In this episode of Partnering Leadership, Alex Orfinger, Publisher The Washington Business Journal, shares what drives him, how he came to lead The Washington Business Journal, and his thoughts on major community issues in the Greater Washington DC region.
The impact of Alex Orfinger's grandfather on his life
Struggles of identity and finding the right path
Alex Orfinger's contributions to the community and The Washington Business Journal
The Washington Business Journal’s role in the business community
Alex Orfinger's insights on the potential for a K-shaped recovery
Also mentioned in this episode
Michael Saylor, MicroStrategy
Reggie Aggarwal, Cvent
This is chance! by Jon Mooallem
Connect with Alex Orfinger:
The Washington Business Journals
Connect with Mahan Tavakoli:
More information and resources available at the Partnering Leadership Podcast website:
Mahan Tavakoli: Welcome to Partnering Leadership. This week, I'm really excited to be speaking to a wonderful friend and a great leader. The publisher of the Washington business journal, Alex Orfinger.
Alex has received numerous awards for his impact on the community. From business person of the year onto Washingtonian of the year. And to leadership greater Washington leader of the years because of the many great things he has done in the community.
So listen in and learn from Alex's journey. What motivated him to have even a greater impact on the community and what he plans to do now that yet again, he is the publisher of the Washington business journal.
Here's my conversation with Alex Orfinger.
Mahan Tavakoli: Alex Orfinger, welcome my friend, to Partnering Leadership, really excited to have you.
Alex Orfinger: I am pleased to be here with you Mahan, thank you for having me.
Mahan Tavakoli: When we talk about impactful leaders in this region, there isn't anyone that comes to mind before you Alex, because of the great things you've done. So I want to backtrack a tiny bit and find out a little bit about your personal journey.
Before we talk about some of the leadership impact that you've had and you're looking to have on the community. I'm a big believer that how we grew up and where we grew up has a big impact on us. So whereabouts did you grow up and how did that impact who you have become?
Alex Orfinger: So I grew up about 30, 40 miles East of New York city on Long Island.
I grew up in a pretty middle-class town, fairly standard of, you know, 1960s, 1970s, America. It was a very segregated town. I like to tell everyone that I grew up I'm Jewish. So I grew up in a Jewish home and 50% of my community was Jewish. 70% were Catholic. Those were divided equally between the Italians and Irish, and there were no Episcopalians or Protestants, but the most important defining characteristic of that town was that there were no people of color at all.
People of color were all in the neighboring town. It was a segregated part of the world. When I say I grew up in a Jewish home, my parents were a children's of not so much Holocaust survivors, but they grew up through the Holocaust where lots of their family were killed in Germany and Eastern Europe. So there was this bruise on them and a bruise in our family that is hard to really fully understand, except that kept my parents in their cocoon of just being friends and only trusting people that were similar to us.
So that really did more in a way, my upbringing, but also mark pieces of it that I didn't want to be to be like.
Mahan Tavakoli: Yeah. It sounds like that has had a formative impact on you. So how has that influenced that experience influenced who you have become as a leader today?
Alex Orfinger: I have a letter that my grandfather wrote to my father in the peak of the Holocaust.
It sits behind me on my desk, my grandfather, who I'm named after I actually never, I never met, but he was Alex Orfinger. He was a Polish immigrant. He was a butcher. He was non-educated but probably the most educated man when you read his letters. So he has a letter that he writes. So my father, as my father was trying to sort through what he would be in his life. He was trying to define himself.
And my grandfather quoted the Bible, quoted Moses, and just said, “You know, nobody's going to say that you are a great, financier, that you're a great banker, you're a great business person. They're going to say that you were a great man. And that is how you should define your life - to be humble and to just serve and to be a great man.”
I read that letter from my grandfather all the time, because I think of him writing me, you know, when he was writing my father in 1945, I'm the grandson of a Polish immigrant who was a butcher, of someone who came to this country with nothing. But he has asked me to be humble and to be a man and to give. And that is what the lesson I take from him.
I sit here, you know, Mahan, when I, it actually chokes me up even telling the story because he was an extraordinarily brilliant man self-made but cared about people around them. And I don't know how that got to me, but that is, that is the vein of my ancestry that most directly feeds who I am.
