“That’s it. I’ve had it.” I thought. Having once again pushed through the political and bureaucratic obstacles of City Hall to drive an incredible project and opportunity for Richmond, only to be left out in the cold, empty-handed. It was early spring 2015, and I had successfully coordinated and organized Richmond’s Code for America partnership and was in the midst of launching Richmond’s Open Data Portal, the first in the Commonwealth of Virginia. However, these projects were challenged with disappointment, frustration, and missed opportunities for the needed leadership influence to drive our city forward as a transparent, innovative, and open government.
The project faced many issues and false-starts with moving the Code for America project forward. Having received leadership support to pursue this prestigious partnership, the project was now facing doubts about their actual commitment. We had begun working to improve how low-income residents access and utilize healthcare services, which were a key driver to their lower life expectancy and high risk with life threatening illness and disease. This partnership with Code for America brought together Richmond’s strong public health leaders and they were looking for me to complete the City’s requirements and role with the project, only to have minimal support or action from city leadership. The project had become a victim of City Hall’s dysfunction. I had defended the City of Richmond’s situation, explaining the recent leadership turnover had created delays, to our community partners of Bon Secours, VCU Health System, Richmond City Health District, Richmond Memorial Health Foundation, Jenkins Foundation, and the Community Foundation of Virginia, only to have the City fail to deliver time and time again. It would have been easier to let the project fail and to let the situation play out and to protect myself, but that decision would have let down the countless thousands of uninsured residents in our City that we were trying to help get improved access to care with this project and partnership. So here I was, stuck in the middle of a very difficult situation. Do I protect myself and my career in City Hall, or do I fight for the impact the project would have for those who need it most?
On April 21, 2015 I received an email from a colleague of mine Ashley, Chief Innovation Officer in a major leading city. Ashley and I had remained in contact over the years since we met at a Code for America conference in 2012. She was a rockstar in her job position, title, and function. I had been working feverishly trying to build the justification for a Chief Innovation Officer position in Richmond, motivated by Ashley’s example. Ashley’s email expressed a golden opportunity for me. She was leaving her job to move to L.A. with her husband, now that he had finished law school. Her job was available and she wanted to know if there was anyone who might be interested or available in her position. Given my intense frustration, unfortunate situation, and challenging circumstances, to say I was interested was an understatement.
Being Chief Innovation Officer was my dream job, as this position is titled, supported, and expected to drive cross-sector innovation, implement best practices, and drive collaborative projects in City Hall and the community. Being in this new city was an exciting opportunity, as they were a Google partner city to work with Fiber for Communities, bringing incredibly fast internet access to everyone. This city was building a downtown streetcar. They were working in collaboration with many Smart Cities initiatives, and were a national leader in Open Data, Open Government, and Government Transparency initiatives. What an amazing toolbox I could play in as their Chief Innovation Officer. I was more than excited for this opportunity. I submitted my application, motivated by this incredible opportunity and my frustration in City Hall, by the deadline of May 15th. I honestly thought I didn’t have a chance to land the job, but knew that I needed to put my name in the hat given my current frustrations.
With in a matter of weeks, I went from fighting bureaucracy in Richmond to passing the phone and video interview’s and then on a plane for a face-to-face interview. On Tuesday June 8th I arrived to meet with their Mayor, the executive leadership that the Chief Innovation Officer position works with, and the City Manager. I was overwhelmed by the engagement, activity, and energy of this office. This was an incredibly strong team that was passionate about leading their community forward into the future. It was refreshing to see a City’s leadership so passionate and engaged with driving innovation, something I had not seen in my days in Richmond. I arrived back home and went to work Wednesday morning, excited, confused, and anxious. Later that morning I was called by the Chief of Staff for the Mayor to offer me the position, unfortunately they needed a decision by Monday.
I was honored, humbled, and excited by being seen as their first choice for this prestigious position. This was a career defining move. I was about to be thrust into the limelight as a leader in the Chief Innovation Officer space for government in the nation.
