Tidal Wave: Top Innovators in the D.C. Area

By Michael McCarthy | April 15, 2021 | People Migration

DC thrives on people who not only see what’s on the horizon, but also help define it— especially after the pandemic. Here are some of the city’s most intriguing thought leaders, trailblazers and innovators of the moment.
Ashley Spillane

Ashley Spillane, Founder & President, Impactual, impactual.com

Ashley Spillane says she’s always wanted to work with people who are passionate about making our democracy more representative and open to people—which is exactly the DNA of her all-female team at Impactual. The firm helps brands, philanthropists and nonprofits create campaigns or initiatives that drive social change. “The coolest thing about our firm is that we’re not strictly a group of political operatives,” says Spillane. “I made it my mission to build a team of people from all different backgrounds, industries and interests to cultivate a broader range of ideas and perspectives that we can apply to our work.” The mix has succeeded, including recent initiatives like Power to the Polls, which garnered celeb support from Lady Gaga, Jennifer Aniston and Tracee Ellis Ross, among others. The effort recruited a new wave of poll workers in the wake of shortages caused by COVID-19 . “To realize that more people voted in this election—and that it ran smoothly in spite of being held during one of the most difficult circumstances the country has faced— was incredibly rewarding,” she says.

To me, innovation means… the ability to adapt and evolve quickly. We have to be clear-eyed about the world as it is while envisioning what it could be.

The past year has taught me… that young people are the heartbeat of our democracy. I’ve spent most of my career developing campaigns and programs with an emphasis on reaching and resonating with American youth. In 2020, young millennials and Gen Z voters showed up in unprecedented numbers—not only to cast their ballots, but also to drive real change.

One of my favorite quotes is… from James Baldwin: ‘Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.’

When it comes to politics and public discourse, I’m always thinking about… how to get more people involved in— and, dare I say, excited about—the democratic process.

When it comes to the next year, I’m most looking forward to… continuing to dream big about the future of our country, uplifting the work and contributions of the incredible people who are showing up in big and small ways in their communities.

Spike Mendelsohn
Spike Mendelsohn

Spike Mendelsohn Chef, Restaurateur, Food Advocate, eatthechange.com, chefspike.com

So much has happened in the life of Spike Mendelsohn since his Top Chef days, when he became a household name for a combination of refined talent and culinary brazenness. The mind behind Vim & Victor, Good Stuff Eatery and We, The Pizza recently opened seven more PLNT Burger locations in the DC region during the pandemic with Honest Tea co-founder Seth Goldman. Mendelsohn and Goldman met at a food policy panel at George Washington University a few years ago. Goldman brought along a cooler of Honest Tea and Beyond Burgers and slipped it under Mendelsohn’s chair. The chef took them home to his vegan wife, and the family was hooked on the taste. The duo’s latest creation is Eat the Change, which Mendelsohn says is a rallying cry to look at climate change through the lens of food. “Our first product is organic mushroom jerky, and it would not be as delicious as it is if we were not sourcing the best organic mushrooms from Kennett Square, Pa.—the mushroom capital of the world.” Ultimately, the mission for the new venture offers products that help redefine the relationship between the planet and the foods we eat, using innovative recipes made with sustainable, nutrientdense ingredients.

To me, innovation means… I can sum this up with my innovation mantra, which is a quote by Albert Einstein: ‘If the first idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.’

This past year has taught me... resilience in my own life and businesses. I’ve managed it all with my beautiful wife as we adjusted to our new norm and made sure our 4-year-old was the least affected by the pandemic.

One of my greatest influences is… Shep Gordon. I really love this human, and, aft er being introduced to him and watching his documentary, Supermensch, it really changed the course of my life.

One of my favorite quotes is... another by Einstein: ‘Great spirits have always encountered violent opposition from mediocre minds.’

People might be surprised to learn that I’m… fluent in French.

When it comes to the year ahead, I’m looking forward to… continuing to grow our new plant-based brands... as we launch new products.

Jeanie Lee

Jeanie Lee Executive Director, DC Public Education Fund dcedfund.org

Jeanie Lee knows the future of the District depends on the success of the children who are educated in our schools. As the executive director of the DC Public Education Fund, the philanthropic partner to DC Public Schools, Lee finds ways to raise private dollars for innovative school programs. Disruption is Lee’s foundational approach, as her organization has raised more than $150 million in high-impact investments in the past decade; during the pandemic, Lee and her team initiated multiple efforts and generated $1.4 million for technology devices and the basic needs of DC’s students. The organization is currently set to launch a new program called DCPS Becoming, an $18 million fund that will track childhood trauma and mental health issues. The program will work to disrupt the decades-old norms in education that have long used outdated practices for discipline and not addressed trauma in ways that benefit children. It also will develop educators who can recognize, address and manage crises with empathy. Since its founding in 2007, Lee notes the Fund redefined what it means to do what’s best for kids. “And in that time, DCPS went from being a failing district to being the fastest-improving district in the country. Anything is possible,” she says.

