Six years ago, Kory Bailey left a startup in Indianapolis to bet on Baltimore and its burgeoning tech industry.

Since then, the 44-year-old has helped to build a vibrant tech ecosystem that is primed to become a major industry in the city and state.

“To me, tech is about making what seems impossible possible, and then real,” said Bailey, who was just named CEO of UpSurge, a nonprofit, professional ecosystem-building organization. “It’s exciting to be around brilliant people bringing brilliant ideas to life and solving challenges that can make the world a better place to live in.”

Born Edward Kory Bailey in Durham, North Carolina, Bailey stayed in his home state after high school and enrolled in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He had a stellar college football career — he’s one of three players in the school’s history with at least 25 catches in every season of his career and ranks fifth all-time in career receiving yards.

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After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in communications studies and a minor in African American history, Bailey pursued a professional football career. He competed for a roster spot with the New York Jets. He didn’t make the 53-man roster for the 2002 season, but the experience taught him the importance of service, which he has applied to his work in technology.

“I’ve always been passionate about sports and tech, but any transition is hard. I had a lot of transitions between pro athlete to tech executive, including becoming a dad of three boys and a divorce, but there are definite similarities between football and tech,” he said. “It takes all types of people to build a successful team. The team that is able to innovate consistently and execute effectively usually wins.”

It was a job opportunity at PGDx (a Johns Hopkins biotech company) for Bailey’s then-wife, Megan Bailey, that brought their family to Baltimore. Bailey then came up with his own idea for a tech startup called Have-A-Seat, which was in the event/venue space. He developed a prototype and got commitments from venues to pilot, but the pandemic cut those plans short.

Bailey became involved with UpSurge in March 2021, taking a job as chief ecosystem and relationship officer. Bailey became CEO this fall after Jamie McDonald, its founder and CEO, stepped down.

“Our mission is to position Baltimore as a nationally recognized Equitech city,” Bailey said. “Equitech is an aspiration to build a thriving tech economy anchored by diverse leadership, equitable systems and practices, and a culture of belonging in tech.”

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Baltimore was recently named a “Tech Hub” as part of the U.S. Economic Development Administration’s Regional Technology and Innovation Hubs program. Bailey thinks this is a game changer for the city and state’s tech industry, and there could be more good things coming.

“The Phase 2 proposal, if successful, would unlock up to $70 million of federal funding to build equitable infrastructure for our tech ecosystem, and then a share of $10 billion to position Baltimore for global competitiveness over the next 10 years,” he said. “It’s a massive opportunity to make significant progress towards our aspiration for Baltimore to be recognized as the first Equitech city in the world.”

He stressed that winning Phase 2 will require “significant financial investments for our tech ecosystem writ large from the private sector and major institutions in Baltimore, Maryland and the region.”

The Baltimore Banner asked Bailey a range of questions about the tech industry and its impact on the city and state. His answers have been edited for clarity and length.

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Kory Bailey, chief ecosystem and relationship officer for UpSurge and close friend of Pava LaPere, hosted a vigil held in her honor at the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon on Sept. 27, 2023.
Kory Bailey of UpSurge, a close friend of Pava LaPere, hosted a vigil in her honor at the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon. LaPere, founder and CEO of EcoMap Technologies, was found killed on her apartment rooftop in September. (Kaitlin Newman/The Baltimore Banner)

How big is the tech industry in Baltimore and Maryland?

There are more than 400 companies we define as “tech startups” in Baltimore. Most of them are early stage, meaning they are not yet hiring many employees, they are bootstrapped or have yet to raise venture funding, or have not quite reached product-market fit or generated significant revenue. There are, however, a number of companies in growth stages like Fearless, b.well Connected Health and Lumina Solar, and emerging companies like Sonavi Labs, CyDeploy, NasaClip, Clymb, EcoMap and others that are prime for investment and growth. This is an exciting time for Baltimore tech as many of those growth-stage and emerging companies are led by women and people of color. They are hiring diverse teams, building world-class products and services, and solving problems that will have a positive impact on the world.

What will you bring to the new leadership role?

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On top of a decade of experience in multiple tech ecosystems at varying levels of leadership, I bring an instinct to connect and build trust between different stakeholder communities, a willingness to listen and learn, an ability to generate buy-in and collaborate effectively, and a firm belief in the people and possibility of Baltimore.

What can Mayor Brandon Scott do to better support the tech industry in Baltimore?

Mayor Scott can continue to support the work UpSurge is doing to build and mobilize the tech ecosystem, share the legacy of innovation in Baltimore, uplift the leaders of our city’s tech companies and share our aspiration to brand Baltimore as the first Equitech city in the world as an essential component of Baltimore’s renaissance.

The momentum in Baltimore tech is strong right now. With the foundational work UpSurge has done over the past 2 1/2 years and the recent Tech Hubs designation by the EDA, and Gov. [Wes] Moore’s commitment to a thriving Baltimore, we are in our championship window for equitable economic growth. The city and state should be investing time, resources and funding into these foundational, capacity-building efforts and work with us and others to identify policies to support the growth of Baltimore and Maryland’s tech ecosystem.

