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Interview

Get to Know: VPP Founding Investor Russ Ramsey

June 25, 2019

From left to right: VPP Partner Telaekah Brooks, Greater Washington Partnership founder Russ Ramsey, VPP President & CEO Carol Thompson Cole

 

While Greater Washington watches and waits for Amazon HQ2 to land in Crystal City, VPP spoke with Russ Ramsey. As a founder of Greater Washington Partnership, Ramsey was a major driving force behind the tech behemoth’s decision to roost next to DC. The Partnership brings together CEOs from Baltimore to Richmond with the goal of “making the Capital Region… one of the world’s best places to live, work and build a business.” Through a spirit of unity and a focus on solutions, the Partnership works to improve the region through transportation and investing in the skills of our workforce. Ramsey and his wife Norma, grew up in the region and have been committed to the community through their philanthropy and business. In his newest venture, Greater Washington Partnership, Ramsey is investing in the community in a broad way. In an in-depth conversation with VPP, Ramsey shared his story, thoughts on philanthropy and how to prepare today’s students for tomorrow’s workforce.

What were the major influences in your life growing up? How did your upbringing shape you?
I’m a native. I was born in Providence Hospital in Northeast DC and grew up in Capital Heights, Maryland. I grew up in the 60s: It was a time of big change in this city.

I went to a private elementary school in DC’s Ward 8 and then Suitland Junior High and Suitland High School in Prince George’s County, MD. We’re all shaped by our environments. When I went to public school, sports were my way of fitting in.

People ask, “How was your public high school experience?” The skills and the smarts that I got from being in an environment where you had to figure things out was invaluable. I would never change it.

My break came when I was the first in my family to go to college. I got a baseball scholarship to George Washington University. Even though I grew up in the suburbs, GW was like a different world. As I like to say, we played on the worst baseball field in America, which was the West Ellipse: The White House is on one side, the National Monument on the other. Everybody knows the Ellipse because they’re like, “Yeah, I went to a protest down there or a picnic.” In my case, it’s because I played baseball.

Going to GW was a great experience for me that changed my life. My business, community, and where I focus my philanthropy ended up being here in this region because I never left.

How did you become a founding investor in VPP?
When I met Mario [Morino, co-founder of VPP] in 1994, I don’t think I could spell technology. He had become the first real public successful technology company. It was the beginning stages of the then-nascent internet economy we were all very fortunate to be a part of it and seize the moment and push forward.

Mario had always been of this view of how to make things better – he was tackling this question from his perspective and asking, “how can we make things better through technology?” We had partnered at what was then the first venture capital fund dedicated to the emergence of the internet. It was really the right time, right place. I then decided to invest in VPP as Mario and the other co-founders created the organization because of how Mario and the team thought and worked. Mario had great respect and he had this idea of bringing proven venture capital principles to philanthropic organizations. It made sense.

VPP’s Ready for Work initiative prepares students in Prince George’s County, MD to be career- and college-ready. What does it take to prepare the Greater Washington region for work?
When I think about Ready for Work, I think about “ready for work.” There’s too much focus on going to a four-year school and getting a degree, as opposed to all these iterations in-between. In this new economy, there’s all kinds of interesting and important ways to go past getting a degree without having to find a way to pay for four years of school or borrow it or get a scholarship or whatever.

Amazon Web Services has a program with Prince George’s Community College and Northern Virginia Community College where high school students can be accepted to earn their AWS Certification. If you get through, that’s a job with a $125,000 salary.

Not every job pays $125,000 a year, of course, but you could do that across all these other skills, which don’t require four-year degrees, engineering or STEM degrees. Greater Washington Partnership board member Tom Farrell leads Dominion Energy, where they have all these great jobs that aren’t glamorous but they’re high-paying.

Now we have this New Skills for Youth initiative that JPMorgan and our co-founder Peter Scher are funding through Greater Washington Partnership that’s designed to drive tech skills down to K-12.

It’s a great example of corporate philanthropy really driving change in neighborhoods.

What issues do you think philanthropy should be focused on?
My wife Norma is by far my better half and the philanthropic brain in our family. We look to invest where we can make a difference.

I couldn’t imagine being homeless, hungry or at a point where you can’t go to school or are afraid to go to school. Change starts with families. It starts with families and what I’ll call surrogate families. We’re putting resources around those youth at risk. We’ve done a fair amount of work – Norma in particular – with what I’ll call a “healthcare concierge” trying to match resources with basic health care. She’s also very engaged with an organization called Knock Out Abuse, which provides resources to women who have been abused. It’s just trying to get the foundational pieces in place. I believe everybody can make a difference.

But you can’t make a difference if you don’t have shoes or don’t have food, don’t have a place to call home. The basics are really hard to overcome.

How do you and Norma decide to get involved or invest in an organization?
We have become much more outcome-oriented. There are so many emotional and heart-tugging and good causes. And there are also some poorly set-up philanthropic organizations – through no fault of their own. But, the reality is that the vast majority are underfunded and all the programmatic effort that they would love to be doing is spent fundraising or trying to keep the lights on.

Being outcome-oriented means asking: What is the metric we’re driving toward? And how does the allocation of those dollars compare to other opportunities?

We need to look back and ask, “Did our capital make a difference? Did our engagement make a difference?”

