Military leaders are shaped by the nature of the conflicts they face. When they become business leaders, as they often do, their leadership styles reflect the times in which they served. I was reminded of this when I spoke recently with Chris Fussell, the managing director of a consultancy called the McChrystal Leadership Institute.

Until recently, the prevailing view of optimal business leadership has been a “top-down” approach. Top-down business leadership centralizes decision making and requires concerted actions by subordinates who are evaluated by how well they perform against strictly defined duties and goals.

The top-down approach has been strongly influenced by military experience. Militaries everywhere, including the U.S. military, have traditionally followed a top-down model. The types of wars they fought (or prepared to fight) required highly orchestrated activities of tens or hundreds of thousands of people on a battle front. It also required managing highly complex logistical chains, to support the movement of these large armies.

For this reason, 2oth century experience was that when military leaders entered the business arena, their skills were a good match for prevailing conditions. At that time, the world economy was dominated by large companies making and selling complex industrial products that required strict manufacturing conformity. Success meant achieving economies of scale that would keep costs down and sales high.

By the beginning of the 21st Century, however, the business world was rapidly and irreversibly changing. Companies like Google, Microsoft, Facebook, Amazon and others were disrupting existing business models. Companies based on new technologies in transportation, biotechnology and energy were challenging existing market leaders. Meanwhile, instantaneous communication was changing how people coordinated and interacted around the world. Success in business now required agility. Top-down leadership was often too slow to respond to rapidly changing market conditions.

While this was occurring in the private sector, people like Fussell were coming of age as military leaders. They realized that the trends that were changing business were also prevalent in warfare. Instantaneous communications and the broad availability of technology had created adversaries that used small coordinated groups to act quickly. It was no longer sufficient for the military to prepare to fight wars along a battle front. These adversaries would never fight that way

What was required were “servant leaders,” people who Fussell describes as having the skills to create an organization that combines strategic oversight with small group agility. Servant leaders provide transparency to subordinates. They don’t prescribe in granular detail the “how” to execute strategic vision, but fully express the “why.”

Subordinates are given autonomy to make rapid decisions in the moment, if necessary, to achieve the strategic goals of leadership. But it is not complete autonomy. Servant leaders require accountability against their expressed goals. This ensures that key values such as ethics and compliance with legal and other norms are honored and that the overall strategic objectives articulated by the leader are followed.

For Fussell, the key to servant leadership is that it is “not enough to talk about it. You have to create a process that drives communication with enough speed and transparency.” This allows groups to form and operate with autonomy, but within a structure of accountability. You get people to work together not by telling, but by showing.

Now an organizational expert helping businesses grow, Fussell regularly sees that the skills he and his peers gained through military service have broad application in today’s rapidly changing economy. He has helped many businesses use servant leadership to make a significant difference.

And in the process, he follows in the footsteps of so many prior military leaders who successfully applied their leadership lessons to business.

Read more

Successful entrepreneurs learn from failure as well as success. I was reminded of this last week when I looked into Loci, a start up in the DC region that a growing number of people are talking about.

Loci is a very interesting mash-up of two big market opportunities: intellectual property creation and Blockchain database application. In talking with John Wise, Loci’s founder, I found his journey in creating the business as interesting as the business itself. His story of failure and reinvention is valuable for anyone who either is thinking about starting a business or is mired in the weeds of trying to succeed and wondering if it’s time to quit.

Wise’s vision was to create a marketplace of invention ideas – a place where inventors could see not only what had been patented, but also what had been invented and had not been patented. He believed that a comprehensive catalogue of inventions would dramatically change how inventions were created, protected and sold. The problem was that the technology didn’t exist to implement that vision.

Over time, after a number of failures, he and his team were able to develop a technology approach that supported the comprehensive information collection his marketplace needed. But commercial success did not follow.  There was an unexpected issue: solving the technology problem wasn’t enough.  As Wise learned, “inventors didn’t want to freely share their unprotected ideas.”

