Entrepreneurial Georgetown Touted at Citizens Meeting

Prof. Jeff Reid of Georgetown University, Daniel Miller, Omar Popal, Naimish Patel and Ashley Peterson.r
Robert Devaney
Prof. Jeff Reid of Georgetown University, Daniel Miller, Omar Popal, Naimish Patel and Ashley Peterson.r

"If they gave us HealthCare.gov, it would work," said Naimish Patel of Audax Health, located at Washington Harbour, about the launch of the website for the Affordable Care Act, known as ObamaCare.

Patel was at an Oct. 23 talk, arranged by the Citizens Association of Georgetown. Young, confident entrepreneurs were on hand to illustrate what is becoming known as the New Georgetown.

When you think of Georgetown, business entrepreneurs, start-ups and technology firms are not what first come to mind. But Georgetown remains home to growing tech businesses. After all, the company which become IBM was housed on 31st Street, and inventor Alexander Graham Bell lived and worked here.

In an informative panel discussion, held at the Powerhouse on Grace Street, CAG invited Professor Jeff Reid of Georgetown University, director of its business school's Georgetown Entrepreneurship Initiative, to moderate a discussion about entrepreneurs and Georgetown with Daniel Miller, co-founder of Fundrise, with his brother Ben, sons of developer Herb Miller; Omar Popal, co-owner of Malmaison and Cafe Bonaparte; Naimish Patel, vice president of Audax Health; Ashley Peterson, senior director of Personal.

Reid kicked off the talk, inviting each entrepreneur to describe what they do.

As part of his development strategy, Miller said his company, Fundrise, gets people investing in small sums, "proactively involved around your neighborhood instead of trying to stop development." Omar Popal said that restaurants "provide emotional experiences." Peterson touted the security and convenience of her firms's personal and data vault and one-click form-filling.

Reid then asked: what made you create your company instead of taking a more traditional business route? How did you start?

Miller replied that in his previous job he was well paid but found it boring. To be an entrepreneur, he said, one must be "obsessed with an idea, working every day, thinking about it on your free time." Popal worked for Merrill Lynch and attended London School of Economics. So, it is about supply and demand in the business of eating and drinking," he said. It is also about, he added, "part of being selfish" and "bringing family together."

Patel said he met his employer online and quipped how they first "squatted at Foley Lardner office and used Starbucks' wifi" before getting its own offices. While acknowledging there are fewer females in tech firms, Peterson said she saw entrepreneurship not so much as a model but as following a vision.

At this point during the discussion, Reid took note: "No one said, 'I wanted to get rich.' " He went on: how do you handle failure?

Miller spoke about financial regulations and how his firm got to its solution. "Failure in the middle don't matter," he said. Popal said he was thinking about 14th Street before choosing Malmaison's location as well as the process of finding just the right chef. Patel said his company failed on its first release and how selling a program to healthcare companies takes years. Peterson said a yes is not a yes until the contract is signed.

Reid also asked: why start a business in Georgetown?

Miller said he grew up and was developing the Powerhouse into something beyond a meeting place -- perhaps a restaurant. He also remains intent on getting Politics and Prose into Georgetown and getting the money to back that up. Popal, hailing from Northern Virginia but also a world traveler, saw Georgetown as lacking aspects of cafe society, hence Bonaparte and now Malmaison. Patel said he is here because angel investors live here. "Georgetown is underrated," he said. "There are a lot of people her with a lot of experience."

As far as getting funding, Reid listed the standard first requests: "Friends, family and fools." The panel noted that funding was still tough, but Reid replied: "Money wants to find you." He then asked: what are the qualities needed to be an entrepreneur?

Miller said, "Persistence" and not to care about obstacles and what others say. Popal agreed and added,"Look to where you want to go" and not that tree you might hit. Patel summed it up: "It's your baby." Peterson said, "Total belief."

When asked about helping Georgetown, Popal said he wants to have light shows around town during December to attract visitors -- perhaps even light up Key Bridge.

Perhaps the biggest benefit to the community was that the jobs of the future are created by new companies which are less than five years old, concluded Reid at the end of an enlightening discussion in a renovated building next to the old C&O Canal.

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