You want to measure. I tend to look at things like ‘does it have scale, is there a follow-on and an opportunity to be transformative?’ Investing capital and personal engagement can really cause those outcomes to multiply.

What were the origins of Greater Washington Partnership and how has it grown since then?
The very brief history is: We are the business community from Baltimore to Richmond. We started at 17 CEOs – now we’re at 27 – who came together around an idea of unity and solutions. We opened people’s eyes as to what the power of collaboration could be.

When we started Greater Washington Partnership, there was no Amazon HQ2. At the time people said, “Well, it’s great that you might have the Olympics but without something that’s a real catalyst how are you going to get people to pay attention?” (Note: Prior to creating Greater Washington Partnership, Ramsey and several other businesses leaders led a bid for Washington DC to host the 2024 Olympics, which was ultimately awarded to Paris, France. You can read more about that here.)

So, when HQ2 came about, we approached it the way we approached the Olympics and other things. We’ve had a positive reception to HQ2 in Crystal City because we had collaboration, unity, people working together. It’s a game changer for our region.

And it’s not just because Amazon is coming here: Now there’s a spotlight that we have the second biggest concentration of IT workers in the country. We have some of the most affluent, knowledgeable and educated workforce in America. Working together as a region is an opportunity to transform how people think about this region.

More importantly, it will get growth going. People are surprised to learn our region’s actually been a laggard the last ten years in growth. Having half the national growth average has a lot of negative consequences when it comes to resources for infrastructure, mobility, and other things – that obviously Amazon would change. It can and should be transformative.

VPP brings business, government and philanthropy together as the end goal. What are your thoughts on how business and philanthropy can most effectively collaborate?
First rule of marketing: find a need then fill it. First rule of finance: there’s no free lunch. So how do you bridge the gap between the two?

I think the space that the Partnership filled existed for a couple reasons: If you look at other parts of the country or the world, where there were high-performing economies in what I’ll call effective communities, there was always one CEO group. They weren’t good or bad, just the voice of business. But as the driver of jobs and economic growth, it was an important voice.

If you looked at Maryland, DC and Virginia, I would argue there wasn’t one in any of the areas. First, we were able to take on a regional basis Baltimore to Richmond and have a voice of business.

The year that we did a roadshow and went around, I thought I knew the region: I didn’t.

When you actually get on the ground, you understand the dynamics that are happening. We now had a voice in the business community. Then, as a 501c3, we needed support from companies if we were going to have staying power. We were the long-term strategic thinkers, able to go past earning cycles, past political election cycles. We’re going to be here when the White House changes and when it changes again. It’s strategic, systematic long-term thinking.

We are living, breathing proof that our CEOs are investing in the solutions around big issues – creating a whole new category we call “Inclusive Capitalism.”

On top of our New Skills for Youth initiative, we’ve now organized our larger universities around this entity called the Capital CoLAB to bring our universities and the million students in our region at the four-year level into the digital, 21st century.

We’ve already got two of our 12 universities starting to offer a digital fluency component of undergraduate degrees. Employers need it. They’re paying for it, and it’s going to be a differentiator for us – the CoLAB Digital Certificate. It will be a clear part of their degree – whether you’re a philosophy major, computer science, history or anything in-between: It’s the skills that everyone needs today. It will also be a differentiator for our regional universities. We’re hopefully sending a message from our CEOs and the companies about where we can invest and make a strategic difference.

What are you most excited about for the Greater Washington region as we think about how the community has grown?
Two things excite me most. Amazon is a game-changer for our region. Lots of people were engaged in making that happen When HQ2 hit, it was a free-for-all. They said, “We’ll take bids from everyone.”

I think 240 bids came in. It became clear that we were obviously going to be make a bid. There ended up being 11 bids from our area. We went to all 11 of the bidders and said, “I just want to remind you that 100 percent of zero is zero.” If one wins, we all win.

Everyone had to do their own bids but we said, “Here’s a four-page addendum that describes all the benefits of the region and how the region is so much more than just DC and Baltimore.”

Happily, all 11 of the bidders submitted our addendum as part of their bid. Maryland, DC and Virginia were each part of the 20 narrowed candidates. We went to both governors and the Mayor of DC and wrote a very strong two-page letter to Jeff Bezos that they all signed. It basically said, whatever Amazon chooses in our region, we will throw our resources behind whoever emerges.

When it became clear that they would pick Crystal City if they decided on our region, we spent several months working with all the constituents around that. It was amazing to do because not many other places did that. If you look at the tape, you’ll see the mayor came out with a very strong statement: Maryland was supportive – the region worked together.

I’m proud of that. It’s a game changer in terms of how people perceive our area and not just this government town. It’s going to lead to things like this New Skills for Youth initiative. It’s a $6 or 7 million commitment that’s so indicative of the whole ecosystem now starting to get built.

I look at CoLAB now and that collaboration of academia and business. We’re going to build the whole ecosystem, all the way down to kindergarten to drive whole series of skills.

It is a knowledge-based economy, and it’s going to be driven by intellectual capital and skills.

You don’t have to be inventing the next microchip. You can be an AWS engineer and have a pretty good life. We’ve been the beneficiary for that and now it’s about to move forward. It’s Amazon and the things like New Skills for Youth. But this is just our third year. It’s early.