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.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, a national community that connects innovators to government agencies. He is host of “What’s Working in Washington” on WFED, a program that highlights business and innovation, and he lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.