What can Gov. Moore do to better support the tech industry in Maryland?

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Gov. Moore can continue to build belief in Baltimore as the heartbeat and engine of the state and, through partnerships and policy, support the work being done to position Baltimore City as the driver of equitable economic growth and prosperity for the entire state of Maryland.

He can also send a clear message to the state’s private sector community that we are in a moment of tremendous opportunity to grow our tech economy, and strongly encourage them to support that growth, the way cities like Detroit, Philadelphia and Tulsa [Oklahoma] are doing. The message remains the same: Leave no one behind. This is Maryland’s decade. And, in order for it to be Maryland’s decade, it has to be Baltimore’s time.

Has Baltimore missed the tech trend?

Tech is not a trend; it is vital to the economic competitiveness of our country and the future prosperity of our communities. Even if it was a trend, Baltimore certainly hasn’t missed it. In fact, there are so many world-class assets and so much diverse talent in the region right now that Baltimore is an ideal city to create new trends and set new standards in tech. If we lean into diverse leadership and commit to creating equitable systems and practices, we can create a culture of belonging in tech … Equitech. We have everything we need to make that possibility a reality.

It’s important that leaders and organizations commit to continue working collaboratively and aligning our efforts, and resist the urge to silo, play politics, jockey for power or hoard credit. That’s a scarcity mindset. Baltimore can establish a practice of reciprocity, and a mindset of abundance and collective impact.

Jamie McDonald, right, CEO of Upsurge Baltimore, spoke at iMPACT Maryland, a thought leadership conference hosted by The Baltimore Banner on Tuesday, Oct.10, 2023, in Baltimore.
Jamie McDonald, right, the former CEO of UpSurge Baltimore, spoke at iMPACT Maryland, a thought leadership conference hosted by The Baltimore Banner on Oct. 10. (Gail Burton for the Baltimore Ba/AP)

Why should tech companies and professionals move to Baltimore?

Short answer … because Baltimore is dope. Professionals should move to Baltimore because this city is amazingly resilient and on the verge of experiencing catalytic growth. The city is perfectly located on the East Coast for work, rest and play. The cost of living is relatively low. The ability to own property is high. The opportunity to generate wealth is real. Baltimore is also ideal for recreation, hospitality, food and travel. The creatives in this city are unreal, and they are members of one of the most talent-rich arts communities in the world.

The history of Baltimore is compelling, tragic and inspiring at the same time. If you want to know American history, real American history, and experience the impact of both the practice and promise of America, living in Baltimore will give you that knowledge and experience.

World-class assets like BWI and the Port of Baltimore, proximity to the economies of New York, Boston and Philadelphia, access to an abundance of talent in the region, influential policymakers and impactful federal funding in Washington, D.C., are all clear advantages for companies locating in Baltimore.

How do we ensure that more Black and brown people get involved in tech?

First, we have to listen to Black and brown people to understand the challenges and opportunities that exist in their communities, include them in the process for solving those challenges and recognizing those opportunities, and then be intentional about implementing strategies and programming that increase access to the different forms of capital needed for more Black and brown people to participate in the tech economy. That includes tech education, entrepreneurship, venture, skill development and training at all ages and in all areas of the city.

How is AI affecting the tech industry?

Right now, AI is more of a technology tool than a sector, but it is highly disruptive. There is no doubt that AI is already having and will continue to have an enormous impact on our daily lives and the technologies of the future. It allows people to operate more effectively and companies to scale more efficiently. The impact of AI will continue to evolve over the next decade and we need to make sure Baltimore’s workforce, across the economic landscape, gradually adopts it and is able to adapt to the changes in the market it will create.

Name three people in the tech industry in the Baltimore area who are really changing things?

Dr. Liz Clayborne (NasaClip), Kristen Valdes (b.well Connected Health), Angel St. Jean (Equity Brain Trust). Bonus: Delali Dzirasa (Fearless).

How has Pava LaPere’s death affected Baltimore’s tech community? (The 26-year-old tech entrepreneur and CEO was found killed on an apartment rooftop in September, and a man has been charged in her death).

It is really galvanizing our tech community in a way that is inspiring to watch. She was so in love with Baltimore. A lot of people don’t know this, but she was heavily influenced by the arts community, impressed by the architecture and geography of the city, and inspired by the people that were working to create positive change. We are much closer as a community, finding ways to take better care of each other and working to honor her legacy in how we approach our work and how we align our efforts, and in how we engage institutional, local and state leaders to implement policies that make us safer and increase our ability to influence equitable economic growth.

You used to play competitive football. Any lessons from athletics that you apply to tech?

The lessons I take from athletics are: commit to a shared goal; become a master at your craft (repetition breeds excellence); do your job; trust your teammates (to do theirs); respect your competitors; be coachable; make plays; and have fun.