The Heights School
Hey, you there! Stop!
We had no idea they were talking to us. It was 7:30 at night on July 4th in Washington, DC and there were literally thousands of people milling about. Granted, we were the only ones sprinting down 15th Street toward Constitution Avenue pushing carts of Italian ice. It was only hours later, after the fireworks had ended and we had begun our long trek back to the van, that we discovered our flight was actually from uniformed Capitol police officers. Thankfully, they were content with only a warning (speed violation while in possession of a four-wheeled vehicle), after we gave them some leftover ice.
The company did well that night. Combined, we sold a few thousand dollars worth of ice, and still managed to catch the celebratory fireworks. It was after nights like this that I often mused on the nature of our company, and the area that enabled its success.
It was the summer of 2007. My cousins Miguel, 18 years old at the time, and Sebastián, 16 years old at the time, were the owners. My friend Andrés and I were partners. The company’s assets were simple: four insulated freezer carts, buckets and buckets of Italian ice, boxes of plastic spoons and Styrofoam cups, the minivan and the trailer. As partners, we purchased all supplies directly from my cousins (ice, spoons, and cups) and shared 50% of the profits. The company sold ice, 7 days a week for 10 hours a day, in Bethesda, Silver Spring and the District. We also went to several fairs and catered private parties. Sales that summer were good: about $30,000 from the day we got out of school to the first day of junior year. I don’t know of any other friends of mine that had an equally lucrative summer job. I also don’t know of an area where this business could have flourished other than that of the Greater Washington metropolitan one.
Greater Washington has “been high up on the growth curve for over a decade”, according to a March 2004 article by Joel Kotkin in Inc. Magazine. The Greater Washington area’s gross regional product is $342 billion, fourth in the nation and exceeding that of several countries, according to the Greater Washington Initiative (GWI). In terms of median household income ($83,200), Greater Washington is the nation’s second wealthiest region (GWI). But these figures do not fully explain how in the course of a couple years, four teenagers were able to build and grow a small business from one cart and a refrigerator to four carts and $30,000 in sales. There are however three adjectives that do define the type of business environment that is the Greater Washington area: innovative, diverse, and entrepreneurial. These same three adjectives, by describing Washington’s business environment, explain how we and many other businesses of the area succeeded.
Innovation can be described as the introduction of the new. It is often driven by education. Washington benefits from this correlation, since the nations’ highest percentage of residents with advanced degrees reside in the area (GWI). This high level of education presupposes exceptional opportunities for those that live and work in the region; these opportunities translate well into the business world. Innovation characterizes the best businesses. But a truly innovative area is one in which not only the established giants of commerce grow, but also the minority-owned businesses that often struggle through great hardship to even get started. Greater Washington is a fine example of one of those innovative areas. According to the Greater Washington Initiative, Washington’s Latino and African-American communities are starting businesses three times faster than the national average. This explosive growth could only occur in an area conducive to innovation; such an area is surely the best place to build and grow a business. My cousins and I thought so, and thought correctly as it turned out. Many other Latino-owned companies agree, and have built their businesses in this innovative metropolitan area.
Diversity highlights a unique aspect of the Washington metropolitan area. It brings together people of different backgrounds and modes of problem solving, and as a result increases innovative thinking. This diversity not only explains Washington’s high minority-owned business growth rate, but also the 2005 Hispanic Business 500’s ranking of the area: third nationwide in the number of large Hispanic-owned businesses. These businesses appreciate the international community Washington has to offer, and have shown their appreciation through investment. At the same time, the multicultural atmosphere present throughout the Washington area compels businesses to understand and adapt to it. For example, since about 20% of Washington area residents speak a language other than English at home (GWI), companies that want to thrive must incorporate Spanish (the most common foreign language spoken in the area; US Census Bureau) into their employees’ capabilities. Our company deliberately made an effort to form itself around those with a thorough knowledge of Spanish, and as a result, was able to match our Latino customers’ language preferences with ease. This increased value for the customer yielded a higher profitability. An area as diverse as Greater Washington produces executives and employees with equally diverse points of view; this mosaic of voices generates innovation and value for the customer, in the end enhancing the company’s profitability.
The best area to build and grow a business is the area that is most receptive to doing so. This area must not only be filled with innovative companies and diverse residents, but also with a vibrant entrepreneurial spirit. This spirit is seen mostly in small business growth. Our small business succeeded in the Washington area, in large part due to that entrepreneurial drive that spurs companies on through all difficulties, and lends perseverance when others encourage retreat. But one personal experience is hardly sufficient proof of an entire region’s quality. Yet figures do not deceive. In addition to the number of companies starting up in an area, job growth is the most common indicator of a region’s receptiveness to entrepreneurs. With 72,000 jobs added in 2005 (GWI), the Greater Washington area led the nation in job growth over the last five-year marking period (from 2000-2005). An area that generates this many jobs, and produces minority-owned small businesses at the aforementioned rate, is an area that was made for entrepreneurship. My cousins and I believed in Greater Washington, and profited well from our faith. We are just one of many examples that define the Washington area as the unequivocally best place to build and grow a business, whether it does $30,000 in annual sales or places high on the Inc. 500 list (of which businesses Washington has the most in the nation: 50 as of 2005, according to the Greater Washington Initiative).
The Greater Washington area is an economic powerhouse in many ways. It presents small business owners with a wealth of statistics that inspire them to select it as the area of choice to do business in. But it is the innovative, diverse, and entrepreneurial atmosphere that defines the Washington area as the best region to build and grow a business in. My cousins and I experienced this spirit, and we profited from it. We witnessed innovation of product, diversity of customer, and entrepreneurship of proprietor firsthand. I am grateful for this experience, and encourage those who wish to similarly develop their own business to do so in the Greater Washington metropolitan area.