I interviewed more than 100 entrepreneurs over the last few months as part of research into how our region can stay ahead of the curve in tech and innovation in the decades ahead.
I started with a simple question — yet heard surprisingly divergent answers.
The lack of uniformity concerns me, now more than ever. After all, there are terrific opportunities for our region when it comes to the application and development of technology. We have proven that we can literally make billions of dollars in this sector. However, to truly succeed in reaching the highest goals, we must first have consensus on what we are building towards.
The variability of answers is instructive. One entrepreneur even quipped, “Why are we even talking about ‘D.C. Tech’? Technology is everywhere. Companies with chief technology officers baffle me. Isn’t that kind of like having a chief electricity officer? It’s meaningless.”
Most of the interview subjects agree that entrepreneurship combined with technology is essential to grow more high-quality jobs here. Divergences occurred in opinions on how exactly to do it.
Answers varied in geography and scope. Some described D.C.Tech as a start-up community centered in the city of Washington, D.C. — an urban setting boasting a community focused on building tech startups that use digital tools to solve social problems. This group tended to analogize our region to Silicon Valley and described D.C. Tech as building similar companies. For them, the Silicon Valley comparison is always front of mind, as a yardstick — or even a competitor.
Another group broadens D.C. Tech to include the rest of our region — Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland. The way they see it, D.C. Tech has historical ties back to the late 1990s Internet explosion, with roots in companies such as AOL, WebMethods, and Network Solutions. For them, in some ways the late 1990s were our region’s glory days; a time when there was a sense that our region was the nation’s center of technology.
Another large group of entrepreneurs reminded me that our region leads the nation in cybersecurity and data analytics expertise. They tend to cluster in Northern Virginia and suburban Maryland, and often work for companies and customers they can’t even talk about due to national security regulations.
Others pointed out that our tech history goes back even further. The ones who do business with government as their primary customer reminded me that our region’s technology industry traces back to the 1960s and the Space Race and Cold War. Start-ups here worked with our federal government to create technologies that got our astronauts to the moon, brought us GPS, the Internet and a whole gamut of gadgets.
And then there are technology entrepreneurs who don’t use software at all. For them, D.C. Tech is irrelevant, because they work on human health and wellness. They describe themselves as part of the “life sciences industry” which they see as distinct from the technology industry.
All these groups are in some ways walled off from one another. Each group describes itself as the core of D.C. Tech, and by definition excludes others.
What I am learning through these conversations is that our region is intensely entrepreneurial. We combine technology (which in my opinion includes life sciences) with business models in a wide variety of ways, with the totality making this region much stronger and supportive of high-growth businesses than many imagine.
If we combine our views of entrepreneurship and technology as encompassing all of these activities, and appreciate that D.C. has its own distinct model of successful entrepreneurship, there is nothing we can’t do as a region. Jump into the conversation. We’re listening.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, an Arlington-based organization that seeks to connect innovators to government agencies. He is host of “Forward Thinking Radio” on SiriusXM, a business and policy program, and lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.