Over the next five days I wrestled with a dilemma that would challenge the very fabric of who I was. I was facing a decision that many people in Richmond have faced and taken. That is, given the opportunity to leave a City that they called home, had grown to love, and spent time finding themselves in, only to have to leave for bigger, brighter, and better things elsewhere. Richmond has been a stepping stone for many people in their careers and lives, and I was about to become another casualty of Richmond’s lack of opportunity, creativity, and growth. But I kept coming back to one thing, why do I do the job I do? Why have I fought so hard to work in Richmond, only to leave at the first chance for something better? What was the true purpose of being the Civic Innovator in Richmond?
On Monday June 14th, 2015, I prayed. I walked. I sat and looked out over the City from the Observation Deck in City Hall (*which if you haven’t done, you must!). At 4:30pm I prepared to call with my answer. I had come to the conclusion that this job was an incredible opportunity for me and would forever define my life and career. Over the past eight years, I have fought within the walls of City Hall striving to make it better. As Richmond’s Civic Innovator, I had focused on “bringing best practices and new ways of thinking to how government operates”. I had become a thought leader in the community and across the country through my passion, drive, and accomplishments. I had called Richmond home because I wanted to help turn it from a City that “had so much potential” into a city capitalizing on its collective passion, drive, and creativity. From being a follower of best practices, to being an example and model for other cities. Leaving Richmond for this job would build only my career, and would leave the opportunities and possibilities for Richmond’s future delayed yet again. What I was really seeking was to build the value, function, and purpose of a Chief Innovation Officer in Richmond. Leaving for this job would mean joining an already existing innovation leader and building upon their success and accomplishments, leaving Richmond behind. I was motivated by the challenge of being the internal-change-agent, disruptor-of-the-status-quo, and entrepreneur-in-residence in Richmond. I was excited by being able to “Cultivate the Karass” in Richmond, bringing together people and organizations that shared the same passion and drive to improve our community. Leaving for this job and its status and publicity, (and yes, also more money), would be to deny the very reason for why I love the job I do, which is to fight through the malaise of the status quo and stagnancy of City Hall and bring opportunities to create change for many people in our community.
I called and turned down my dream job. I realized that my passion was in doing and fighting for what was needed to change and innovate Richmond, not to chase an (albeit, an amazing and life-changing) opportunity someplace else. I also saw that the accomplishments I had driven in changing Richmond, from leading Richmond’s 2013 IBM Smarter Cities Challenge partnership, 2014 Fuse Corps collaboration, Code for America engagement in 2015, as well as launching our Open Data portal were the exact reasons they wanted to hire me for this position. I was the “Chief Innovation Officer” in Richmond, maybe not by official title and position, but in function and purpose. To leave Richmond, would be to turn away from my true motivation and purpose, which was to drive national projects, partnerships, and best practices in City Hall for a job someplace else.
Innovating Richmond was the motivation for my job and why I created my role as Civic Innovator in City Hall. It was home to what started my career, identity, and purpose. I had work left to finish that I needed to complete.
It was through this decision that I realized I had the ceiling of my current position in City Hall. I have achieved many accomplishments, found a way to navigate the legal, procurement, political, bureaucracy, and operational hurdles to achieve change in government. This opportunity showed me the limits of the current organization and administration. In order to truly drive the change I had observed from other leading cities around the country, I needed to transition from being a ‘cog in the wheel of government, to one of the hands turning the crank’. This transition was not the immediate answer to why I turned down my dream job, no, my true reason was that I am committed to driving this change in the city that I call home. My experience in City Hall has paved the way to build and shape my passion and philosophy in how government can better serve its constituents through collaboration, innovation, and openness. Now its time to take my experience as an internal change-agent and apply my drive and vision from a political position, through driving policy and budget decisions that can remove the barriers I faced before.
I turned down my dream job to bring the change offered to me in another city, here in the place I called home, Richmond, Virginia.