Mahan Tavakoli: It is absolutely beautiful, Alex, hearing the words of the grandfather you never met, had such a profound impact on you and through you on so many people across the country. And most especially here in our region, it's fabulous to hear that. So you grow up in this environment, Alex, you go to college and then from Vassar, you decide to come down to DC. What brought you to DC?
Alex Orfinger: I didn't know what else to do. I graduated college. I had a real form of experience for me as a person. It was in my senior in college, my best friend committed suicide. And it totally made me question so much about who I was as a person and what I was going to do. And I had all these plans about going to graduate school and doing this and doing that.
And all of that got so short circuited because John killed himself and I just was lost. I spent years sort of searching for who I was and what I wanted to be. That's how I ended up in Washington. A friend of mine called one day, said, "Why don't you come down to Washington? I've got this job that I might be able to set you up on for an interview at the Brookings institution."
And I came down on, like, a Thursday and I started there on a Monday as a junior research assistant. I was making $6 an hour and I was at the top of the world. I love being in Washington. I was around really smart people all the time. It felt like I was in the back in college without any other students around.
Mahan Tavakoli: So with that, did you have any aspirations to go into foreign service? Did you go to Georgetown school of foreign service? What guide you there?
Alex Orfinger: So Mahan, I looked at all these choices that I made in my twenties that were rooted in this, you know, sort of being lost in my early twenties.
You know, I was struggling then with who I was, struggling with being a gay man. I was struggling with just a lot of basic communication issues that I was struggling with. I just fell into it. I just went to it, thinking that I was going to find a home in either the foreign service or in more likely some academic environment.
I realized about a year into it, that it was just all wrong, but I met a great cohort of friends that are my lifelong friends now, set me on this path back into the business world. My most important goal when I was in my twenties was, you know, not only find purpose, but also to find success. I was always fearful, but I just would never find it, that I was trying so hard to like, figure out "how am I going to be successful in this world?
How am I going to plot my course in this world?" And it took me most of my twenties to figure that out. And I tell that to a lot of people that I'm mentoring that it's okay to be a little lost here. Not everyone wakes up the day they're in college and says "I'm going to be a lawyer. I'm going to be a CEO of a software company."
It takes a while sometimes to find your path. And it took me a long time. I was emerging from my best friend killing himself. I was emerging from trying to figure out how to come out in a way that worked for me as a gay man. I was swimming through just relationship, just sort of finding love in my own life and finding ways to love myself.
Mahan Tavakoli: It is absolutely incredible to hear that from one of the most successful people I know on a whole set of different areas of life. That's wonderful to hear Alex. So if you had a chance to give advice to young Alex and a lot of people that are younger, that are probably sort of facing some of the same issues, maybe not exactly the same issues.
But some of the questioning, some of the self doubt that they have, what advice would you give to that younger Alex or the younger generation?
Alex Orfinger: So I appreciate your question and I'm going to answer the question. You can't rewind your life. So if I had to live it over again, I would hope that when I was in my twenties, I would have a lot more courage to be who I was at that moment.
I wish that I had been open to some mentors who could have helped direct me forcibly in a direction that worked for me. And I wish again, I had this magic wand that gave me a little bit more self awareness about who I was and what my great strengths are as a leader. And as a person, I wish I had that when I was 22.
I'm thankful that I have them now. So I don't have any regrets about that. I just wished it all happened faster.
Mahan Tavakoli: Yeah. And, and, you know, it's, it's incredible. We are who we are based on the experiences we've had. And if we didn't have those experiences, we would be different people. And I know I, as a person I'm fortunate, and this community is fortunate that you went through those experiences and found the leader that you are today.
Alex, you went through a series of different roles. Ended up the publisher of The Business Journal in Atlanta, went to Dallas. And then you chose to come to a government town in the mid 1990s to run The Business Journal. What gave you that idea?
Alex Orfinger: Well, I always wanted to come back to Washington. Number one, because Washington had been a place that I was extraordinarily happy because I was surrounded by people who are really smart all the time.