What had been a technology challenge became a business model challenge: how to allow inventors to use and benefit from his marketplace without giving up confidentiality. Wise solved this problem by selling his technology to lawyers, who could then remarket Loci’s technology to inventors. Selling the technology in this way, Wise and his team could utilize the confidential relationship that exists between attorney and client.

Now that Wise had solved the technology challenge and the customer adoption impediment, he had created something that all entrepreneurs dream of: a successful business model that matched his technology with paying customers.

Yet he was still not satisfied, and he asked himself how he could grow his business more quickly. Was there a way to make his marketplace large and complete his original business vision? How could he protect an invention’s confidentiality without using lawyers as intermediaries?  

The missing piece was Blockchain, a rapidly emerging data storage methodology. Blockchain is becoming widely known in startup circles as the backbone of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but it has broader application. Wise and his team were drawn to its permanence and to the inherent confidentiality of a Blockchain database, features that made it very attractive as the last piece of the puzzle.

Applying this last insight, Wise believes that after a number of failures, he and his team have learned and positioned his business for rapid commercial growth. He views the growing interest in his company and its approach to inventions as validation for his vision and is excited for Loci’s future. But he doesn’t ignore how far he has come, finding recent workdays “almost a lucid dream.”  

Moreover, Wise believes that his experience dealing with prior adversity makes him more confident and prepared. He says that “a year ago I would be freaking out. Instead, today I propose a deal” when he gets calls from much larger potential partners.

Having gone through his startup experience, what advice does Wise give to other entrepreneurs? For him, it is essential to embrace failure and learn from it. It’s an inevitable part of being an entrepreneur, and you “must accept and understand that you are never right, and there is always a better way to do it.”

His conclusion? “Everyone has the will to succeed, but few have the energy.”

Read more

Our snobbery prevents us from adequately training our workers. It’s time we get real about focusing on skill development to grow our economy.

Like it or not, technology and efficiency are changing the types of work available for people to do, and also expectations employers have for the people they hire.  There is less and less tolerance for allowing people to “learn on the job.”

An employer’s need to be confident that a new hire will hit the ground running creates a significant challenge for both employer and job candidate. How do you demonstrate that a person has the right skills?

These days a growing number of employers are unwilling to just assume that the last job the applicant had will have given her the right skills. Eric Friedman, Chairman and CEO of eSkill, a company that specializes in employee skills assessment, points out that employers don’t just rely on a person’s last job description or title, since “the same title can mean very different things across various organizations.”

The value of a good degree from a four-year program may also be decreasing. Bill Phelan, CEO of CollegeFactual, is in the business of matching students up with university choices to create marketable skills. He sees employers relying less and less on where someone goes to school. Instead, they are increasingly focused on applicants’ verifiable skills to “predict the roles a person might play today as well as to predict the roles they might play tomorrow.”

Unfortunately, our attitudes towards worker training have not yet caught up with these changing realities. When it comes to assessing potential hires, or supporting employees’ career development, our snobbery may be holding us back. By looking back at metrics of achievement that are becoming less relevant, we are unwilling to change. So long as we over rely on a “four-year degree” or a job title as the primary measurements of expected competence in a new job, we frown on skills development as something that is necessary only for people who aren’t “smart enough” or willing to incur crushing student debt.

We must get beyond this comfort with the familiar. It prevents us from cultivating people who can be successful in the new economy. Skills training must become a focus of all our educational institutions, including universities, community colleges and high schools. We must teach students not only facts and figures, but how to demonstrate their ability to apply learned skills. And, we must acknowledge that nontraditional sources of learning have a critical role to play.

In addition to embracing skills attainment in our education, we must also expand our willingness to create new avenues for workers to demonstrate competency. A new generation of businesses has been launched that provides employers with assessment tools they can use to evaluate the skills of potential employees. Emerging acceptance of certification of skill attainment is allowing people with diverse educational and work experiences to fill high paying jobs in IT and cyber security. These are some examples that demonstrate the potential for measurement and assessment to match up with skills development.

