May 2017

Greater Washington is not the dysfunction of “House of Cards.” It has an entrepreneurial culture that is distinct and is a dynamic place to live. Yet many refuse to see all the amazing things going on here. When we launched a podcast I host called “What’s Working in Washington” in January 2017, we were all engulfed in the constant drumbeat of political tension that for many Americans appeared to be the only story line for our community.

The producer of the show and I felt strongly that there were untold stories and unsung heroes here — that the Washington that wasn’t grabbing national headlines was much more than political infighting.

We were right. The diversity of stories reveal a community engaged and brimming with opportunity. The Washington we are learning about is not slow-moving and mired in political dysfunction at all.

Entrepreneurs in this region regularly span the gap between public policy and entrepreneurial brilliance. This is a hot bed for both start-ups and larger businesses addressing societal challenges in education, energy, urbanization and healthcare. Our guests evidence this trend, such as Inova in Fairfax, pursuing personalized cancer treatment, EverFi, a business that recently raised $190 million to apply gaming technology to education, and Earth Networks, which has accumulated weather data from sensors around the world to make state-of-the-art meteorological advances.

Our region creates complex technologies and new industries. The expertise driving research and development of cybersecurity, artificial intelligence and machine learning, as three examples, are located in federal labs, universities and companies around the region.

The boundaries of revolutionary technologies such as artificial limbs controlled by thought, software that can learn from experience and augmented reality are being expanded daily right here in our backyard.

Entrepreneurial spirit is not limited to for-profit businesses. Many of our guests are driven to make a social difference and use principles of business — understanding customers, managing resources and mastering branding — to affect positive change. Regional chapters of national organizations such as Volunteers of America and United Way, and local efforts such Humane Rescue Alliance, AppleTree Institute or Stone Soup Films are led by individuals committed to advancing their organizations’ missions with zeal and effectiveness.

After six months of podcast episodes, we see a commitment to connection and growth. Efforts to provide mentorship and connections to grow businesses, increase diversity and locate businesses in all parts of the region are impressive. The willingness to do the hard work to break down barriers, whether by proudly promoting D.C. neighborhoods like Right Proper Brewing does, or the D.C. Bar Association Foundation providing for the disadvantaged access to legal counsel.

Our daily podcast is not Pollyanna, nor oblivious to the challenges we face. The lack of regional coordination is a recurring theme, as is the segmentation of our community and differences in economic opportunity. Affordable housing is an issue that must be addressed for our region to thrive.

Yet, the picture painted through our interviews is that both our successes and challenges are addressed with energy, commitment and a spirit of optimism that is heartening.

While the rest of the country — and the world — watch media reports that focus on the negativity of politics in Washington, D.C., for millions of our own citizens, the reality is very different. This is a place where things get done. Every day.

This column originally appeared in The Washington Post.


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“Do you ever regret a decision you’ve made in your career?” This is a question that gets to the root of the entrepreneurial journey. Entrepreneurs value autonomy and self-determination. But, how do they feel when things just don’t work out?

At a pizza lunch last week with some highly engaged young professionals, I was asked this important question: do I have regrets?

My initial thought was to answer “of course not.” I see successful friends provide this answer often, as a way to communicate the subtext that if you are confident and look forward, there is no reason ever to look back. We entrepreneurs tend to be an optimistic lot.

I also considered answering by saying “of course, I look back at prior decisions and sometimes regret that things didn’t turn out the way I would have hoped. I’ve seen entrepreneurs state this as a way to show that they have an element of self awareness. Successful entrepreneurs tend to value self-awareness.

Yet, while either of those answers would have been heartfelt, they would have been fundamentally unhelpful to the asker. It wasn’t about whether he could be like me, it was about how he could develop skills to make the best decisions for himself.

We all make decisions that in retrospect we will wish we had made differently, or had different outcomes. That’s what I ended up answering. Yet, to me, it wasn’t enough to acknowledge the zigs and zags of life, it was about doing two things: acknowledging that a decision was made with the best information available at the time, and owning the results.

The entrepreneurial mindset is to not pretend that all decisions were the correct ones, but to acknowledge that whether right or wrong, your decisions are your own.

Yet a bigger question remains unanswered. How does a young professional get the information and context to make the best decision? For insight, I turned to some local entrepreneurs.

For Elizabeth Shea, founder of Vienna public relations firm Speakerbox Communications, career development starts with taking as much responsibility as possible early in one’s career. Shea says she believes the best career decisions are made by people who are hungry for responsibility and always willing to learn. She tells young professionals to always “pick a project to run and own, ask questions when needed, and deliver.”

