Ask the Influencer: Entrepreneur Jonathan Aberman on What’s Next for the Economy, Redefining the Future of Higher Education, and the Joys of Guitar

Welcome to REQ’s “Ask the Influencer” series, where we interview industry leaders to get their unique take on the state of business and marketing. In our inaugural post, I interviewed a local influencer who has been a leader in the local ecosystem driving innovation and connectedness. We turn to Jonathan Aberman, an REQ friend and partner of many years, to learn more about his story.

Jonathan, I've known you for years and have seen all the great things you have accomplished in our ecosystem by driving forward entrepreneurship and innovation. Of what are you most proud?

Recently, another friend said to me, "Jonathan, what I love about you is that whatever the circumstances of our economy, you just keep at it and tell us what we need to hear." My first reaction was, “Uh, thanks, I guess.” But, on reflection, I think that was really insightful. I'm wired up to see opportunities others don't always see, and I have a strong belief that there is nothing more important than providing support and leadership so that others have the opportunities that I have had.

I sincerely believe that entrepreneurial skills can be taught and developed in others, and that the more entrepreneurial our community is the better off we will be. Whether it has been as a VC with Amplifier Ventures, a community leader through efforts like FounderCorps, StartupAmerica or Tandem Innovation Alliance, in politics through my work with Governor Northam and other political leaders, or now at Marymount, as the Dean of the School of Business and Technology, that belief is the common thread that drives me forward.

So, I suppose what I am most proud about is that my work over the years leads you to ask me this question. That you care about my response means I have done something right.

In your new role as Dean and Professor of Practice for Marymount School of Business and Technology, you recently coined a new name for our economy: the “What's Next Economy.” What does this term mean to you?

You can't overcome a problem until you name and define it. The enormity of our current economic and social crisis is causing far too many of us to be overwhelmed or fall into partisan nonsense. To say that we are in the "new normal" doesn't provide any description of the characteristics of our situation—neither the challenges nor the opportunities. It's sort of like looking at a map and seeing an arrow that says, "you are here." I mean, that's nice, but what I really want to know is "where do I go and how do I get there?"

The What's Next Economy is the term I am using to help provide our community with a cogent sense of direction. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column in the Washington Business Journal that describes this in greater detail. Over the coming months I hope to develop these themes further in my public speaking, writing and research. The What's Next Economy has huge opportunities for economic growth and individual success, but also presents us with unprecedented social challenges and political risk. None of us have lived through a time like this and analogies to what we have experienced fall short. It is a time for bravery, imagination and community engagement that is informed by data and critical thought.

What are some of the initiatives Marymount has launched to support this new game plan?

Marymount University's historical background is in providing education so people can support themselves financially and live full lives. I'm now the Dean of its School of Business and Technology (SBT). The SBT is the only school at any regional university where information technology, entrepreneurship, leadership and business studies are in one place and under one Dean.

Even before COVID-19, my faculty and I were rolling out a range of unique multidisciplinary degrees that combined technology and business skills in areas like cybersecurity, healthcare, human resources and intrapreneurship. But, over the last six weeks we've really upped our game. We've launched our "Upskilling for the What's Next Economy" initiative to rapidly get people back to work with new skills or help people who are working but want to accelerate their careers. Our students will be able to get master’s degrees in a year, stack Certificates to create their own unique master’s qualifications, or just get a single Certificate in as little as six months.

It's amazing what you can accomplish when you combine an entrepreneurial mindset with an agile university. And, we are not done.

Tell us a little more about your background and the evolution of your ideas.

I grew up in family businesses. My father had a fishery and my mother had an art gallery. Their parents had a furniture store and tailor shop. Dinner table conversation was always peppered with the ups and downs of business. There was always another "war story:" the deal that didn't happen, the trawler that almost sank, or the wealthy person who spent $1,000 to frame a photo of their cat. Being entrepreneurial and assuming that I would have a life with similar ups and downs was just inbred, I suppose.

But my parents both had the goal of making sure I wasn't an entrepreneur and encouraged me to be a member of the establishment. They sent me off to the LSE and Cambridge for my education and encouraged me to take on the jobs I did at places like Goldman Sachs, Fenwick & West, and other leading international law firms and investment banks.

But, honestly, you can't fight who you are. After helping to start one new business line too many for these institutions, I looked at my wife Veronica one day and said, "I've got to stop starting businesses for other people." And, not long after that, I started Amplifier Ventures and haven't looked back.

On a personal level, what are some of the other things you enjoy doing in your (not so) spare time?

If you got a hold of my high school yearbook you would see that my career aspiration was to be a professional musician. I play guitar to this day and have a band called Two Car Living Room with some really talented local musicians. Sometimes I think that I should rename the band "Broken Vacuum" for the number of times people come and hear me play and say: "Gee, you are really good. You don't suck." It's funny how often people are surprised if you have a talent or hobby that is different from your public persona.

I also really enjoy learning about history and then travelling to apply what I have learned. Over the last few years I've really gotten deep into Italian history, both the Roman Empire and the Renaissance. The similarities to today's' social and economic challenges are striking. Moreover, the echoes of what people learned and thought during those times are tightly woven into our society today. We literally do stand on the shoulders of those who came before us.

What is your best advice for finding our way in today's world?

I think that it’s important now more than ever to understand that entrepreneurial behavior is innate in all of us, and that it does not require forming a business to successfully apply these skills. This is a moment where being thoughtful when others are frightened and acting with intentionality when others are reactive will be rewarded. And, keep your sense of humor – many of us are trying our best to get through each day and are stretched pretty thin. Years from now, someone is going to ask, "What did you do during the Pandemic of 2020?" Have a better answer better than, "Well I got new sweatpants and mastered video conferencing."


Let’s talk.