And it's a classic Washington, the thing, you know, you sitting at a - in pre COVID times we would be sitting in a restaurant someplace and all the chatter around you was the things that were really important in the world. Like people were at the central of these things. So people are just smart here.
And that's what I love about being here in Washington. So when I came back here and I took over the reins of The Business Journal, you know, I can remember people telling me that, "What is this rag that you're running? What is this real estate rag, that you've got this newsletter." People would refer it to whatever.
It was kind of insulting and disarming, but I realized after spending a little bit of time thinking about it, it's because it was a government town at that point, but it wasn't totally a government town. There was this growing business community that was self run, that was spinning out of defense department that NIH, all of these things that were happening.
All these forces that were happening in the late nineties that were congealing to make the local business community a strong and vibrant place to be. And that we thought of the business drove that time that we needed to own that. We needed to be the people that were crafting a message, crafting actually a space that allowed the local business community to function and be a community that was separate from the federal government.
And separate from the international community here and that we could play a role in doing that. We weren't the only ones doing that. We were going to play a good role, aligning business intelligence for them. If you wanna make a joke about this, you know, when we hosted our first events in the late nineties, mid nineties, whenever it was.
I essentially would never invite government leaders, Senator, Congressman, the mayor. It wasn't important to the business. And the reason it wasn't important is that any time that the mayor or the Senator walked in the room and they became the most important person. What I believe and what the business journals central value is, is that business people are the most important people in the room.
So that CEO of a $50 million company is not less important than a US Senator. They are equally important, but if you brought a Senator in there, it just confused it. So we kept these communities very distinct. They were business events for business people.
Mahan Tavakoli: So it sounds like that was one of the real major things that you did with The Business Journal. What else did you do? Because there are a couple of peak elements to The Business Journal, from my perspective, looking back at those years, one of them is you made Business Journal for us in the Greater Washington DC region.
How did you think through that? What did you do to make Business Journal a force? In addition to focusing on the business in the region?
Alex Orfinger: So, first of all, I listened a lot, so I'm making my point to just meet a lot of people. And the questions that I would be asking people when I do this to this day really is, "What are the issues that are important to you as a business?"
Like what are the things - I don't want to make some assumption as the publisher of the Washington Business Journal that I know one of the issues that are important X, Y, or Z company. So it was always constantly listening to that and trying to make sure that we were riding the wave of the issues that were important to the local business community.
So the seminal moment that really put us on the map was in the late nineties, when we were watching these businesses coalesce around, giving more in the community. Philanthropy, investing in the community because, not just for their own sake, but because they made - it was going to make it a stronger community for their own businesses to operate.
And so at that point, we developed this idea of the business philanthropy summit, where we would chart what businesses were doing, rank them, and we'd have them kind of in this friendly competition with each other. So that put us on the map. Also the fact that we were able to secure the first lady as a speaker got us on the front page of the Washington Post. So it all of a sudden said, "We're not a newsletter anymore. We're right there in the heart of what is important for local businesses." So we did that. We also really dedicate, at time, late nineties, early two thousands and even the late two thousands, we would ride these waves of venture capital investing technology.
We would dedicate more and more resources, reporting resources to those companies that we knew were companies that people are really interested at. So I'm really proud, we wrote some of the first stories on Michael Saylor who's the CEO of MicroStrategy. We wrote it when he was a very, very small company. Now he's running a multibillion dollar company.
We ran some of the very first stories on Reggie Aggarwal who founded Cvent. I remember meeting Reggie when this was just like an initial idea when he was just leaving Shaw Pittman, we wrote about it. It's an enormous company right now as well.
So what we were able to really ride along. As we were able to capture people rolling in their career, we will report on them. We didn't make them celebrities. They made themselves celebrities, but our reporting on them really helped integrate them into the success of the Greater Washington.
Mahan Tavakoli: And, you know, Alex with your strategy, both in covering some of these business leaders and most especially with the philanthropy summit. What you did was the right thing for the strategy of The Business Journal to become a force in a region, but also you had an impact on the regional thinking and community.
So the business philanthropy summit really energized a lot of the businesses in this region to reflect on their responsibility, to see the community differently.
