Jason Towns Sizes Up DC After Securing Commitments for a $10M Venture Fund by Emily Wasserman

Jason Towns Sizes Up DC After Securing Commitments for a $10M Venture Fund by Emily Wasserman

Jason Towns wants more diversity in D.C. tech, and he’s not wasting any time trying to bring about change. Towns’ startup consulting firm The Towns Group is working to launch Groundwork, an organization that recently secured commitments for a $10 million investment fund targeting new companies started by minority founders. For Towns, looking outside the box is critical to success in the D.C. tech scene.

He gave a glimpse at how he has prepared and what he wants to accomplish with Groundwork.

How do you challenge yourself to think differently from other people in the industry?

I think the main thing that I do is to surround myself with a very diverse group of people, diverse in just about every way possible: From race, to gender, to age, to socioeconomic status, to geography, nationality, culture, all of the above. By doing that, I’m able to always get a really fresh and off-center perspective on things that I’m thinking about and doing. The other piece of that is, a part of what we’re doing is pushing against some of the industry norms, and going left when a lot of others are going right. By making sure that that mantra permeates through every that we’re doing, I’m able to keep fresh, new and different perspectives and I’m able to then in return end up with that as well.

Where do you find inspiration?

A few places. One of those places is just in the founders that I’m working with. One of the things that I recognize here in D.C. and globally, there’s nothing that inspires me more than a founder who really believes so heavily in what they’re building or finding a solution to the problem they’re solving. They’re willing to push through the rejection and the conventional beliefs. Seeing and working with folks who are working and pushing through those challenges, on top of just the day to day life of a startup founder, is what keeps me inspired. It wakes me up before my alarm clock in the morning and keeps me up late at night, too.

I’m really inspired by big problems and the potential for big solutions to those problems. I think we’re in a time now where there’s opportunity to solve some of the really, really big challenges that our country and culture has been plagued with for a long time. This crop of entrepreneurs, the millennials, who are out there solving some of these problems, are more passionate, more driven, more mission-focused than some of the founders that I’ve seen come through. It’s the problems that folks are setting out to solve that keep me really inspired.

What job have you had that has had the greatest impact on your career?

I think that outside of my own entrepreneurial ventures, my role at CODE2040, creating and growing the entrepreneur and residence program, was one of the roles that really gave me an opportunity to take a really strong look at what’s going on in the broader entrepreneurial ecosystem. It also gave us the opportunity to begin building solutions to create better and stronger and more inclusive tech ecosystems. That program has been really impactful and is now being led by the amazing Deldelp Medina, who will take things to another level. I’m excited about that. I think CODE2040 is an amazing organization, and I’m happy to be part of the family and I’m really inspired by all the work that they continue to do.

The second would be my first startup. I was thrown into the fire. We started something, and we didn’t know much about how to grow a company. Everything from hiring to learning how to scale a venture, to attracting venture capital, understanding leadership, it was all trial by fire. I think those two experiences are the bookends that created the majority of the experience that I bring to the industry.

How will your industry change in the next five years?

Number one, I think there’s a real strong trend toward finding the intersection between mission driven work and profits. When I first started in the late 90s and early 2000s, it was all about, how much can you make? How fast can you grow this thing? How much can you sell it for? It was pure capitalistic undercurrent. Right now, all of those things still exist, but the undercurrent is solving real problems and developing real solutions. In my opinion, it feels better, your team works harder and you’ll be more driven when you have a mission that you can rally around. There’s something so prescient and needed, that someone needs to take the bull by the horns and solve this thing. It’s a different level of understanding and it takes a different level of motivation. In a big way, the industry is moving toward that. And it’s a good thing, because now you have more smart, super hungry people out to solve the big problems of the world.

From the broader industry standpoint, folks are starting to realize that we do better as an industry, we do better as a tech community when they pull in more insight from a wider group, a wider array of people, places and things. We have to find ways to make sure that we’re building an industry that has room for those perspectives. The industry is slowly and surely figuring that out. When folks used to talk about inclusion, it would be as an aside or PR.

Now, companies and investors are realizing that there’s a tremendous amount of value that you’re building a company and team that will deliver the insight that will speak to the customer of the future. For instance, with black and Latino consumers being two fast-growing segments, and the women segment in the consumer marketplace and the way that that’s growing, you realize that to make sure you meet the needs of your consumer base, you’d be best fit to have people from those communities on your team to keep you on the cutting edge. It allows for more opportunities to bring amazing, super smart people into the fold. There’s still more work to do, but I’m encouraged and inspired by what I see on a day-to-day basis. I see enough good that we’re pretty inspired in the direction that we’re headed.

