The D.C. Business Scene Is Popping

In this episode of MarketFoolery, Chris Hill interviews the CEO and president of DC Economic Partnership, Keith Sellars, about WeDC and the changing scene in the nation's capital in the last few decades.

Hear more about when and why things started to change around business in D.C., the most common questions that businesses ask WeDC about setting up shop in the city, what we know so far about Amazon's interest in the D.C. area for its second corporate headquarters, one of the best off-the-beaten-path tourist attractions that D.C. has to offer, and much more. Tune into South by Southwest Week at MarketFoolery.

A full transcript follows the video.

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This video was recorded on March 14, 2018.

Chris Hill: For Wednesday, March 14th, this is MarketFoolery coming to you -- as you hear the planes overhead -- coming to you from downtown Austin, Texas. We are here at South by Southwest. More specifically, we are at the WeDC House. I'm thrilled that the CEO and President of DC Economic Partnership, Mr. Keith Sellars, is here. Thank you so much for being here!

Keith Sellars: Thanks for having me, Chris!

Hill: Actually, you're here like 14 hours a day, so I guess I should say, thank you for letting me come by the house and take some of your time, because you're a busy man here at the DC House.

Sellars: I'm happy to be here.

Hill: I was saying before we started taping, one of the biggest changes I've seen over the last three years here at South by Southwest is a bigger and bigger presence from cities. I've lived in Washington, D.C., in the area, for about 25 years. When I first moved here, it was a company town, and the company was the United States government. It was the center of politics, that was it. And it's been one of the most gratifying things for me as someone who's interested in business to see Washington, D.C., become more of a business center, more of a center for entrepreneurship.

We're going to talk about Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN). For anyone who's listening and wondering, "Is he going to ask him about Amazon?" Yes, of course I'm going to ask you about Amazon. We'll get to that.

But, one of the things I've noticed you've been doing with the Economic Partnership is really fostering entrepreneurship in Washington, D.C. How has that effort been received? Because again, for so long, Washington, D.C., was a center of government. And depending on who you talk to, there are some parts of government that are kind of resistant to business. How have you been able to make this partnership work?

Sellars: I think that's an excellent question. You really have to go back to 2007, 2008. When the market crashed, and the economy went south, D.C. was very forward-thinking and progressive as far as, we need to diversify our economy. At that time, the leaders realized that we need to look beyond just the federal government. If you look at what happened in Detroit during that time with the automobile industry, it made us realize that we need to do more than just focus on the federal government to diversify our economy, whether it's focusing on the tech industry or with the entrepreneurs, the creative economy. So, it was a very concerted effort as far as doing that. And we started looking at various conferences, one being South by Southwest. This will be the city's sixth year of being here in Austin, Texas, the fourth year that WeDC House is promoting Washington, D.C., for innovation and inclusiveness.

Hill: For anyone who's never been to South by Southwest, and I'm assuming that's most people listening, there's the big trade show floor, where there are cities and countries that have set up booths. Some booths are larger than others. But what you've been doing with the DC House is literally taking over an entire building in downtown Austin, making it over. Yeah, you can come by and get a really nice cup of coffee, but there's also breakout sessions that you're having, interesting panel discussion, networking opportunities.

Two questions to you. First, in terms of the entrepreneurs, the small business owners and people who are striving to be small business owners, what are some of the common questions that you get from them?

Sellars: Regarding South by Southwest?

Hill: South by Southwest, and then just setting up business in D.C. in general.

Sellars: A lot of folks want to know what the ecosystem is like for starting a business in D.C., how supportive is the government, what incentives are there available for start-up community and connecting folks? My organization, we don't control any money, nor do we control any real estate. We research and repackage the information that's already there, both on the private sector and public sector, and reformat that information where it's easily digestible for entrepreneurs.

Along those lines, we also provide the services as far as convening of folks from the private sector and the public sector, in formats that are really smart and easy for people to grasp the information and connecting folks. At South by Southwest, here, working with entrepreneurs, we like to bring people together and then move out of the way and let business take its own form there. As far as technical assistance, there are a lot of folks and organizations who do that. We don't focus on that aspect of it, we just provide the platform where businesses can just go and thrive.

Hill: And in terms of larger businesses that are looking to operate in D.C., and I'm assuming, regardless of the city -- I talked with some of the different cities and regions that had booths set up at the trade show, getting a sense of what people are interested in -- any business with half a brain, one of their first questions is probably going to be about taxes, and what kind of tax breaks or tax incentives can we get. But, beyond that, when it comes to some of the larger companies that you encounter, what are the types of questions that they're asking?

Sellars: The common, whether you're a large business or a small company, a start-up, people are looking for talent. They want to know, does D.C. have the resources for my company to grow? And the answer to that is yes. We're one of the most highly educated cities in the United States. Most people have post-graduate degrees, and we're not short of finding that talent in Washington, D.C.