It’s time for our view of worker training and assessment to change for the better. Alex Murphy, CEO of EmployZone, a job search and skills development business, put it this way: “As our economy becomes more complex, the need for greater clarity on what skills a worker has and what skills they have the aptitude to develop increases.”

Skills based training and assessment will create a workforce that can compete for jobs on the basis of what they know. Who would argue against an economy based on merit?

Read more

To grow our economy, we need to stop unicorn hunting, and reset why innovation matters. We must give “innovation” back its broader meaning.

Today, many people think of innovation only as the creation of a new commercial product suffused with advanced technology. This narrow view of innovation describes the software services created for consumers by Silicon Valley, proposals to mine the moon or efforts to create genetically modified bacteria that will trap greenhouse gasses and combat climate change. It’s a very exciting way to describe innovation, because those that succeed in it become stupendously wealthy and such innovations have a profound effect upon the economy.

But, here’s the problem. As important as advanced technology innovation is, its rewards are not distributed evenly. Not every region in the US has what it takes to be a technology innovation hub like Silicon Valley, and not every US worker currently can get a high-paying, secure technology job working at Google. But these regions and workers still have untapped capacity to be part of the innovation economy, once we open our eyes and our minds.

A limited definition of innovation obscures the broader potential of our regions and people. It prevents us from seeing clearly the positive attributes that a locality may have to support innovative behavior and the potential of the people that live there. We must celebrate and support innovation of all types.

Innovation is one of the most personally satisfying things a person can do. Innovation is the output of four drivers of human behavior: curiosity, creativity, empathy and satisfaction. As I discussed in last week’s column, all humans are curious and wired to wonder about their surroundings and place in the world. Humans use creativity to figure out how to satisfy their curiosity. They then use empathy to figure out how to encourage others to provide resources to meet shared goals. Lastly, they achieve satisfaction when curiosity, creativity, and empathy are harnessed to deliver an innovation that others care about. Simply put, successful innovative behavior makes people happy and creates new things others care about.

The tying of innovation and new business growth naturally follows. Innovation is the process of creating new things that people care about – business is the way we give it to them. Frame innovation in this way and you can see how much it contributes to the tapestry of our society and our economy.

It is essential that our discussions about innovation acknowledge that it is a fundamental behavior that drives our economy. If we broaden our view of innovation to define it as the activity of making a positive difference and creating something others will value, you will quickly find that it innovation occurs in many places. Regions other than Silicon Valley can see themselves as innovative by celebrating the particular flavor and achievements of people that live there and the businesses they grow. The. Individuals living there will gain greater satisfaction and be more likely to act as entrepreneurs if they feel that their achievements are respected.

It is good economic policy for all of us to embrace and celebrate innovation as broadly as possible This will allow us to tailor regional approaches to support innovation to the particular attributes a region has, rather than looking to emulate another location. Bring together the resources a region has to connect opportunities for local business growth. Celebrate the success of the regional businesses that grow out of those attributes.

Most importantly encourage people to think of themselves as innovators to empower them to participate in a dynamic economy. An economy that changes because of them, and not without them.

Read more

Curiosity matters to our society. When we look to improve our lives, curiosity compels us to overcome inertia and to seek something better. But the big question is: why are we curious at all?

Last week I spoke with Mario Livio, an astrophysicist who lives in the DC region. Recently, he immersed himself in learning about curiosity and just released a book on the topic.

Why would an astrophysicist study curiosity? Livio explained that by examining his life and interests more closely, he realized that he had come a long way from being a scientist involved in the Hubble Telescope project to being someone with an eclectic range of interests, including art and music.

As he looked at his diverse interests and the happiness he got from pursuing them, he found himself asking, “Wait a second, what do we actually know about curiosity?”