Eric Koefoot, founder of PublicRelay, a Tysons media monitoring and measurement firm, agrees. He added two goals for early career development: find out what you like to do and what you do well. The two are tightly entwined. If you like what you do, you’ll do it with more passion and commitment and with repetition, competence develops.

Being willing to take personal risks and push the outward boundaries of personal comfort was a recurring theme, as was the importance of gathering life experiences, which could provide additional context and valuable input into what would make a happy worker.

Happiness with oneself, self-determination and access to a broad range of people to draw upon for advice when facing big decisions were also cited by experienced entrepreneurs.

“Your network is your net worth,” shared Tien Wong, chairman of Opus 8, an investment, advisory, and conference management firm based in Chevy Chase.

The message was clear: to develop a good career path is to create a base of experiences that are informative and enriching. Decision-making is enhanced by having skills and experiences.

So, should one have regrets with the professional decisions that we make?

Reflecting on a decision with regret is a waste of time. Reflecting on a decision made in ignorance is a tragedy.

This column originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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One thing Americans can agree on these days is that the Trump Administration is unconventional. But we should not lose sight of the fact that an erosion of conventional practices could very well undermine our economy.

Here’s how: commerce depends on predictability to create products and services, while business people rely upon a complex web of market practices called “business customs.”

People engaged in a business negotiation have a sense of how a “deal is supposed to go.” The shaping of this expectation occurs through business customs.

Take for example the purchase of a car. When you walk into a dealership, you to expect salespeople to offer a price higher than they will eventually sell and highlight the wonderful ways their car is different from the competition. They know you have a price that you are willing to pay, but that you won’t divulge.

So long as the negotiation conforms with the respective parties’ expectations of behavior, the parties will build up a relationship of trust and predictability, and then, a business transaction may occur.

Business customs are everywhere in our society. It’s what allows us to “shake on a deal” with confidence that a deal will occur with terms that are consistent with our handshake. It’s what keeps people from lying when they sell an interest in their company. It’s why, when a product doesn’t work, a buyer can justifiably return it with no questions asked.

Consider now how much more difficult it would be for a consumer not to be able to rely on any of those presumptions.

If you could not believe in the honesty and consistency of the process of commerce, would you be more or less likely to make a purchase?

Businesses that can connect with their customers in a trusted way expand customer relationships and grow. Many of our most prominent national brands reflect this strong feedback loop. Conversely, as we have seen recently, when companies are perceived to not be acting fairly or in a trustworthy way, consumer backlash can be rapid and harsh.

What is true for individual companies is just as true for the economy as a whole. If we believe that transactions are rigged, that interactions are not truthful, that we don’t share common viewpoints on how a deal is supposed to happen, our trust in others and commerce as a whole will be eroded.

Our economy is productive because we have been able to predict with some certainty how others will behave and the penalties for not conforming with these expectations.

International organizations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and World Bank, and economists here in the United States, have told us that unpredictability in business practices is inversely related to economic growth. The harder it is to create trust and predictability, the greater the friction on commercial activity.

Whether we like it or not, our politicians set a tone as national leaders for the mood of the nation. As they consider their conduct in the coming months, I hope they remember that a continued erosion of a respect for conventional practices will set a tone for the rest of us.

Business relies upon consistency and respect to both the written and conventional practices that shape society. A failure to appreciate this reality could have immeasurably adverse results on our national prosperity.

This column originally app read in The Washington Post.

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A few weeks ago, the world watched as a 69-year-old airline customer was yanked from his seat. The passenger was man-handled, but it was United Airlines that really took a beating. Suddenly, everyone had an opinion. But here’s my key question: in our pursuit of business efficiency, are we missing something important?

We know that efficiency can lower costs for customers in a competitive market. For many, this is enough. The primacy of efficiency underpins the intellectual arguments for lessening of federal regulation of business, the utilization of technology in substitution for human workers and an acceptance of economic concentration of many industries such as airlines or media.

But, is that right? Are efficiency and resulting lower prices all that matter to consumers?

Last week, I interviewed Thor Cheston, the founder of Right Proper Brewing Company on What’s Working in Washington. Right Proper makes beer and operates a brew pub in the Shaw and Brookline neighborhoods of Washington, D.C. Food and beer giants such as McDonald’s and Budweiser have proven that capturing efficiencies is rewarding. Yet, Cheston’s small business is succeeding as well.

