Alumni Spotlight: Washington Business Group

Finding A Larger Purpose:
Revitalizing The Capital's Ward 8

Dinesh Sharma founded Washington Business Group in 1999 out of a sense of pride for his local city. He was inspired by big companies that had an outsized impact on their local community, like Boeing in Seattle, and felt that Washington, D.C., the most powerful city in the U.S., did not have a similar example of a corporation “born and raised” in the city. So he decided to be that business, and named the company after the city.

Washington Business Group, or WBG, provides construction management, real estate development, and project support services. Originally, Dinesh, in his words, “was all about business, money, power, and gold.” He secured a location for WBG a block and a half away from the White House and focused WBG’s efforts on government contracts. Over time, however, Dinesh began to feel like his business needed a larger purpose. Around 2004, he visited Ward 8. As he explained, “D.C. has a total of 8 wards, and Ward 8 was the largest and most deprived ward, with the highest poverty and highest unemployment – about 35% unemployment.” In 2007, he decided to move his business there.

The move was a shock. Dinesh described that despite the fact that the new block was “about two miles from the most powerful congress building in the world,” the “living conditions were unbelievable.” But he had a new drive for his work: he stated, simply, “I found the purpose of my life.”

"To give you an idea of how bad the area was, no bank would finance the purchase of the building, so I had to use our home equity line to purchase it. That’s why I came—because I found the purpose. We are a socially conscious enterprise. I believe businesses are done where the people are, and people are an integral part of business."

WBG embraced their new neighborhood. They became involved in a local program called “Adopt a Block” to clean up the area around their building. Dinesh explained, “every three months, my team goes out and cleans the block and make sure that this block stays clean. We put new lights, new security cameras around our building.” These actions helped to convince the local community, who was initially skeptical of the business’s involvement, that WBG was there to stay.

Dinesh has expanded the impact of small business in Ward 8 by starting a group of local small business owners that meet once a month. Together, the businesses are grossing over $3 million. Dinesh says that the group has “created over two dozen jobs – jobs that were never here.” This is an impressive accomplishment, especially “considering how important jobs are in the society [and] how important they are in this community, in particular.”

"Since [the move], in Ward 8, we have 11 new businesses we brought in, that came in because of our efforts. Either we did business with them, or they were companies that we were able to convince “you could do business in Ward 8” despite all the adversities."

However, despite the changes they had effected in their local community, WBG itself had stopped growing. In Dinesh’s words, “We hit a plateau. We were doing the same thing – at the beginning, those things would work, but now those things were not working.” So Dinesh participated in the CEO Growth Academy, an Interise partner program based in D.C., in 2015. He credits the program with helping him to diversify his client base and teaching him to leverage his existing relationships.

Initially, WBG was focused solely on federal and state government. But as Dinesh explained, “this program has helped me to find where exactly I stand,” and he realized that anchor institutions were a major opportunity that he was missing out on. WBG is now targeting anchor institutions, and their customer base has expanded the federal government, local businesses, and nonprofits.

"For many years, we were doing the same thing because we didn’t know any better, but once I began moving along with the program, by the time I was done, it was so clear that I needed to identify new potential venues for your sales. I knew that we needed multiple streams of revenues coming into the business, so we have diversified ourselves. This program has given me more structure to move forward."

Another big “aha! moment” for Dinesh was that “people like to do business with people they know.” WBG had developed strong business relationships over the 16 years since their founding, but they weren’t leveraging those relationships. WBG is currently working on a list of their relationships, and Dinesh explained, “We have so many relationships that we were not aware of, that we never thought of exploring. Now I feel that all our eggs are not in one basket.”

Today, WBG is growing again, and Ward 8 has been made a better place to do business and live. Dinesh said, “between 3 to 5 years, I can say with confidence that we will hit the $100 million dollar mark, which we never dreamed [of]. The highest number I ever dreamt was $30 million. But… this program… has expanded my vision.” And thinking back on the area WBG cleaned and worked on, “the block that we adopted has transformed…. [For] at least 24 to 36 months, we have not heard of any single crime – stabbing or murder – near this block.”

Dinesh knows that their work in Ward 8 is never done and finds new ways to give back. One of their current projects is transforming a retail center purchased back in 2012 with the help of a small D.C. bank. The construction project, called Wheeler Renaissance, calls for 130,000 square feet of new development and will include 85 affordable housing units. Dinesh said, “One step at a time we are making changes in Ward 8: we are creating new jobs, we are bringing new businesses.”