Through reading on his own and by talking with scientific experts, Livio learned that there are two main types of curiosity.

The first is perceptual curiosity. Perceptual curiosity causes a person to seek to learn something to solve an immediate problem, like finding food, combating bad breath or trying to remember the name of the wonderful actor in that otherwise awful horror movie. Perceptual curiosity is primal and exists on a continuum between fear and satisfaction. Broadly speaking, the fear of a negative outcome motivates us to act. This means that the role of fear in our behavior is double edged: one level of fear motivates us to be curious, but too much fear causes us to shut down.

Perceptual curiosity is also driven by novelty. This is true regardless of our age, although the bar for finding things that are novel gets higher as we get older. 

These attributes of perceptual curiosity may explain why as people get older they tend to favor the status quo, why a boring job tends to wear people down and why we ask fewer questions when we are frightened.

The second type of curiosity is epistemic curiosity. This curiosity is much less driven by external events and emotion than is perceptual curiosity. It is based on the process of satisfying a curiosity for the pleasure that comes from mastery. Epistemic curiosity is the desire for knowledge in its own right. This is the curiosity that drives scientific discovery, philosophy and people asking big questions that shape the fabric of our society. It is a cooler, more rational curiosity, but one that is deeply rewarding and pleasurable for those who satisfy it.

Livio believes that these two types of curiosity are essential to our ability to have happy and productive lives. We need both, he adds, because “love of knowledge does create a reward for its own sake, but you want to feel results.”

His conclusion? “Curiosity is a human condition. Something that we cannot avoid.”

Implicit in all of this is an important thread: to satisfy curiosity you must have agency. Curiosity is thwarted without a way to apply it. Whether we are talking about a homeless person wondering where to find a meal, a futurist looking for a great science fiction novel in a book store, or a scientist pondering the origin of the universe, people are driven forward by the belief that their curiosity will be rewarded . Without a framework that rewords and encourages curiosity, we will lose the very trait that is essential to our future.

As I ended my conversation with Livio, I asked him if he had a final thought on the matter. He answered: “Curiosity is one of the purest forms of freedom.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Read more

It is impossible not to be concerned about cyber attacks if you are following the news. The question is what to do about it.

Last week Richard Levick, CEO of Levick, Andres Franzetti, chief strategy officer of Risk Cooperative, and Bryan Finch, a partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman, joined me on What’s Working in Washington to discuss cyber attacks and their effect on business owners and society. This conversation reinforced in me something I had already suspected: cyber attacks have become commonplace.

Brian Finch pointed out that the bar to launch a cyber attack had become very low indeed. There was no longer a need to write code or be a systems expert. You just needed to find existing tools for sale on the “dark web” and cut the developer in for some of the upside in your hacking scheme.
Andres Franzetti agreed with Finch’s categorization of the widespread availability of tools to do cyber harm. “A lot of folks just don’t get it.” It’s an arms race. And it’s a race where it’s a lot cheaper to attack than defend.

The result of this rapid expansion of cyber attack techniques and software? Easy availability means that every American business and government entity should assume it will eventually be cyber attacked, if it has not been already. As Richard Levick put it: “One hundred percent of companies are going to have to deal with this.”

If we are in a place where cyber attacks are commonplace, then what are we to do about it?
Clearly, businesses must prepare for the inevitable by taking a hard look at their technology and being ready to manage the public relations challenges and business interruptions that are likely to occur.
But I have significant concern that our government has to rapidly fill a policy void, if we are to address the larger societal challenges that the ubiquity of cyber threats creates.

For our national security, we must have clearly stated principles for how the United States government will respond to cyber attacks. You can’t deter aggression unless you can communicate the likely consequences. It’s one thing to talk about cyber war conceptually, but another to define the difference between using military force to influence another nation state’s behavior and using cyber attacks to achieve similar ends.

