Jonathan Aberman: What’s next for Greater Washington’s business community?

When it comes to growing our region, what should our business community work on next? This is a question I am asked more and more frequently when I talk with regional business leaders. It reflects the beginning of a significant change in how our business community sees itself, and I think that’s a big deal.

Over the last few years, I have not been alone in voicing my concern about how siloed our business community has been. We identify ourselves first by where we live or work: “I founded a Northern Virginia business” for example. Or we describe ourselves by our industry: “I’m biotech entrepreneur.” When we network with other business leaders, we tend to do it in venues that are tied to either our industry or our geography.

Tribalism is nothing new. But tribalism prevents people from seeing the vibrant, larger world around them. Software entrepreneurs based in Northern Virginia often have no sense of the depth and success of the biotechnology industry in Montgomery County. Consumer-focused software founders in D.C. see their entrepreneurial drive as being different from that of an owner of a successful public relations business or construction company.

Similarly, I’ve seen regional organizations create closed communities that serve their members but also tend to obscure the activities of other groups and businesses that are not members. Often organizations hold similar events on the same day, and participants have no idea that there is a similar event across the river or down the street. Recently, a friend in the business community looked at all of our region’s events focused on blockchain and grumbled that it was impossible to choose which one to go to meet the best-informed people when they were spread out across so many events.

But times are changing. Two recent events highlighted the broad scope of the region’s business community and what it can accomplish when it focuses its energy.  Key business leaders and business owners learned how their common interests transcend jurisdictional boundaries and tribalism.

The first event is the very visible MetroNow Coalition. Sharing a crumbling Metro system brought business leaders and the regional organizations that connect them into a common enterprise that cut across jurisdictional and industry identification. The people involved saw firsthand how effective their collective effort was in convincing our elected officials that Metro needed stable funding. The MetroNow experience also showed the leaders of jurisdiction-focused organizations that they can serve their members by embracing regionally coordinated challenges. Most importantly, it showed the business community it can come together and provide leadership and demand accountability from politicians and economic development officials.

A less visible but equally important undertaking has been the region’s efforts to attract Amazon HQ2. What is visible is the competition between our region’s jurisdictions to attract HQ2 through incentives and benefits. What has been less visible is how engaged many of our business leaders have been in working with our region’s politicians to ensure that the many positive attributes in our region were identified and described in similar ways across the competing efforts. Our business leaders spoke clearly that our politicians and economic development officials should sell the region first. While none of us know whether Amazon will locate HQ2 in our region and where it will if it does, these efforts ensured that the comprehensive strengths of our region were on full display.

In both instances, the business community came together to provide leadership on issues that mattered to it.  In doing so, the participants learned two key lessons. First, when the business community expresses itself collectively, our elected representatives will listen. Second, in telling the story of our region’s many positive attributes to Amazon, silos separating business people were broken down as a large cross section of business leaders developed a comprehensive picture of the diversity and depth of our region’s business economy.

When I speak with our region’s business leaders I am finding more and more often an underlying sense of shared opportunity because of these two lessons. What they are really asking is not “What’s next?” but “What can we do together?”

As our business communities’ members move away from seeing only the silos in front of them to trusting in cooperative effort, there is enormous promise for all of us.

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