Seeds of Change: Why Washington, DC is the Place for Social Entrepreneurs to Thrive

May 1, 2019

When TwentyTables founder Alex Cohen started his socially-driven community of food, he knew he wouldn’t have to look to Silicon Valley. Alex started his company in his own backyard. Washington, DC is known as a thriving hub for social entrepreneurship and impact-driven businesses, and with good reason. With access to local, state, and federal government, an international populace, and thousands of foundations, NGOs, and nonprofits, Washington, DC is the perfect place to launch a social impact business.

Social impact startups, which attempt to solve large-scale social problems with scalable businesses, often require frank conversations about tough problems in order to get off the ground. Collaboration between key players is crucial to find solutions that will create lasting impact. For TwentyTables, that meant engaging from the beginning with DC organizations focused on hunger and food insecurity. Alex formed early partnerships with Capital Area Food Bank, DC Central Kitchen, and Martha’s Table to donate five meals to the hungry and food insecure for every twenty meals a user purchased on his platform. Because of the perspective those organizations were able to provide, he was able to bake a charitable component into the core of his business model and make sure that everyone’s incentives were aligned. Having access to leading organizations in DC who are immersed in the problem of food insecurity every day meant that he did not have to reinvent the wheel.

When it came time to find socially minded, conscious consumers, DC was once again a key to success. TwentyTables’ first customer for its business-to-business “employee lunch as a benefit” option was the RFK Center for Human Rights. There is no other city in the world where your door-to-door outreach could lead to a conversation about food insecurity with Kerry Kennedy and Michael Schreiber. Having access to foundations, nonprofits, and NGOs focused on social problems is vital for entrepreneurs trying to create lasting change. And with one nonprofit for every 86 residents, DC is sure to connect social entrepreneurs with similarly missioned nonprofits. That’s without even considering DC’s access to the largest customer in the world — the U.S. government.

The federal government awards over $105 billion in government contracts to small businesses every year. That makes working with the government a key strategy for many startups hoping to grow and scale. But just like any other customer, sales to the U.S. government require an understanding of pain points, networking with decision makers, and relationships built on clear communication and trust. Startups headquartered in DC are able to foster conversations with government early on in their development, and can create a product with government pain points in mind.

Many programs in the DC region help to enable those early conversations. Early-stage accelerators in DC like the Halcyon House and Seed Spot focus specifically on social impact businesses like TwentyTables and the challenges they face. They are able to introduce founders to key stakeholders in the social impact landscape. These accelerators serve as catalysts for startup growth, as well as thought-leaders who can identify startup trends.

“Washington, D.C. is a fantastic place for social entrepreneurs,” said Halcyon Incubator Program Director, Mike Malloy. “As part of our Social Enterprise Ecosystem Report, we found that the DC ecosystem is the third best for social enterprise, just behind Boston and San Francisco. DC benefits in particular from a robust repository of talent, which we see every day at the Halcyon Incubator.” 

Washington, DC’s talent pool is yet another strength of the ecosystem. With a transient and diverse population, the DC region has many voices that can weigh in on social problems. Community members have often traveled or lived abroad, and have experienced or witnessed many of the problems they are trying to solve firsthand. With a highly educated and engaged workforce, DC also offers startups a robust talent pool to hire from as they grow.

Washington, DC can teach other cities, regions, and private businesses a few helpful things about creating an environment where social impact businesses can thrive. 

  • Create opportunities for stakeholders to have tough conversations about real problems.
  • Include support for dialogue with spaces, programs, and initiatives focused on scalable social impact.
  • Introduce and engage key stakeholders early in the process so that they can inform how a product develops.
  • Create incentives for socially driven businesses to stay and “grow in place”, so that they don’t feel the need to move when they need funding, talent, or office space.

[Editor's Note: TwentyTables' Founder and CEO, Alex Cohen, will be speaking at the Chamber Foundation's Digital Empowers Summit on May 10 in Washington, DC. Learn more and register here.]