The ingredients for his success are driven very much in the personal connection his business creates with its customers. Cheston says his customers can sense the authenticity because when they drink his brew or eat his food, they know that there is a person behind the product — and an intentionality in what they experience.

Intentionality and personal connection — where consumers connect with product creators — was the subject of a subsequent conversation I had with author David Sax. He recently wrote The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter.

Sax noticed that as music he enjoyed became easier to access online and through devices, his interest in listening to it declined. Music became a commodity that existed in the background of his life, rather than an experience in the middle of it. He found himself making a conscious decision — to acquire vinyl record albums by his favorite artists and take the time to read album covers, listen to the pops and crackles of a less-than-perfect sound, and hold the record in his hand.

This realization that business efficiency could actually devalue the experiences led him to wonder whether what he had experienced was more widespread. He learned that as a music lover, he was not alone: vinyl records sales were increasing dramatically. Physical book sales were growing while sales of e-books declined. Moleskin, a company making high-quality blank-paper notebooks, was sold for 500 million Euros.

His conclusion? “People will pay for an experience that is superior” to what they can get in the mass market. There is a difference between a thing and an experience. One can be possessed. The other can be felt.

Sax thinks our economic discussion around efficiency misses the point. People promoting efficiency are like Star Trek’s Mr. Spock, focusing on the “logic” of business, and assuming that efficiency is all that matters. In his view, we as a society are actually more like Captain Kirk: illogical, but driven to respond to “beautifully flawed things” that appeal to our humanity.

Efficiency can give us better stuff, but how consumers truly experience that stuff is where the real value is.

This column originally appeared in The Washington Post.


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Experts agree that to create conditions to boost economic growth, we must focus on a region’s expertise. Well, in the greater Washington region’s efforts to find clusters that define its identity and create a competitive advantage, it might be short-changing an industry that is very much part of the equation: advocacy.

Advocacy encompasses trade associations, social science research organizations, lobbying groups, philanthropic groups and firms. It employs more than 117,000 people in our region, according to data gathered by the Stephen Fuller Institute at George Mason University. It is one of our region’s dominant economic clusters, with twice as many professionals as in our healthcare industry and three times as many as in media.

Over the last two years, advocacy was one of only two economic clusters that enjoyed job growth in the greater Washington region faster than national averages, according to the Fuller Institute. If this industry is so important, why it is not more widely celebrated or viewed as a regional economic asset?

The industry is misunderstood, albeit with some justification, and suffering from a negative association with the process of government, according to Ivan Adler, a principal at McCormick Group. He says most people don’t really know what advocacy is, believing that it “is just buying influence for wealthy corporate interests.”

Rich Gold, leader of the public policy and regulation group at Holland & Knight, attributed the misconceptions to a broad societal distrust of intermediaries — whether a hedge fund manager or a car salesman. He says for many outsiders, using intermediaries creates a fear that power is being used for self-interest, with these fears being justified through media coverage of the actions of small numbers of “bad apples.”

Being good at advocacy may in itself create negativity. Stewart Verdery, founder of Monument Policy Group, observed that because being proximate to government provides an avenue for professional and entrepreneurial success, this creates a perception that our region’s professionals have a standard of living “unfairly detached from” the rest of America. Shows like “House of Cards” and “Veep” create an impression of Washingtonians that is out of touch with the daily realities of American life. It’s because of this negativity surrounding advocacy and its close relationship with government that so many people snub the industry as a source of job creation and growth.

However, advocacy is not just about corporate interests — it speaks for every significant social and economic issue facing our citizens.

“If you have a job, own a home, or a car or even have a pet, you have somebody in Washington representing your interests,” Adler says. “And this is a good thing and a right granted to us by the First Amendment.”

Let’s not forget that lobbying also creates opportunities for the creation of businesses in other industry clusters that benefit from proximity to lobbyists. Information technology, software, media and hospitality industries here all gain significant economic benefit from this accessibility.

Yes, I agree that if we want to grow as a region, we must continue to diversify — a good plan if we don’t want to be overly reliant on federal government spending. Like Pittsburgh or Detroit before us, we know that as our local industry changes, we must look elsewhere for economic opportunities.

However, let’s all take a deep breath here. Government itself is not going to disappear. The need to influence policy makers through advocacy will remain. We would be wise to separate our opinions of the entire industry of advocacy from the proven benefits it brings to our region’s economy and power.

Column originally appeared in The Washington Post.

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