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Tech’s Godfather
Comments () | Published January 1, 2009

You had NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and all the advanced wireless and satellite stuff that was in its embryonic stage back then. And you had a heavy concentration of telecommunications. Even though it wasn’t all research—it was a lot of sales and government relations—there was a lot of practical application that would lead to product development. You had all of this, and you had 120 government labs between Richmond and Baltimore.

Another part of the equation: Washington to this day is one of the largest newsletter-production and media centers in the world. The remarkable abundance of production talent here would go on to become a primary asset in a network society.

We had no idea when all this would happen, but the idea that this area would become a digital hub was a slam-dunk. The question was when.

How have you focused your philanthropy?

When I retired, I wrote that my life would be focused around three things: youth, learning, and community. The key to leveling the field in our society is how one learns. And a lot of our communities have imploded, affecting that learning.

You grew up in a blue-collar family. How does that affect your philanthropy?

You can’t engineer the lives of others, and too many people want to impose their ideology, their beliefs, their mores—though with noble intentions—on the lives of others. That’s why, growing up, we could see the do-gooders coming a mile away and were cynical. I’ve gained great respect for some of the families of affluence who have come to learn, come to listen, come to respect those they seek to help. Only then will they really make a difference.

Venture Philanthropy Partners includes many of the area’s biggest tech entrepreneurs.

We have a different breed of entrepreneur in this region. We aren’t dot-com flash-in-the-pans, as the media made so many out to be. Sure, Raul Fernandez was a rising star born of the 1990s Internet boom, but he had already paid his dues working for years on Capitol Hill with Jack Kemp. Jim Kimsey had a life as a successful businessman and, more important, as a soldier for his nation before starting AOL.

This gives the nonprofits we work with access to key resources. Take someone like Raul Fernandez. He knows Capitol Hill and can pick up the phone to reach many of the players there. He can call Mark Cuban, the billionaire tech entrepreneur in Dallas.

What does that mean to someone like Lori Kaplan, head of the Latin American Youth Center? Lori was trying to work with the Catholic diocese, where Raul had made a million-dollar commitment. So a dinner was set up with Lori and me and Raul and Cardinal McCarrick, then head of the diocese. Access changes things.

What do great nonprofit leaders have in common with entrepreneurs?

The greatest entrepreneurs have been on a mission. I would argue that when Steve Jobs started Apple, he was going to make a lot of money but wanted to change the world. Half of the great businesses never had a business plan. But they had a dream, a vision. That’s the trait you’re looking for in a great nonprofit leader.

You once predicted that Washington would become the world’s digital capital. Did the dot-com bust in 2000 change your view?

We’re far from that vision, but we’re also a lot farther along than anybody realizes. Are we Silicon Valley? No. Are we in Seattle’s range? Hell, yeah.

You have such an educated workforce here. There’s an enormous amount of intelligence, and intelligence over time wins out.

This article first appeared in the January 2009 issue of The Washingtonian magazine. For more articles from that issue, click here.

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Posted at 04:00 PM/ET, 01/01/2009 RSS | Print | Permalink | Washingtonian.com Articles