Alex Orfinger: And when you think about the region, I think about the regional law and there aren't very many institutions that pull the region together. The Washington Post certainly does, The Business Journal does, The Council of Governments, maybe there's some regional business organizations that try to do it, but there's a lot of forces that try to pull it apart and County institutions, County trade councils and chambers that are territorial in some way. What we don't have is enough - and I know there are a lot of people other than just me that are thinking about this, how do we knit the region together?
The two States and the district by nature pull us apart. They just make us competing jurisdictions. And that's what I always tried to say, how do we help pull the region together to make it a bit better business community for all. I think it's really hard. I think it's really hard with the way that we're structured as a community.
Mahan Tavakoli: It is. But fortunately now we have yet another stint at the Business Journal leadership, Alex Orfinger has stepped back in to lead the Business Journal. So what is it?-
Alex Orfinger: The prodigal publisher returns.
Mahan Tavakoli: So in this time around Alex, what is different in both running the Business Journal and a vision you have for the business journal and its impact on the community.
Alex Orfinger: First of all every day that I'm back in this job, I am more excited. We're excited about being in the seat. Again, there's so much that's the same and there's so much different about the community. One of the reasons that I was excited to return to this job was I know that we're in the worst economic downturn that our region has seen in a long, long time and rivals what we went through in 2008, 2009. But I think that the Business Journal has always played this key role for local businesses and local business people, and trying to provide tools and intelligence to help them grow their business. So in this downturn, it becomes even more important that we do that.
And we do that with a sharpened focus. So that's one thing that I come back to in the Business Journal, sharpening that focus to make sure that we're really delivering on that promise. But the second thing, I think is actually in some ways equally interesting and, or even more interesting, as we go through this pandemic and issues of systemic racism and I think we have a responsibility as the Washington Business Journal to, in some way, help the business community, lead them through these two issues. How do we come through this economic downturn? And instead of seeing income inequality, Continue to grow between the haves and the have nots.
How do we use this as an opportunity to bring that together, to lessen the gap? We were already on that trajectory before the economic downturn.
How do we make sure that the downturn does not exist, exacerbate those problems and make the divisions even worse because that's bad for business over the long term, over the short term.
And the same issue around dismantling structures of systemic crisis. How do we do that in a way to make it better? Because everything that we know about this economic downturn is affecting people of color worse than it's affecting white people. Caucasians. It is affecting the black people worse.
So, how do we make sure that as we come out of this, we do it in a way that restructures the way that we think about our community. And we again make this community a model for how we've attacked the questions of racism and how do business people, CEOs, people in positions of business power, how do they take tangible steps to attack these systems?
You know, it's going to be a long haul to get through this. This is not something again, to use my magic wand. I wish we can just sort of say, okay, it's gone. We can stick, take steps this month, this year, but we're going to have to be fighting this fight for a long time. And that's the kind of role that I think we could play.
I want to play that role for us. It's trying to think we can help.
Mahan Tavakoli: I am sure you can. And the conversations that I've heard, at least with respect to the anti-racism conversations over the past few months have been a lot more robust than any conversations that I'd heard for years. So I'm very optimistic that this is the moment we can actually make some changes to the systemic racism that exists.
Now, a lot of the data that I've been seeing, Alex, like you have, is that the ongoing recovery, when there is one, they could be a K-shape recovery where it's, there are more opportunities even for a certain segment of the population and less so for others. How do you see us tackling those issues in the region?
Alex Orfinger: I think if I had the answer to that, it would be great, so I don't have the answer for that, but I have the beginnings of what I hope or collecting answers. First of all, I think it's every company's responsibility to play a role in some form or fashion. This is not something that's reserved for the largest companies, and it's certainly not reserved for the smallest company.
So we have to do things that, you know, and some of this, I have to actually turn the mirror on me as somebody who's running my own small business. Like we have to do things that are different. I think it has to start with, we as CEOs and leaders have to be part of our own value system.
You need to articulate that value as the leader of our organizations, that this is important. Inequality or equity is important to our organizations. Diversity is important to our organizations. Inclusion is important to organizations for the following reasons. It's central to who we are as an organization, we need to manage our leaders and our staff in a way to those goals and to those values, we have to build proper incentives in that. We have to measure whether we're doing anything to the Swift, because what is measured gets, what we measure will get done, as we know. And then I think there were other smaller, concrete steps that businesses can take. Hiring policies, promotion policies, pay equity issues, again, measuring these things, gender equity issues. What we measure, it gets done. These things around procurement that are much more complicated than I thought they were initially, but also simple in some ways.
