Kevin Chai
12th Grade
Richard Montgomery High School
Rockville, MD
Runner-Up Winner

The Sport of Business

    Somebody once told me that “an entrepreneur is someone who prefers to work fifteen hours a day for himself rather than eight hours for someone else.” This concept, appearing completely contrary to pragmatism, resulted in my conclusion that entrepreneurs had to be either superhuman or crazy. However, youthful curiosity compelled me to explore, and I tested my own entrepreneurial aspirations. Now, managing a tennis instruction nonprofit, I finally understand why some choose to put in those seven extra hours.

    In many ways, starting a business is a lot like learning a new sport. To be successful, it takes ardent determination, steady patience, plenty of luck, and a touch of craziness. But individual drive has its limits. In both business and sport, outside factors play a fundamental role in determining personal success.

    When I first started playing tennis, my parents made sure that I trained at a respectable club. They spent weeks touring facilities - checking the credentials of the coaches and researching the rankings of their top players. Indeed, the reputation of my training environment was very important to my parents, as it would directly influence my personal development. In the same way, location plays a considerable role in a business’s success and potential for growth. And just like the tennis club that my parents finally chose, the Greater Washington area has an exceptional reputation. As the 4th largest regional economy in the nation, Greater Washington has a history of dominant economic growth, as a plethora of new businesses have added 721,000 net new jobs in the last decade.1 Of course, reputation is built on consistency, and with forecasts of a steady 3% annual growth for the next five years, the Greater Washington area holds great promise for continued small business success.2

    When I was younger, I had an ingenuous habit of equating success with glory. Perhaps it was an influence of watching tennis icons like Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, but I always thought that you had to be famous to be successful. Those role models taught me a great deal, as I spent countless hours mimicking their strokes and styles, aspiring to one day compete at their level. But I have also learned just as much, if not more, from hitting with unknown players at the local tennis court. In business, success is usually measured by economic terms like revenue stream, investment returns, or market share. By this standard, multinational corporations epitomize entrepreneurial success. For many small business owners, these eminent companies inspire innovation and growth, and give hope to dreams of making it big. However, at the grassroots level, there is no better resource for aspiring entrepreneurs than the people who have personal experience – other small business owners. Although not as renowned as global corporations, small businesses are sustainable and innovative, and their smaller consumer base cultivates stronger customer relationships. Small businesses have redefined success, without glory. Whether it is mentoring provided by an established entrepreneur, or guidance given at any one of three Small Business Development Centers, the Greater Washington area boasts access to a vibrant and flourishing small business community. Take a walk down Wisconsin Avenue, and you will see the multiplicity that defines our region. From global establishments like Tiffany to successful local enterprises like Mcafe, the Greater Washington area welcomes all businesses.

    As the captain of the high school tennis team, I lead a highly diverse group of players. But whether it is socioeconomic diversity, or just varied levels of proficiency, each one of my teammates brings a different perspective and talent to the team. Just as our tennis team depends on collaboration among our players, a business’s success is dependent upon its workers – after all, “good people make good business.” The globalization of business is a ubiquitous process, and Greater Washington is no exception. With more than 1,000 institutions involved in international business and activities, our regional economy reflects a global community.3 This cultural expansion has vastly broadened the consumer market across social divides of race, gender, and age, creating target markets waiting to be serviced by new businesses. But as consumer bases become increasingly heterogeneous, effective responses to varying needs will require an equally diverse workforce. In today’s world, a business must diversify to survive. Fortunately, Greater Washington has both highly skilled and diverse human capital. Foreign-born workers compose 20% of the work population, and women and workers over 65 are unparalleled in labor force participation.4 Add the fact that this region leads the nation per capita in the number of knowledge workers, and any business in the Greater Washington region will have ample labor diversity and proficiency to address all consumer demographics.5

    For me, a competitive tennis player, tournaments are opportunities to apply new techniques developed during practice. As the fuel that drives success, competition also provides invaluable learning experience. For an entrepreneur, actual work is an opportunity to implement business strategies and gain important contacts and experience. Perhaps the ultimate economic advantage Greater Washington offers is its proximity to the federal government. With its massive budget and workforce, the government provides both economic stimulus and stability to the region. Federal government contracts provide substantial investment and influx of financial capital. In 2003, out of a total $220 billion in federal procurement, 18% was allocated to Greater Washington.6 With federal requirements for larger corporations to subcontract to smaller companies and direct government contracts and loans for small businesses, there are innumerable opportunities for regional firms to get off the ground. The Small Business Administration 8(a) Program assists social minorities with access to business development resources and offers strong regional support, as reflected by Greater Washington’s unrivaled number of female executives.7 Of course, innovation is what powers business and sustains growth. With $30 billion in planned infrastructure projects and a thriving green industry at a time of increasing demand for alternative energy, Greater Washington will remain at the forefront of our nation’s economic development.8

    Whenever coach brings us in for a pep talk, we are always expecting that speech - the one about digging deeper and finding strength within. About the same intangible qualities that Michael Jordan talked about over and over again in those Nike commercials. When the game is on the line, an inner factor separates the winners from the losers. The same intangible attribute separates successful businesses from busts. What truly distinguishes business in Greater Washington is the spirit of its residents and their authentic dedication to growth. Some experts have coined the term “social entrepreneurship” to explain actions such as the projects to clean up the Anacostia watershed, or the establishment of businesses in impoverished D.C. neighborhoods to improve the quality of living. As the founder of a local nonprofit organization, I have been fortunate to work with people who exhibit this spirit everyday. I call it heart. Heart is the Montgomery County Tennis Association donating $3000 of equipment to a high school student because they believe he can make a difference, if only a small one. Heart is the fulltime teacher who already has an after school job, but still finds time to teach tennis at a middle school, just because he loves what he does. Heart is what makes the Greater Washington area the best place to put in those seven extra hours.

1 Greater Washington 2008 Regional Report. Rep.No. Economic Development, Greater Washington Initiative. 8.
2 Ibid., 9.
3 Ibid., 14.
4 McClain, John C. The Washington Area Economy Trends and Forecasts. Rep.No. Center for Regional Analysis, George Mason University. Center for Regional Analysis.
5 Ibid.
6 The Business of Government: Prime Opportunities for Capital Gain. Rep.No. Economic Development, Greater Washington Initiative. 5.
7 US Census Bureau, 2005.
8 Greater Washington 2008 Regional Report, 15.