Turning to commerce, there is an immediate need for the management and owners of companies to have rules to allow them to allocate legal liability when the inevitable cyber attack occurs. For instance, it is broadly acknowledged that many boards of directors of public companies are now keenly aware that directors might face personal liability if their company is the subject of a cyber hacking. But have we really stopped to ask whether, as a matter of policy, it should be their responsibility? And, if the answer is yes, under what circumstances should insurance cover their risk, if there should be insurance available at all?

What about the responsibility and liability of individual employees? We know that in many instances, cyber attacks succeed because a single computer user in a network didn’t keep his computer software up to date or used a password that was easy to guess. If people don’t practice good computer “hygiene,” should the responsible individuals be penalized for their lack of care if their employer’s system is hacked? Does it matter if it’s a shared computer, or one that is used exclusively by the employee?

And, finally, what should our reasonable expectations for privacy be? Is it still fair to expect our personal information to be protected when it is shared on line? Or if we don’t practice good computer hygiene on our home computers? Under what circumstances should we be entitled to hold others accountable for our loss of privacy or property because of a successful cyber attack?

I don’t have the answers to these questions today, and that is my point. The time for argument about whether cyber security is an issue has passed. The time for action by our government has arrived.

The threat to our way of life is not fake. It’s real.

Read more

Economic growth doesn’t just happen; it results from successful strategy and execution. A growing number of people in Greater Washington believe that future economic growth will come from overseas – if the right choices are made.

From 1980 until now, economic growth in our region has been tightly tied to increases in federal spending, especially in federal government procurement. DC really has been a company town.

Stephen Fuller, University Professor of Public Policy at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, has followed this interdependence for years. Since federal spending in our region peaked in 2010, the region’s annual growth rate has been less than 1%. Fuller is concerned that even this growth rate may be difficult to achieve in the future, as he expects government spending in our region to continue to decline – from 40% of our region’s economy in 2010 to 30% by 2022. To him, the strategic choice is simple: “we need to diversify away from our historic federal dependence.”

Fuller suggests one place to look for economic growth is outside the United States. He points to Greater Washington’s concentration of international organizations and consulates as the catalyst for a professional sector that is comfortable doing business overseas. Looking for clients and sales abroad is a natural fit for these individuals, Fuller points out, since they “use the same skill sets and professional services developed in the federal market place.”

It is not just professional services that can leverage international opportunities. Our region creates many sought-after products. For example, many of our region’s leading cybersecurity companies sell their products abroad, and our local life science industry has a heavy international component. Virginia wines are finding their way onto many tables overseas, and numerous local small businesses are achieving international sales.

Nevertheless, to date Greater Washington has not taken full advantage of international trade. According to the Global Cities Initiative, a comprehensive analysis of international trade and economic development, our region ranks 95th out of the 100 largest metropolitan areas in the United States in export performance.

Is this something we should address? Chuck Bean, Executive Director of the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, thinks so. He points to studies that show that for every $1 billion in international exports, 5700 jobs are created. Exports will grow our economy.

However, there are significant barriers. As someone who has done business overseas, I know that achieving international business growth requires an appreciation of different cultures and an understanding of significantly different legal requirements. And building awareness of product or service in a new market is a challenge that can’t be dismissed. But all of these barriers can be overcome with time, experience, determination and money. It can be hard for a single business to go it alone.

Fortunately, there is no need to go it alone because there is a high level of commonality in these challenges across businesses. This is an opportunity for regional cooperation and knowledge sharing to make a huge difference. If businesses do not have to reinvent the wheel when they decide to look for growth overseas, the expense and time required for international success can be significantly decreased.

Bob Sweeney, the Managing Director of the Global Cities Initiative at the Metropolitan Washington Council of Governments, believes that the region needs one thing if it is to have greater international trade success: it needs “a place where businesses can go to learn about the complex world of international trade” and learn of the opportunities and pitfalls from those that have been there, and have succeeded.

