The following writeup of the Rise of the Rest Summit held March 30-31 in Washington, DC, is contributed by entrepreneur, investor and startup advocate Tej Dhawan.
On October 8, 2014, the Rise of the Rest bus boarded by Steve Case, made a stop in Des Moines, as it sought entrepreneurs in cities scattered across the American Landscape. (Case and his team at Revolution, the venture capital firm behind the tour, have logged roughly 6,000 miles with stops in 26 cities.)
It purposefully avoided NYC, Boston and Silicon Valley, the three majors who consume a vast mindshare of the innovation economy, press and resources. The spotlight on cities similar to our own, cities like Cincinnati and Lincoln, highlighted more than the innovations commercialized, more than the entrepreneurial hubs and more than the entrepreneurs themselves. Instead, it put a spotlight on the unique ecosystems that these cities had cohesively begun building based their own innate strengths.
With lessons learned from the tour across America, Steve Case and the Revolution team brought those ecosystem builders and entrepreneurs to Washington, DC for the Rise of the Rest Summit. The summit provided 30 hours of conversation and introspection — some of my introspection, I share below:
JD Vance, the author of Hillbilly Elegy, set the stage in a fireside chat. His story of pulling up and out of rural Kentucky and Ohio, succeeding against odds and adversity, parallels the larger story of entrepreneurship across flyover country. Why do cities with similar populations grow in different ways? Such questions prompted conversations among entrepreneurs mixed with ecosystem builders.
Common and disparate elements were visible and reinforced via additional stories (in pitch format, of course) of ecosystems as told by their leaders. I was particularly impressed by the story of digitalundivided as told by Kathryn Finney.
Government’s role in successful ecosystems was quickly visible. We see Iowa’s support for its startups via the Proof of Commercial Relevance, Demonstration Fund or Propel as government support. Similarly, cities like Cincinnati, Kansas City, Albuquerque and Nashville enjoy a symbiotic relationship with their city and state leadership. These tenets were evident for launching the day with a Rise of the Rest bus tour that began with a city-state-business-startup-ecosystem breakfast. It was later affirmed by the inclusion of a session with senators and representatives at the US Capitol. The congressional leadership spoke to the demographic shift in the country, STEM education, immigration, public policy, entrepreneurship and leadership. It was quite interesting to see similarities amongst individual senators and representatives, despite their public personas being starkly different. Senator Ben Sass of Nebraska, Representative Ro Khanna of California and Rep. Barbara Comstock of Virginia led a conversation on a broad range of topics critical to the startup ecosystems.
The creative class of a city is long believed to correlate to the city’s ability to question, grow and prosper. Dinner, therefore, at Halcyon house was a natural end to the day. The house exists as a social incubator in the heart of Georgetown where Cava, a local food startup provided dinner. (Are you a startup if you are at Reagan National Airport and have been featured in Fortune?) Since ballet is near and dear to my own heart, I was tickled to see a pop-up performance by BalletX as our entertainment. Of particular interest was NPR’s Guy Raz simulating the pop-up podcast How I built this where he interviewed Riley Eynon-Lynch, the CEO and co-founder of Iowa’s own Pear Deck.
Jean Case of the Case Foundation continued the conversation on the topic of courage over fear. She spoke of the entrepreneurial spirit that has led to bold moves around the country, pushing the envelope to realize such projects as the archival of the entire social media footprint from President Obama and his White House staff – in just two months! It is often said that entrepreneurs achieve through efficiencies, precisely because they don’t know the ‘right’ way of doing it.
Steve Case and Revolution have continued to amplify both the potential and successes known to those of us living in “flyover country.” Their philanthropic mission is supported by their capitalistic intent — to find the golden ideas present within these cities and communities, fund them, commercialize them and create economic gains. They are able to continue investing, commercializing and profiting simply because they have believed in the region’s entrepreneurs.
Tej Dhawan is a startup advocate, father, husband and Ballet Des Moines board president who spends his time teaching BodyPump at the Y, drinking Scotch at home and attending the ballet.