To me, innovation means... not being afraid to take risks or change the norm in pursuit of discovering something great, testing an idea that no one else has thought of and filling a real need we don’t even realize yet.

The past year has taught me... that there’s so much joy and happiness to be found in simple things like cooking for the people you love, middle-of-the-day dance parties and Saturday afternoon naps.

One of my greatest influences is... adversity. In the moment, it felt insurmountable, [but it] has been one of the greatest influences in my life. I built self-efficacy and found my voice and the courage to say let’s do this.

People might be surprised to learn that I... spent the first half of my childhood growing up in Panama, which makes me fluent in three languages—Spanish, Korean and English.

My work with the DC Public Education Fund helps me better understand... when you match the right set of ideas with the right group of partners, you can transform public education in a city like DC.

C. Lorenzo Evans III

C. Lorenzo Evans III, Chief Operating Officer, Director of Finance, Choreographer & Dancer, Washington Performing Arts, washingtonperformingarts.org

By day, C. Lorenzo Evans’ financial wizardry helps Washington Performing Arts thrive. By night, his dance choreography helps DC relish the movement of body and spirit. Evans, known as “goLo” and best known for his work with American Idol winner Fantasia and DC go-go legend Chuck Brown, has performed nationally and internationally. While the pandemic hampered his dance comeback, last fall Evans curated the Mars Arts DC: Virtual Dance series for Washington Performing Arts. It placed the area’s best dancers in the most unlikely spots, including the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl. Performers like John Pearson completed virtuosic steps where patrons usually dined. Evans told The Washington Post the series “showed the spirit and vibrancy of entrepreneurship and business and the arts, and that those things are still going on despite being in the midst of a global pandemic.” Evans says his life honors his grandparents, who were artists and enterprising business leaders. “Each of my grandparents left a family legacy I honor through my academic, professional and artistic pursuits,” he says. “Leading work that has brought focus to local arts and culture in the critical times of COVID-19 has been inspiring.”

To me, innovation means… creating with inspiration, imagination and vision that challenges the ordinary.

This past year has taught me… to lean into my fears and to live with intention. This year, I’ve looked back at nearly every picture, video and memento and relived so many amazing experiences that I would have never had if I hadn’t leaned into my fears.

One of my greatest influences is... jazz music from the Harlem Renaissance era.

One of my favorite quotes is… from Albert Einstein: ‘Creativity is intelligence having fun.’

People might be surprised to learn that I’m… an avid cyclist who bikes more than 2,000 miles annually.

When it comes to the arts, I’ve always believed... dance is what music is supposed to look like.

In the next year, I’m most looking forward to... reconnecting with my dance family and supporters in person.

Andi Sullivan

Andi Sullivan Professional Soccer Player, Washington Spirit washingtonspirit.com

We love comeback stories. This spring and summer, Andi Sullivan will likely give us one. The Northern Virginia native and midfielder for the Washington Spirit tore the medial meniscus in her left knee last summer in a match against the Houston Dash, prematurely ending her season. Flashback to 2016, when Sullivan tore the ACL in the same knee while competing for the Stanford University women’s squad. She blazed back from the injury and won the Hermann Trophy as college’s best player. Expect the same fire and dedication to propel her this season. The Spirit’s co-captain, who has played with the U.S. Women’s National Team, is the ultimate role player. In a sports world where stardom is typically predicated on highlights for the social media machine, Sullivan’s genius is almost hidden. Her innovation and quiet genius come in the form of seeing the field in a unique way, almost as if her cutting and passing were directed from the omnidirectional controls of a video game pad. When sitting in the stands at Audi Field this summer, instead of watching the ball, spend a few minutes watching Sullivan glide on the turf: Equal parts grace and grit help her continue to redefine women’s sports… well, actually, all sports.

To me, innovation means… challenging yourself to alter your perspective. Innovation comes from looking at situations differently and pursuing new lines of thought, especially ones that challenge the status quo.

This past year has taught me… to appreciate the day to day. It’s important to have long-term goals and plans to achieve them, but I’ve learned to be more flexible if things need to change and to let go of the fact that I had to divert from my original plan.