For a region that needs to identify and implement a strategy for achieving future growth, helping local business owners look overseas for customers and opportunities is both desirable and achievable.
That is a strategy we can all get behind.

Read more

 

When a company’s ownership is dominated by a small number of stockholders related by blood, it is often hard to distinguish between what is good for the business and what is good for the family.

This blurring can be a positive thing. As someone who grew up in two family businesses, I saw both the positive and negative: the satisfaction my parents gained from having autonomy and getting a new order from a customer but also the long hours and unpredictability of entrepreneurship.

When dinner conversation at home is as likely to be about whether the family business will be able to make payroll as what the children did at school that day, it does leave an impression.

One of the biggest determinants of whether someone will be an entrepreneur is if they were exposed to it as a child. For those who grew up around it, starting a business is much more natural and therefore likely. For good or for ill, children surrounded by a family business know what they are getting into by choosing entrepreneurship in adulthood.

However, there is also a potential down side to a family business. To understand this better, I reached out to David Pellegrini, a psychologist who specializes in family business matters. He pointed out that unlike a “normal” company, the CEO in a family-run business is usually both the generational and professional leader. This can be challenging because, as he puts it, “being the boss of one’s own children tends to lead to an expectation of fealty, loyalty and appreciation from the children.”When this happens, the offspring who are not in charge tend to be deferential.

In my consulting business, I have often seen this pattern of behavior to be very damaging. The head of a family-owned company who does not exercise care can become convinced that there is no need for outside viewpoints, particularly if things are profitable.

Pellegrini notes that this stifles the leaders’ personal growth, because “they have less need to develop skills of persuasion, consensus-building, or true engagement.” It also puts the business at risk if unexpected challenges arise, since it will not have the benefit of a broader experience base to draw from, or lessons to be learned.

Another downside is that viewpoints of non-family members are often treated with suspicion, if not contempt. The entity becomes a self-referential echo chamber, with the business leader in the middle of a sycophantic group offering only news he or she wants to hear. This issue cannot be solved through marriage; often, those who marry into a family are still treated as second-class citizens, since they are not blood relatives.

So, what can break this toxic dynamic? In my experience, the only remedy is for the family head to consciously separate family dynamics from the business, involve professional management and entertain contrary views.

Without making these changes, a family business leader may succeed for a time, but long-term success is highly unlikely.

Read more

When a company systematically breaks a law, we are often surprised. We shouldn’t be.

Every business leader is taught that success depends upon creating an organizational culture with a shared sense of purpose and values between employees and leadership.

Uber’s ongoing allegations of hostile and unfair treatment of female employees and Wells Fargo’s secret creation of millions of unauthorized deposit and credit card accounts at the expense of customers show that company culture can actually incite coordinated illegal activities. How does this happen?

Jack Ewing, author of “Faster, Higher, Farther” looked at this issue in connection with the fraud surrounding Volkswagen’s corporate decision to sell hundreds of thousands of cars with diesel engines that did not comply with environmental regulations. Over many years, VW systematically built engines designed to cheat on emission tests and to obscure inspections on just how toxic they were.

How it got to this point is instructive. It begins with the corporate culture.

A “corporate culture is never written down; it’s just what everyone knows,” Ewing told me. CEOs who do not tolerate failure or who are not interested in dissenting opinions rapidly create an environment where issues of legality or social norms become irrelevant against the broader goal of growth.

Tension inevitably builds because at some point in any large organization, employees will have to exercise judgement and decide for themselves what is right or wrong. When faced with that choice, will employees do the right thing?

As an observer of business culture, Ewing says the answer is clear: employees will not always do what is right, that “it’s up to management to set an example.”

My experience in the business world very much supports what Ewing observed through his research on Volkswagen. Leaders must encourage employees who might have bad news to deliver to speak up, and create an environment where subordinates can express themselves about uncomfortable situations. A mercurial founder who makes it clear he or she won’t tolerate contrary opinions is less likely to hear about important issues.