Hill: Before your current position, I noticed in your bio that you spent a dozen or so years working for Whole Foods. What were you doing for Whole Foods? And what was your reaction when you saw that Amazon bought Whole Foods?

Sellars: I was really excited.

Hill: [laughs] I think that was the reaction of almost every Whole Foods shareholder, myself included.

Sellars: And I was like, thank God I still have stock in Whole Foods Market. I was pleasantly surprised, along those lines.

Hill: But, in terms of, what were you doing for them when you were working there?

Sellars: When I was working at Whole Foods Market, it was actually a company called Wellspring Grocery, we were the first company that was acquired by Whole Foods. It was a company of two, Whole Foods had five stores. They acquired us in Durham, North Carolina, Durham and Chapel Hill and opened a store in Raleigh, North Carolina. And from then on, I went around the country opening and managing stores around the country for Whole Foods Market for about 13 years.

Hill: That's a lot of traveling.

Sellars: [laughs] It was. It was an education.

Hill: [laughs] That's good, though. Speaking of Amazon, I would be crazy if I didn't ask you -- I'm not asking you to divulge any secrets or any inside information, at least not while we're recording this. After we're done taping, then I'll ask for the inside information. What, if anything, can you share about Washington, D.C., intersecting with Amazon, as Amazon looks to establish a second headquarters? Anything you can share about how those conversations have gone? Anything about a timeline? People are asking me, when do you think Amazon is going to decide? And I just shrug and say, well, I think later this year, I'm not sure.

Sellars: I think, what I've been told is, they're going to make a decision by the end of the calendar year. That's just general information there. I don't have any more detail than that. I wish I did have a crystal ball. But, I'm really excited for the district, as well as the region, because what I think it does is, it has placed us in a different place than we've been over the past 10 years. People are taking D.C. a lot more serious for corporations to relocate their companies to Washington, D.C., 10 years ago, we would have never been in consideration.

Hill: Yeah, when I first started working at The Motley Fool in the late 90s, Northern Virginia was trying to build itself up, and not without merit, as a tech hub. There's been some level of success there. So, it's sort of interesting to see that, Amazon has their list of 20 cities and three of them are right on top of each other in terms of Northern Virginia, Washington, D.C., Montgomery County. Do you feel like it's a win for Washington, D.C., if any one of those three gets picked?

Sellars: Absolutely, absolutely. I think it just speaks to the region, to D.C. as being the capital of the United States, an international capital. People gravitate toward D.C. because of the workforces there, the power, the influence, the demographics, the education, as I mentioned, as far as the residents of D.C. If you want to expand and grow your business, it's a great place to do that. I like to tell folks that 10-15 years ago, we were the hole in the donut. Now we're the jelly in a donut. Everybody wants to be in the center of a metropolitan area because we're where folks want to be. And we find that, whether it's young folks who are starting out their careers, or folks who have come to D.C. to go to school and they decide to stay, or people who want to come back, as well as empty nesters. It's a great opportunity for many folks.

Hill: As people listening can probably tell, music is part of the South by Southwest Festival. The DC House this year is on Sixth Street, which tends to be sort of a hopping area. You're a pro when it comes to South by Southwest. This is your sixth year coming?

Sellars: The sixth year, it's personally my seventh year of coming to South by Southwest. We started out in a small footprint six years ago. We did a lot of research to figure out what worked and what doesn't work. We chose purposely not to locate within the convention center. We wanted to position ourselves differently than other municipalities, and we realized that the activation needed to be unique, just like D.C. is. So, what we've done over the past four years is, we've taken over a restaurant. Started out doing it for a four-day activation and realized that was way too much. We've scaled down to three days for the past two years, and this year we have a two-day activation here in Austin, Texas. It's been very effective.

Hill: Last question and I'll let you go, because again, you're essentially the host of DC House, so I appreciate you letting me steal a little bit of your time. For anyone going to Washington, D.C., there are the obvious things that any tourist can do, whether it's places to go during the day, the Smithsonian, that sort of thing. What is an off-the-beaten-path tip that you like to give people who are coming to D.C., whether it's a restaurant or a place to go, or a non-obvious place for a tourist to go? What's one tip?

Sellars: My favorite off-the-beaten-path location to visit is the U.S Arboretum, which is off in the northeastern part of town. It's a jewel. It's run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. You would never realize that you're in the nation's capital, being at the Arboretum.

Hill: Keith Sellars, thank you so much. Really appreciate your time.

Sellars: Thank you, Chris! I really appreciate it.

Hill: As always, people on the program may have interests in the stocks they talk about, and The Motley Fool may have formal recommendations for or against, so don't buy or sell stocks based solely on what you hear. That's going to do it for this edition of MarketFoolery. The show is mixed by DJ Dan Boyd. I'm Chris Hill. Thanks for listening! We'll see you tomorrow.

John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods Market, an Amazon subsidiary, is a member of The Motley Fool's board of directors. Chris Hill owns shares of Amazon. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Amazon. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.