George H. Lambert Jr.
Entrepreneurship drives business, whether it’s the corner shop or a Fortune 500 corporation. Because the federal government isn’t always known for its innovation or appetite for risk, people may not realize that in recent years, the nation’s capital has become a major force in the startup world, rivaling Silicon Valley and New York City. Black UpStart runs bootcamps here in the District for African American entrepreneurs. There’s even a “stealth start-up” in the White House basement called US Digital Service.
I am proud and excited that the Greater Washington Urban League is playing a part in this dynamic environment. We just named our first Entrepreneur-In-Residence. Marcus Johnson, founder and CEO of FLO Wine, is also an acclaimed jazz pianist and recording artist. As Eldridge R. Allen, director of my organization’s Entrepreneurship Center Program told me, “Marcus is the perfect choice. This is not based on his fame and success, but more on his entrepreneurial spirit and his commitment to helping others in their entrepreneurial development and success. He knows where they are because he’s been there.”
Johnson started his career as a jazz musician, but he always paid as much attention to the dollars and cents as to melody and tempo. “Everything you do is a business,” he says. “When music pays your bills, it’s a business.” Recognizing that education would further his ambitions, he persisted in school, earning a BA from Howard and continuing on to earn law and business degrees from Georgetown University.
I asked Johnson how he would summarize the advice he plans on giving the entrepreneurs that attend our clinics. His response: “If you’re going to do it, do it big. Own the company.” He went on to say that many Blacks miss out on the benefits of starting a company because of fear of failure. This fear, he says, is universal, but it’s exponentially greater when no one in your family or social network has succeeded before you. A lot of startups fail; the secret is not to personalize it.
As Johnson says, the real failure happens when people end up saying, “Let me put my dream under the pillow. I’ll get to it tomorrow.”
Entrepreneurship is about persistence and changing course if necessary. Johnson’s FLO is a perfect example. He was on the brink of building his own recording studio in the first years of the century, just when the bottom fell out of the music industry. Then he tried to start a jazz club but couldn’t raise the necessary financing. Finally, he hit upon the right business model at the right time
“Wine is the number one alcoholic beverage that women drink,” he says. “Women became our target market.” Today, FLO supplies wine in seven states to a thousand accounts.
The purpose of the workshops is to demystify entrepreneurship for the curious. If you have an idea, or you’re good at what you do and want to try being your own boss, this is a way for you to find out more about the financial, legal, and practical steps necessary to achieve your dream.
“I always have plants around me,” Johnson tells me. “If you take care of them, they take care of you.” Asked what office décor has to do with entrepreneurship, he smiles. “It’s a natural law. If you plant seeds in fertile ground and nurture them, they can’t help but grow.”
George H. Lambert, Jr. is the President and CEO of the Greater Washington Urban League.