My greatest influences are… my siblings. I feel there’s always something to learn from all of your peers. My siblings understand me, and we have shared experiences, yet we’ve all taken very different paths—I appreciate their honest communication and refreshing perspectives.

One of my favorite quotes is…‘If you treat an individual as they are, they will remain how they are. But if you treat them as they could and should be, they will become what they can and should be.’

I’ve always believed… there are parallels from sport that can and should be applied to all aspects of life.

Kendrick Ashton & Craig Dixon PHOTO COURTESY OF THE ST. JAMES
Kendrick Ashton & Craig Dixon

Kendrick Ashton & Craig Dixon Co-Founders & Co-CEOs, The St. James thestjames.com

To Kendrick Ashton and Craig Dixon, creators of the 450,000-square-foot fitness behemoth in the suburbs known as The St. James, the pandemic was certainly an enterprise-changing phenomenon. It prompted the duo, who met while studying at William & Mary, to become even more creative when it comes to the way Washingtonians stay in shape—and how youth sports tournaments are run. For example, for 10 days this winter, the facility successfully hosted the premier boys national basketball tournament of the year, drawing attention from Sports Illustrated, The Washington Post and ESPN. With significant investments in technology, Ashton and Dixon adhered to safety protocols and tapped ESPN to stream the games to scouts, media and players’ families. The duo even created a virtual press conference platform for postgame commentary. They pulled off the nearly impossible with an elite tournament and showed how virtual experiences can be run in the future. “When it comes to business, I’ve always believed in firstprinciples thinking,” says Dixon. “Break down the problem into simpler questions like, what’s the problem to be solved, what’s the best outcome for our customer, and what’s the right thing for the team? Set principles—and priorities will answer these questions and clarify the path forward.”

KA: To me, innovation means… the effective and impactful realization of a novel solution to a persistent or undiscovered need, want or problem.

CD: This past year has taught me... how important it is to be more present in my family life.

KA: One of my greatest business influences is… American financier, entrepreneur and philanthropist Reginald F. Lewis. He was the first global business leader I was introduced to; he was from a neighboring town and a student-athlete like myself.

CD: One of my favorite quotes is... by Dr. Mae Jemison: ‘Never be limited by other people’s limited imaginations.’

KA: People might be surprised to learn that... Craig and I are serious students and lovers of the fine arts—the visual and performing arts. I’m a former member of the board at the Dance Theatre of Harlem, and Craig is involved with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.

Frances Holuba Lanzone

Frances Holuba Lanzone Co-Founder, Rancho Lanzone rancholanzone.com

When Frances Holuba Lanzone worked at the Obama White House, there’s likely no way she could have predicted she’d one day run a Peruvian alpaca farm on 5 acres in Great Falls. But funny things happen when you fall in love with a native of Peru and former Olympian rower. “My husband and I have traveled the world together, and nowhere more than back to his home country of Peru, which is unlike any other in the world in terms of their rich natural resources and biodiversity,” says Lanzone. “With our therapy alpaca farm, Rancho Lanzone, we’re paying homage to my husband’s heritage and introducing our youngest members of society to the treasures of travel.” The farm is a boon to the innovative idea of connection. While the couple’s farm features sheep and goats, the alpacas with champion bloodlines are the true community ambassadors. With bespoke experiences, the Lanzones can introduce their alpacas at events large and small, from kids’ birthday parties to engagement photos. Lanzone believes the creatures help bridge cultures, an important element of the trips we’ve been unable to take—especially when youth travel abroad. “As President Barack Obama famously said, ‘When we study together and we learn together, we work together and we prosper together,’” says Lanzone.

To me, innovation means… adaptation. In order to adapt, we need to innovate. All humankind needed to adapt to a new way of life this year. I’m hopeful that this period of disruption will lead to positive inventions, ideas and businesses designed for the future.

The past year has taught me… that animals are therapy, especially alpacas. Working with alpacas takes patience and a few key body signals to show them you mean no harm. Humans require the same kind of approach; so, by teaching humans how to handle alpacas, we’re also teaching humans how to treat other humans.

One of my greatest influences is… study abroad. I’ve made it my personal and professional goal to inspire as many students as possible to leave the United States to study abroad at some point in their education.

One of my favorite quotes is… to whom much is given, much is expected.

When it comes to my career, I’m always thinking about… making meaningful connections. At the end of the day, you want to do business with your friends.

Tags: profile

Photography by: From top, photos courtesy of Impactual; Spike Mendelsohn; DC Public Education Fund; by Danielle Finney; The Washington Spirit; The St. James; Rancho Lanzone