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Washington gets makeover

Entrepreneurial spirit growing in nation’s capital

Washington Post
Tech millionaire Alan Dabbiere, chairman of AirWatch, bought Hickory Hill, the home Robert Kennedy once owned, for $8.2 million.

– One day a few years ago, the construction trucks began arriving at the big, white house on Chain Bridge Road in McLean, Va.

The new owner of one of Washington’s most famous houses had hired workers to rip out the electrical system, the plumbing and the hand-carved molding and strip the walls to their very studs. The trees that gave Hickory Hill its name were left untouched, but more than a dozen others had to be removed.

After Alan Dabbiere, a tech millionaire, plunked down $8.2 million, he became the steward of Hickory Hill, the Georgian estate where Robert Kennedy and his family once lived.

Once upon a time in Camelot, the Kennedys of Hickory Hill held salons to debate the pressing issues of the day, and power was the coin of the realm. Dabbiere’s speedy rise to Washington’s upper echelon is testament to a larger evolution: Once a town whose bright stars were government leaders, the nation’s capital has become a moneyed metropolis where entrepreneurs whose wealth is often amassed by doing business with the government are the new elite.

Dabbiere, 52, represents a new breed in the Washington region. Over the last 30 years, an influx of deep-pocketed CEOs, executives and company founders have helped drive the transformation of the area from a buttoned-down capital into the most highly educated and affluent place in the country.

They may see the nation’s capital as “the epicenter of everything,” as one of Dabbiere’s colleagues put it, but they’re not necessarily interested in politics. Rather, they’re creating and selling companies in fields such as biotech, cybersecurity, cloud computing and data mining. If they sell to the federal government, they’re more likely to see Uncle Sam as another client, rather than as a platform to change the world.

In recent years, the Washington area has seen a dramatic rise in “1-percenters,” households that make about $400,000 or more. Their ranks have jumped 65 percent in the past decade, from 32,000 people to 53,000.

Local wealth managers have descended upon Washington in droves in the past three years.

“Over the past 10 years or a little bit more, the growth of entrepreneurship in Washington has exploded,” said Douglas Wolford, the president and chief operating officer of Convergent Wealth Advisors. “We talk to dozens and dozens of people in any given month who are selling businesses, or they’ve already built and sold a business. … Back in the late ’80s, this was a Podunk-y place when it came to wanting to start a business. Not so anymore.”