her. She checked with her boss, John Ehrlichman, who also backed up the story. At 10 am, someone from the Park Service began to unload bales of hay in front of her window. Waiting with baited breath for the elephant, Bobbie received a knock on her door from Bill, holding two-dozen roses and flanked by White House staff, who asked her to marry him, sans elephant.
36 years, 5 kids, 2 sons-in-law and 3 grandkids later, Bobbie and Bill are still happily married.
Working as an elephant-fearing Fellow was just the beginning of Bobbie’s White House career. Having spent time in the Nixon, Ford and George H. W. Bush White Houses, Bobbie jokes that “every President I have worked for has either lost or resigned.” She entered law school when only 20 and spent a lot of time with the undergrads including George W. She met the elder Bush through his son. “Bush 41 became a mentor to me and remains so today.” In 1989, Bush Sr. asked Bobbie, who had just delivered her fifth child, to come on board as Deputy Assistant to the President for Public Liaison. “I think it’s the best job in the White House but it’s back breaking time-wise.” The President assured her that his White House was a place where you can work and have a family. “I almost never went on overnight trips and rarely worked on weekends. He supported women in high-level White House positions before it was fashionable.”
So how does a family-oriented politico go on to head the NVTC? The White House Fellows program played a hand in that, too. Bobbie, who was an at-home mom at the time, called up former Fellow Randy Jayne, an executive recruiter, to inquire about options for going back to work, preferably part-time. He said to her, “You’re never going to like anything part-time. And I work in tech, you don’t know anything about tech.” Shortly after that, he called her back to say that the former remained true but that he had a tech job to propose to her where you didn’t need to know how to rewire a hard drive, but needed to know about management and how to make an organization grow. “It will be 9 years in September,” she says. “I’ve never been anywhere longer.”
Bobbie sees Northern Virginia as "Techtopia," and has even made it a map.
As for her tech knowledge, Bobbie seems to have gotten much savvier since the day in 1991 when she crashed the entire antiquated White House communication system by sending 200 faxes at once. She tells us that in Federal IT, companies are changing names faster than you can say Northrop Grumman. “Virtually every week one of our members buys another. You’re seeing a lot of consolidation. At the same time you’re seeing what was a very robust growth in Federal IT spending, caused mostly by 9/11, start to level off from 9% to 5%.” She also notes that the growing biotech industry in Loudoun County is something to watch. The Howard Hughes Medical Institute, headquartered in Chevy Chase, built a campus on Route 7 last October called Janelia Farm. They concentrate on brain neuroscience research. “The spin off of that is that Loudoun County is now viewed as a center of biotechnology research.” Biotech companies have begun to inquire about moving to Loudoun County to be near Howard Hughes.
Bobbie can’t seem to keep away from the White House. NVTC launched a bi-partisan Presidential series last September. So far they've had John McCain and Mitt Romney. Bobbie hopes to have the other candidates from both political parties behind the podium soon and tells us that New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson has already accepted.
And Bobbie remains family-oriented. If you would like to have an intimate interaction with tech bigwigs and large alcoholic beverages, come to the Hot Ticket Awards, held not at some anonymous hotel but poolside at the Kilberg home in McLean on June 27th. Last year when Ted Leonsis emceed, he promised his courtside Wizards tickets to whoever jumped in the pool first, fully-clothed. The panicked Bobbie saw her insurance broker bobbing in the swimming pool, the happy recipient of the coveted seats. Bill plans to tell her this year that an elephant jumped in.
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