The partial government shutdown proved to be an extraordinary crisis for most federal employees. And with the nation’s largest federal workforce, the District and its suburbs bore a disproportionate amount of the suffering. However, there may be a silver lining in the prolonged interruption in that it provides a great opportunity for our government-minded community to focus more actively on innovation and entrepreneurship.
D.C. is behind quite a few major cities in developing an entrepreneurship ecosystem. While there is an increasing volume of entrepreneurial activity among our universities and within the business community, areas such as Silicon Valley, New York and Boston are much further along. This certainly is not for lack of education or drive, as the workforce in the D.C. area could be the most well-educated, ambitious group in the country. What we lack, fundamentally, is an equivalent drive to entrepreneurship.
It is easy to understand why, as a community, we lack the same entrepreneurial drive. This is an area dominated by the federal government and the culture it has created. Many thousands of our residents work for Uncle Sam, who offers a sense of career stability that has existed for generations, instilling in the population of this region a hesitancy to embrace risk. However, as our city has learned like others before us, we cannot count on our biggest employer to be there for us with the same safe and reliable career path we once could depend on.
This revelation is troubling. The reality that the federal government cannot guarantee the steady work on which our community has come to depend is increasingly a severe source of stress — particularly for those who have spent decades in federal jobs with little thought to what else they might do. However, the revelation is also an important wake-up call. It reminds us that we cannot trust others to provide the opportunities we need to make a living. It reminds us of the value in taking matters into our own hands and in being innovative, creative and ambitious to pursue what we want or need. And, for those who spent recent days cleaning, fixing up the house or exploring other ways to stay busy during the unwanted hiatus, we may well be reminded of knowledge and skills that have gone unused for years, but which could provide the foundation for an interesting side business or entirely new career.
The shutdown is an extraordinary inconvenience for our community, with far-reaching impacts here and elsewhere. But with respect to the rapid evolution of the start-up culture in D.C., this could be exactly what we need.
Paul Mandell is founder and chief executive of Consero Group, an international events firm headquartered in Bethesda.