Hope for the Future: Why I’m Stepping Down From 1776

Today, I’m announcing that I’ll be stepping down from my role as co-CEO of 1776 at the end of January.

What an incredible four years it has been! What started from that first 1776 campus in Washington, DC, we’ve grown to unleash a global movement of thousands of incredible, passionate entrepreneurs who are tackling some of the world’s most difficult problems.

What used to be merely a government town has become one of the top startup cities in the world. Presidents, Prime Ministers, global CEO’s and investors visit 1776 in DC, New York, San Francisco and Dubai to see what our startups are creating.

We’ve partnered with some of the brightest thinkers in the public and private sector to mobilize innovators on our toughest challenges.

And, we’ve built an incredible team that wakes up every morning passionately believing entrepreneurs can change the world and working to make it so.

It has truly been my privilege to lead this organization for the past four years. And now I’m confident that my cofounder, Evan Burfield, and the team that surrounds him can capably lead 1776 to its full global destiny as he assumes the role of sole CEO. I look forward to continuing to partner with Evan and the team as a board member, investor, and champion for the mission of 1776.

While my 1776 chapter comes to a close after four years, it has been part of a 20-year journey for me that began with my first startup in 1997.

I lived, then, in Detroit and our offices were in the heart of the inner city overlooking what is now General Motor’s headquarters. With no experience, no mentors, no capital, and nothing more than an idea and credit cards to fund me, I launched my first company. But, two years later, rapid growth eluded us so the company closed without fanfare, the assets were sold to a competitor and Detroit lost a promising, young venture.

At that time, inner city unemployment hovered north of 15% and manufacturing jobs across the state continued to disappear to globalization and automation. In the hopes of stemming job losses, city and state officials provided big companies hundreds of millions in economic incentives.

Meanwhile, as the government paid no attention to startups like mine, the environment all but guaranteed I would fail. There were few venture capital firms in the state, and none from out of state were willing to invest. There were no visible angel investors. No banks willing to fund me. No mentors to help me learn the ropes. No educational programs to teach me about starting a business or solving the challenges I would face. Nobody offering to open doors for me.

Very few people understood what I was up to, and those who did told me to move to Silicon Valley.

I knew then that startups like mine could have been critical job creators to a city in decline. But I didn’t have data to prove it, and I didn’t have a platform to convince anyone I was right or strategies to bring about change.

In the decade that followed, I started and scaled several other companies in Michigan and then in Washington, DC. I learned the ropes, raised millions, found mentors, built successful companies and achieved several good exits.

Then, in the fall of 2010 on the heels of the recession, the Kauffman Foundation published their study The Importance of Startups in Job Creation and Job Destruction, and, at long last, I had the evidence to prove what I’d known all along — startups are the creators of net job growth and they hold the key to economic recovery.

Immediately, I started thinking about the economic realities we faced, the ways the world had changed since my first startup and what it would take to help entrepreneurs everywhere to thrive. My resulting thesis, which I titled “Grassroots Entrepreneurism” was to “instigate a movement of bottom-up, entrepreneur-led, open, collaborative, entrepreneurship support, to create a single network supporting startups in every city.”

In other words, find serial successful entrepreneurs to join together to a) knock down the barriers to startup success in their home communities and b) band together into a national network to help every community and every startup reach their full potential.

That is exactly what I set out to do as Managing Director of the Startup America Partnership in 2011. The hundreds of entrepreneurs who joined the Startup Champions network launched startup support programs across the country. Today, with their contributions, most cities across the country (and globally) have startup hubs where any entrepreneur can come to work and get mentorship, training and support.

1776, and my partnership with Evan, grew out of that work. As we looked at what makes Washington, DC unique, we realized that startups were going to increasingly shift from tackling consumer conveniences to major world challenges — all of which were government regulated. If we could create a global entity to help startups launch and scale in industries like education, healthcare, food and energy, we could bring world changing innovation to market and drive growth in the Washington, DC economy and beyond.

Nearly four years later, that idea has flourished. We’ve worked with thousands of entrepreneurs in places ranging from DC and Dubai to Nairobi and New York. These entrepreneurs are building companies that can create jobs and tackle major world challenges like food production, homelessness, education reform, job retraining, energy reduction and more. More than 700 companies have gone through the 1776 program. Together, they have already raised more than $350 million and created over 2,500 jobs.

To manage our own global network, we built a digital platform called Union, so that any of our startups, anywhere in the world, could access mentors, training and support. And, as we deployed it, startup hubs around the world asked if they could use it too. So, over the past year, we opened Union to startup programs everywhere so we can all collaborate, share mentor networks, and deliver critical education and programming to entrepreneurs.

Now, with Union and this global network of startup hubs, it truly becomes possible for anyone to have an idea and get the help they need to take it to scale, no matter what city they choose to call home.

I can see my 2010 thesis becoming reality and I’m confident that Evan and the 1776 team, and our network of hubs and partners around the world, are exactly the right people to see it through from here.

So, what comes next for me?

In the same way I could not let go of the idea that startups create jobs, I cannot now stop thinking about the seismic shift our world is experiencing as we move from an industrial society into the digital era.

As I wrote in a blog post in the days leading up to the recent US election:

“Not a day goes by when we don’t hear in the news about the upheaval our country is facing. A breathtaking array of technologies is making its way to market — virtual reality, artificial intelligence, robotics, smart devices, drones, bio security. We’ve only barely begun to scratch the surface of how these technologies will impact us — how we work (whether we work!), how we live, how we learn, our healthcare, our money, transportation, even how (and what) we eat.
This inevitable shift from the industrial era to the digital economy is the largest technology transition in history, and it may quite possibly drive the biggest economic upheaval our world has ever seen. The wake this will leave behind has the potential to be either disastrous or game-changing…”

We need to be having some very difficult, intellectually honest conversations about the future of our economy. Yes, startups are critical for creating new jobs to replace those being lost. But the challenge is far greater than that, and that is where I now want to turn my attention.

I imagine that, back in the year 1776, people agonized over the massive upheaval happening around them. The United States officially became a nation with the creation of the Declaration of Independence. The Wealth of Nations was published, espousing new economic concepts such as division of labor, productivity and free markets. And technology, such as the fully developed steam engine, hastened the Industrial Revolution.

Today, perhaps unbelievably, we are facing far greater economic, political, and technological change than in 1776. We watch it play out in the news and social media every day. We hear the predictions of the millions of potential job losses coming. And we saw our collective global worry play out in Brexit and the US Presidential election. Everyone recognizes that the world has changed but real solutions for the future seem to elude us.

Well said by Thomas Friedman a few days ago:

“These accelerations in technology, globalization and Mother Nature are like a hurricane in which we’re all being asked to dance. Mr. Trump and the Brexiters sensed the anxiety of millions and promised to build a wall against the howling winds of change. I disagree with them. I think the challenge is to find the eye.”

The next chapter in my career will be about finding that eye.