How is Washington D.C. unique when it comes to innovation?

I think that for a long time, the tech industry looked at the federal government as a big detractor from innovation. Now, particularly with the Obama administration really embracing tech and the innovation sector with organizations like 18F and other, newer agencies or arms of agencies, I think there’s an interesting and unique opportunity to look at the intersection of government and innovation. I think there’s amazing stuff going on at that intersection, and that’s unique to D.C.

So many associations and nonprofits are headquartered in the District, and D.C. is quietly becoming the social impact startup capital of America in a really interesting way. As the city does a better job of supporting those founders and those organizations, that will make for a better environment. I’m always excited about the Halcyon Accelerator. A couple folks I work with went through that and had an amazing experience.

The natural tendency is to gravitate toward people who are telling us how great we are, but it’s important to know the good and the bad.

I think D.C. has one of the highest percentages of African American tech talents working from startups to government agencies and other organizations. We also have the highest percentage of African American wealth in this region. There’s an opportunity to see how those things play into each other. It’s about bringing together people and resources so people of color in the tech startup space can thrive. It gives them the ability to connect with people in D.C. and capital and resources across the country. It’s been amazing to see the growth of the D.C. tech ecosystem. Part of what we’re interested in doing is connecting the wealth to what’s going on in the startup space; that we’re playing a role in the growth of the D.C. tech sector.

What’s something that you do every single day, no matter what you have going on?

No matter what, I find 15 minutes to meditate. I start my day with that and that’s 6:40 in the morning, every morning, regardless of how late I stayed out last night and regardless of how late I was working, because it provides the type of clarity that I need. We’re trying to build this fund and work with other groups and supporting founders. It gets crazy, so if I can start from a place of peace and giving thanks that I have the opportunities that we’ve been giving, it makes things move a lot smoother. I usually after that put together my to-do list over breakfast and the day rolls from there.

Who do you admire in D.C. – from your industry or other industries?

I’m coming from a VC perspective and work to fund tech startups. But one of the founders who really inspires me is Aisha Bowe of STEMBoard. She went for the VC route and didn’t raise any money and decided to come back and grow her company. She’s leveraged the federal government in some really amazing ways.

Rashad Moore is a startup founder who sold his company. Rashad has very quietly and humbly been a big supporter of the D.C. tech ecosystem. He has spent a lot of time supporting and working with entrepreneurs and engineers. I’ve seen him active in a number of angel groups, work on code and make seed investments. These are the type of people that you hear about everyday, but they head to the ground and work really hard to build the ecosystem. They build the connections to push things forward, and to me, that’s inspiring to see.

I think the work that Steve Case’s Revolution is doing locally is going to be really interesting in the long term. They have a good understanding of what it’s going to take to push this ecosystem further, and to be a beacon of light to the outside of the Silicon Valley. They do a great job of shining that light locally and outside of here.

Paul Singh is another guy that is quietly making it happen and taking things happening in the tech space and Valley and bringing it to other markets in a real way.

What would you change about D.C. or D.C. tech scene?

I think that there should be much more support at the early stage. I think we’re going to be bringing a lot of that to the scene. But there’s a real need for support early. I’d love to see even more collaboration between groups. And I think that that’s beginning to happen.

I think that we’re going to have to do a really good job of presenting the unique opportunity, not only to investors but also in attracting capital outside of D.C.

I think D.C. has a really good opportunity to build a super inclusive tech community, but to do that, there are some really specific things that we need to do in the city. It’s our responsibility to do everything we can to build the type of community that we want to see.

For me, I work in a number of different tech communities. D.C. is its own unique community and I think that there’s so much promise in this city. There’s a ton of potential that still exists. I’m excited to be a part of that story and create the next generation of entrepreneurs.

What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs looking to progress with their business?

I would say a couple of things. One, as quickly as you can, align yourself with people who can give you really actionable feedback and who will be honest with you about what sucks with what you’re doing. The natural tendency is to gravitate toward people who are telling us how great we are, but it’s important to know the good and the bad.

Also, give openly, no matter where you are. At any given level, there’s an opportunity to give back and give openly. I feel very strongly that when you give, and give openly, it comes back in big ways. You don’t do it so you get something back; give because it’s part of this time that we spend on this earth. We have a finite amount of years, days, hours that we want to get done. I think that you can multiply the effect by finding some place or way to give. That’s one of the biggest pieces of advice that was given to me when I was younger, and I tend to share that with everyone who works with me. The type of people whom I like to work with and give to are the type of people who like to give as well. It becomes a cycle.


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