(Photo by Tajha Chappellet-Lanier)
D.C. is not Silicon Valley.
Despite the fact that a number of startups here do espouse the hoodie-and-a-ping-pong-table aesthetic, it doesn’t seem to be out of a desire to play copycat. Our nation’s capital is an expensive city to start up in by recent accounts, almost as expensive at the San Francisco region, but with far less venture capital. There’s a tacit understanding among #dctech entrepreneurs and technologists that if you want Silicon Valley, well, what the heck are you doing here?
What the heck indeed.
This question was woven into the texture of Technical.ly’s second D.C. stakeholder meeting, held at the new WeWork Manhattan Laundry location near U Street on Tuesday. The gathered group of around 20 area tech leaders shared thoughts on topics ranging from what D.C. can teach other tech communities to trends in #dctech to the community’s links to D.C.’s more traditional industry — politics and its accoutrements.
But many of these questions circled around a more fundamental one — namely, What is #dctech? And no, we don’t just mean What does the hashtag stand for? or How far do the geographical/industry boundaries extend?, though those are certainly worthwhile topics of discussion in themselves.
"We're primed to be this shining, diverse example of tech in America."
No, the question is more precisely, What’s D.C. tech’s thing? What’s our calling card, what are we known for, what’s our brand? Because while D.C.’s tech community is vibrant and growing, it remains at a stage where the community can still create these definitions. And that’s exciting.
We won’t pretend that the gathered group, impressive as they are, managed to answer this huge, existential question. But a few ideas did emerge, and they’re worth considering further.
For Frank LaVigne, the erstwhile creator of the DCTech Minute videos (he now has two young children who are keeping him quite busy), D.C. is the place for business with a social conscience.
Jessica Bell, a web developer at Deloitte Digital and coleader of DCFemTech and DC Tech Meetup, added that she sees D.C. as a city where tech is heavily informed by activism. This activism, in many cases, was the original interest that brought a founder or technologist to the D.C. area.
Indeed, a focus on social conscience and activism is a key component to a range of startups in the area. These include startups like Heartful.ly, where it was founder Kate Glantz’s years spent working in international development (a very “D.C.” career path) that ultimately inspired her wedding registry for charitable giving; or GoodWorld, the startup that’s streamlining social media-based giving with #donate, where founder Dale Nirvani Pfeifer very strategically decided to hire her staff in D.C. because of the kind of (passionate, socially-driven) talent she can find here.
But business with a social conscience wasn’t the only thing the gathered group thought D.C. can be identified with.
Shahier Rahman, campus manager at 1776, spoke about how he sees D.C. as unique for the kind of tech to non-tech collaboration and crossover that happens here. He cited the visits that policy makers and ambassadors and even President Barack Obama have made to 1776’s 15th Street campus as evidence that many traditional industries are interested in learning from technologists, and that this city provides the obvious location for that interaction to take place.
The group also reflected on the relative diversity seen in D.C.’s tech scene. Maybe this could be a #dctech calling card? It certainly fits with the zeitgeist. By Bell’s assessment, “we’re primed to be this shining, diverse example of tech in America.”
And yes, D.C.’s tech scene does work to find ways to embrace groups too often left to the fringes. DCFemTech highlights the work done by so many vibrant, active women-in-tech groups, and the recently formed Technicolor DC aims to do the same for groups working with people of color in tech. But we shouldn’t pretend that D.C.’s tech ecosystem is serving all members of the community equally just yet — there’s still work to be done.
Rebecca Williams, co-organizer of DC Legal Hackers, sees D.C. as distinctly civic-minded in its tech and entrepreneurship, but added that the community could benefit from doing a better job of coordination and by making sure that “we leverage each other’s unique added value.”
Leveraging each other’s unique added value, of course, is the whole promise of diversity — be it gender-, age-, background- or race-based. As the group discussed how to achieve greater diversity in #dctech, LaVigne put it this way: “Don’t discount the cumulative effect of little steps.”
These seem like important words of wisdom as #dctech continues its existential soul searching. Ultimately, the question What is D.C. tech’s thing? is being answered every day, in small but significant ways. We’re all taking little steps — but in what direction?