In the early days of America Online, when Steve Case, who became CEO in 1991, would bump into a high-powered friend in D.C., he’d almost always be asked the same question. So how long are you going to be in town?
The assumption was that even though he lived in the Virginia suburbs, he was surely just between trips to Silicon Valley — “most of the times, I was,” he admits. But for Case, now an early-stage investor and early founding father of the D.C. tech community, the small talk has changed.
“It was a little bit lonely,” he said of growing one of the first big web companies of the 1990s on the East Coast. “But what has happened here, particularly in the last 10 years has been remarkable.”
"There is no better place to be than Washington, D.C."
Started in the Dulles corridor of Northern Virginia, which still remains a business park anchor to the region’s tech sector, what Case says he’s most inspired by is what has happened more recently: D.C. has seen the development of a class of technologists and entrepreneurs who are working, living and improving the city, too.
“Young people in the past came to D.C. because they wanted to be in government to change the world by influencing policy,” Case said. “Now they recognize they also have the opportunity to change the world by being part of startups and really creating the innovative products that can change our lives.
“That’s a sea change in the way business is seen in D.C.,” he added.
Of course, that’s something that’s also happening nationally.
It’s Case who cribbed a wonky foreign policy phrase once used to describe the growing influence of developing countries in global economics to instead suggest something else. In early 2013, he described “the rise of the rest” as a movement of Bay Area entrepreneurial zeal radiating across the U.S.
Now, any region in the country, and, increasingly, the world, that aims to succeed in a future led by knowledge workers will have both a technology community to work at developing any industry’s software solutions and an entrepreneurial class that will be challenging those industries with new processes.
This week, Case departed his second Rise of the Rest Road Tour, largely a PR campaign to draw attention to Rust Belt cities in the Midwest. To support it, Case has pledged to invest $100,000 in at least one firm in each of the tour’s four stops. It’s a differentiator for Revolution but it also reflects trends in a flattening of where innovative firms grow.
And while Case is focusing on a slice of America often billed as flyover country, D.C. too could be put in the “rise of the rest” category Case champions.
That’s because just about anywhere outside of the Bay Area — with possible exceptions for New York and perhaps Boston-Cambridge — is still new to the process of developing, sustaining and marketing their innovation ecosystem.
Still, Case thinks D.C. flourishing is almost inevitable now. The federal government, which for so long has turned the District something of a college campus for civil servants, now represents an enormous magnet for innovation, Case said.
“D.C. is uniquely positioned to rise up in the next 10 to 20 years because some of the next great entrepreneurial ventures are going to be dealing with improving education in our schools and healthcare delivery in our hospitals or finding better ways to manage energy or finding better ways to move people around in terms of our transit sector,” he said.
Case says that’s good for D.C. for four reasons:
- “[Those sectors] are really big parts of our lives.”
- “They’re really big parts of our economy.”
- “They haven’t really been disrupted all that much.”
- “The government is the regulator of those industries. The government is also the major customer.”
That means that as cities across this country angle for their own comparative advantage in attracting and retaining talent and entrepreneurial zeal, the District already has one.
“If you’re trying to revolutionize some of these sectors like education or healthcare, there is no better place to be than Washington, D.C.,” he said.-30-