For VW and its substandard diesel engines and Uber with its perceived negative treatment of female employees, we have learned in retrospect of ample opportunities for the companies to change their paths and do the right thing, but employees didn’t feel safe to raise their concerns, and leadership didn’t show an interest.

It really does start at the top.

Stories like these serve as a reminder that without rules governing conduct, we should not assume that businesses will always act ethically. Business leaders are generally evaluated against the twin metrics of profitability and their ability to achieve effective collective action. If a company is justifiably motivated to pursue profit, we should not expect that every business will act in society’s best interest.

Let’s be fair to our business leaders; their job is to maximize profits and work within the rules, not to create new ones.

If we want to eliminate pollution, benefit from a fair financial services industry, and enjoy equality in the workplace, it is wise to have rules for business to follow.

We do not assume that citizens will always do the right thing — that’s why we have laws to regulate conduct. Why assume that it is any different for businesses?

A company can be objectively well-managed, yet willfully violate the law. Like a well-schooled crew team, frantically stroking as it tips over a waterfall.

This column originally appeared in The Washington Post.

Read more

 

We as a society need to be schooled on how today’s young people learn, why technology and gaming are not the enemy, and that traditional classrooms with rows of desks and 30 sets of eyes directed toward the same blackboard are outdated.

The computer gaming industry is booming, and we should better harness its power. Whether it is augmented reality Pokémon Go or massive multi-player games such as World of Warcraft, the opportunities for start-ups are mind-blowing. In 2015, the global computer gaming market was worth $70 billion.

Capturing the imagination and encouraging gamers to engross themselves completely is a very rewarding skill for designers, who have learned how to balance the attributes of a successful game including playability, plot and engagement. The best ones create a feedback loop between game and player; the more the user participates, the more rewarding it is.

When it comes to education, many parents still see video games as the enemy of learning. Nothing but a time suck. Yet, a growing number of educational experts are proving that the attributes of popular computer games get high scores when applied to learning.

EverFi co-founder and chief executive Tom Davidson felt that the education sector was missing an opportunity to adapt gaming principles for positive effect. Founded in 2008, EverFi is one of the fastest-growing education technology companies in the United States. When I interviewed Davidson on my radio show “What’s Working in Washington,” he explained how the top-down model that prevailed 100 years ago was clearly not the way to teach today’s computer savvy students. The 21st century classroom needs to provide a more personalized educational experience — one where students learn at their own pace.

Davidson wants to expand education into areas defined by life skills: don’t teach just math, science and reading — include everything else necessary to be a successful member of society. He says EverFi’s mission is to tackle this country’s “most intractable issues, from financial education and sexual assault prevention to workplace health, diversity and inclusion.”

His business has grown, educating millions of students through games that instill valuable knowledge and insights. Recently, EverFi received $190 million in venture capital funding to expand its business and products. This impressive financing sets up the company for success, but is also indicative of another trend.

To Davidson, this is part of a larger story. The greater Washington region is a hotbed for education technology startups.

“There is literally no better place in the world to launch impactful education companies,” Davidson says, citing as examples Blackboard, 2U, Laureate Partners and Ellucian. He heaps praise on the region, predicting even more valuable education tools sprouting here because this “is the best place on earth to hire great educational leaders.”

Nurtured learners become leaders themselves eventually. Davidson speaks with several former students, including one who became financially literate through EverFi’s products, helping his family avoid financial ruin, and another student who navigated a highly-charged personal crisis through life skills he had learned.

For Davidson, this double bottom line — the combination of meeting the challenge of being an entrepreneur, and hearing how EverFi products impact students — provides a rewarding experience that “shoots him out of bed in the morning.”

It also reminds us of another fundamental truth: opportunities to make tangible impact through technology abound in the D.C. region. The unique cross-section of policy makers and technologists is fertile ground indeed.

This column originally appeared in The Washington Post.

Read more