So when I'm trying to think of, for myself on a personal level is when I'm looking now to hire a catering company, to cater a virtual lunch or virtual better. Sure I go to Ridgewells because they're suffering, suffering mightily during this downturn, but I've also turned to some black owned restaurants who equally need our help. So it's taking deliberate actions as we go through this process, we all have to take deliberate actions. We have to be accountable for it, and we are in it for the long haul.
This is not something that will just magically go away in six weeks or six months.
Mahan Tavakoli: Well, I was optimistic before the conversation, Alex, I'm even more optimistic now because. Both your mentioning that even as a small group business, you're doing things differently with your own, the team at the Washington Business Journal, but also are the kind of person that takes advantage of the opportunity of the platform that you have to speak to the broader community of changes.
We all need to make as leaders, with ourselves, with our organizations. So the entire system changes.
Alex Orfinger: Yes. I just recited what my next column is, by the way. That's, what's been in my head.
Mahan Tavakoli: Fantastic, that we've got to get some thoughts into that.
So Alex, any leadership resources, anything, books, podcasts, of course the Washington Business Journal is on top of the list. But any leadership resources that you find yourself recommending to others often with respect to how they can improve their own leadership?
Alex Orfinger: I wish I had a good answer for that Mahan, because I don't actually. I've started to ruin your interview here, but I'm not the kind of guy that reads a lot of leadership books, but I do read a lot of, I read a lot of history books, you know, so for instance, I'll give you my, for instance, I just read this crazy book on the 1964 Alaskan earthquake.
And what was so profound about it is a leadership lesson for me, is that the book talks about the power of one person actually to communicate a lot of what was happening, not only in Anchorage, but also around the world, number one. But also there's this moment that happens there, where at the time of the earthquake, everything changed.
Everything changed forever in Anchorage. People think of that as a demarcation. What happened their life before the earthquake and then life after the earthquake. I think that resonates with me right now. We think a lot of what our life was like pre pandemic or what our life will be post pandemic.
So if that's not a lesson leadership right there in this book called “This is chance”. I don't know really what is, what is going to stay the same and what do I need to just embrace? That's going to be different. And what do I need to embrace? That's going to be different for this demarcation moment.
Mahan Tavakoli: So you are a student of leadership. You're an insightful one where you see leadership, whether in history or through these types of experiences, rather than someone need to translate it down to “these are the four steps or these are the 18 steps that you need to take.”
So that's wonderful to hear. So Alex, if we have a chance to have a conversation a few years from now, and you have had the kind of impact you want it to have on the Business Journal and on this community. Because at this point you've won all kinds of awards, Alex, Washingtonian of the year, a business leader of the year, most especially leader of the year at LGW.
So there is still something that drives you to do more for this community. It sure as heck is not getting another award. So what do you want your leadership legacy to be with respect to both the Business Journal and the broader community?
Alex Orfinger: A couple of things. Number one, I'd like to honor my grandfather and I'd like people to say that Alex is a humble person, despite the enormous size of my ego, I try to remain humble, number one.
Number two. And this also sounds equally as trite. And I think we're all in this world because we want to make a difference in the communities that we serve, that we want somebody to be able to say, gosh, he left some sort of legacy here. I'd like to be able to look back on this.
I mean, I'd like to say that I did accomplish something in the second stint that was meaningful and it was meaningful around these issues of income, inequality, and systemic racism. That would be meaningful. And it would be worthy of some humanity as well if we can do that.
Mahan Tavakoli: Those are meaningful, huge goals, Alex.
And you started out by talking about the influence and impact of your grandfather and you ended on the influence and impact of your grandfather and that legacy. So that is a great tribute to him. And I have no doubt that you will continue having a significant impact on the entire community and on me. So on behalf of all the listeners of partnering leadership.
Thank you very much, Alex.
Alex Orfinger: Thank you, Mahan.