D.C.’s tech scene is booming, but the city could do more to attract innovators, according to Sonal Shah, executive director of Georgetown University’s Beeck Center. Shah brings an extensive résumé in the public and private sector to the table, including roles as an international economist at the Treasury Department and the head of Global Development Initiatives at Google.
Shah told DC Inno where she finds inspiration and how she sees the D.C. tech scene evolving.
How do you challenge yourself to think differently from other people in the industry?
I challenge myself by listening to other conversation. So not just staying in the sector I work in, but other places. What is financial tech doing, what is clean tech doing? Where are there interesting conversations and what’s happening? It’s trying to take and learn from different conversations for what we do. We’re constantly learning.
Where do you find inspiration?
I’d say in two places. One is entrepreneurs who are trying to build new businesses, because they’re clearly seeing problems that not all of us are seeing on a regular basis. Whether you’re a social entrepreneur or business entrepreneur, they’re interesting. I like going to pitch competitions and seeing what people are unearthing.
The second is, frankly, a lot of reading: a lot of articles, both from magazines and news, to books. One book is called Scarcity, and it’s about when you have scarcity, what innovation and mindset comes out of that. It’s not a new book, but I read it a long time ago and it has had had influence over work I’ve done.
The stuff that I’ve read recently that I always find interesting is historical literature. Reading about Alexander Hamilton and Jefferson, and the conversations they’ve had when they’re building things, and books about the data revolution. It’s historical plus new ideas at the same time.
What job have you had that has had the greatest impact on your career?
Your first major job is always foundational. But the main job that has an impact on my career is my first job at the Department of Treasury. It was my first major job out of grad school. It taught me a lot about the practice of macroeconomics. Coming into a job at the international portion of treasury was practical. It was practical applications, working with countries in financial crises, and really thinking about how does [the Treasury] respond to a crisis? Not just, what does the research tell us?
I was lucky enough to be sent to Sarajevo after the bombing in 1995. It was a great experience, on the ground, that we all theorize about. Building a bank taught me a lot about post-conflict economies. It was really foundational learning for me. Those experiences and that learning have informed the rest of my career.
The second job that taught me a lot was Google. I was in my 40s at that point. They were looking at data being generated, as opposed to models. So it was a very different way of looking at information and it made me have to think differently.
How will your industry change in the next five years?
I think the social enterprise and social impact space is fundamentally changing, and three main things are driving it: One, technology is upending everything. So as fast as technology is moving, we have the problems of impact: How is housing, how are we doing education? It’s almost a question of how we’re leveraging technology. Technology is driving big questions for the industry.
The second is, government financing is changing. We’ve relied on financing from the government, so how do you bring the private sector to the table? The sector doesn’t quite know what to do with that.
The third piece, and we see this in politics a little bit: people want a voice in the process. How do we have engagement as a learning strategy that helps fundamentally deliver services better?
How is Washington, D.C., unique when it comes to innovation?
I think what’s great about D.C. is, two parts. One, it’s growing as a place for innovation. The second part, it’s a mix between public and private coming together. It affects how businesses are created. It’s that link between policy and social change, and which models will work there. D.C. is highly placed there.
Also, it’s a place where global people come. It’s both a local and global conversation in how people can learn. It’s a very interesting city for innovation right now.
Who do you admire in D.C.?
I admire the Cases, Steve and Jean Case, because they’ve been pushing this conversation on entrepreneurship. They’ve done an incredible job in pushing for innovation and entrepreneurship, whether it’s 1776 or other places, so I have a lot of admiration for them.
Also, the Halycon Incubator and (CEO) Sachiko Kuno. They’ve built with a place for entrepreneurs to be able to stay for six months and get the training and grow, and that has been incredible. They do a good job building the momentum.
The third group that I admire is 1776. Whether it’s WeWork or the other organizations, 1776 has made it cool to be an entrepreneur in D.C, and there’s a huge value in helping to build that ecosystem.
What would you change about D.C. or D.C. tech scene?
I think the question we could learn from is, what are the barriers to scale and growth? And how can we help reduce the barriers to scale? I don’t know what that looks like, and there are quite a few organizations working on that. But the question of scale is the bigger question, especially in D.C. for the businesses competing for federal contracts. How do you make sure newer players can come in and not just the usual suspects? I’m not sure that’s the D.C. tech scene needing to change, but the ecosystem needing to help them.
I think as a scene we could do a lot more to attract technologists. Data, tech scientists who want to be in D.C. and do things that aren’t just the next Uber or Airbnb. There could be other industries that are government centric but could use disruption. The city could do more to attract those people, who could solve problems in D.C.
What’s something that you do every single day, no matter what you have going on?
I go for a run. I also meditate in the morning for 30 minutes.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs looking to progress with their business?
Stay focused. Every funder and organization is going to tell you to do something else. Think hard if you’re changing your focus. The best businesses are clear about what they’re trying to do and loyal to their mission.
Find the right capital. Make sure that the funders are the people aligned with your values and what you’re trying to do. Otherwise you’re going to be doing something that you don’t want to do and unhappy with the business you started.