As I write this, I am looking ahead with anticipation to a date four years away—July 4, 2026, when America will celebrate its 250th birthday. It’s a milestone I think about a lot. As the chair of the Smithsonian Institution, I’ve been involved in planning for this celebration. And as the head of Revolution, a company investing in entrepreneurs from every corner of this great country, I’ve planted a stake in creating the next chapter of our nation’s story.
I was just eighteen years old and fresh out of high school when I came to Washington, DC, to celebrate our nation’s 200th birthday. I felt proud, excited, and inspired. I remember visiting the Smithsonian’s new Air and Space Museum, which had opened that summer in celebration of the bicentennial. People gathered in DC from all across the country to commemorate our history and embrace the challenges and possibilities that lay ahead. The futurists were beginning to predict a technology revolution, but neither computers nor the internet were available to the public.
The technology revolution did happen, with America at its epicenter, and the speed with which it transformed business and society boggles the mind. America, which was just a fledgling startup nation in 1776, has continued to lead the world. Yet, in its early days, like many startups, it almost didn’t make it.
There are a number of reasons for America’s success over nearly two and a half centuries, but much of the credit goes to the inventors, entrepreneurs, and innovators. Their tenacity, grit, perseverance, and creativity energized a new nation and saw it through many daunting challenges.
But today, as we head toward our big 250th birthday, some are asking whether that spirit is still alive. According to a Pew Research study, a majority of Americans are pessimistic about the future. They worry about the widening gap between rich and poor, a declining standard of living for the middle class, and the threat to jobs posed by automation. This demonstrates a disconnect between two different visions of progress.
Some pundits have concluded that America’s best days may be behind it. For them, the challenges within the country and the competitive threats around the globe are a harbinger of doom. I understand the concerns but see them as more of a warning—a wake-up call that we must heed.
The strategic questions are clear: How do we continue to lead, inventing the technologies that can enable the industries of the future to flourish? And how do we figure out ways to create more opportunity, for more people, in more places, so the United States can develop a more inclusive innovation economy?
Part of the reason our country is so divided right now is that many people feel left behind in the new economy. When tech innovators in Silicon Valley boast about disruption, many in the rest of America see job losses in their communities. And while it’s true that new technologies often result in job losses, as tech solutions can indeed enable more to get done by fewer people, it’s also true that new business startups are the biggest job creators. We must be more thoughtful about backing startups in every part of the country to offset inevitable job losses with new opportunities and help more people participate in a growing economy.
People around the world are still largely envious and respectful of America. But that admiration is not a birthright. It must be earned continually. If we lose our way, it probably won’t be because a rising power like China undermines us, although that is of course a risk. More likely it will be because we undermine ourselves.
This might sound like a familiar theme coming from me. In my first book, The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future, published in April 2016, I sounded a similar warning, that America was at risk of losing its lead as the world’s most entrepreneurial nation. That warning came months before the 2016 election, but the depth of the chasm between the tech world and the rest of the country was only fully revealed with the election of Donald Trump, which surprised many people on the coasts—though not most of the voters in the rest of the country. The instinct of some to look toward Washington to fix the dysfunction in our nation seems misguided, especially when the two parties are resistant to working together—making collaborative, nonideological approaches to solving problems increasingly rare. Government can—and must—play a role, but it’s clear that we can’t rely solely on government to fix something that’s wrong in the marrow of our communities. We need to lead from the grassroots, and we especially need the nation’s entrepreneurs to step up. My goal is to see that entrepreneurial dynamism happening all across the country, so we can create jobs, hope, and opportunity everywhere, and build a brighter shared future for America.
Before he died in 2007 at the age of eighty-four, futuristic novelist Kurt Vonnegut expressed dismay at the state of the nation and suggested that the country could use a new cabinet position: the secretary of the future. He was right, and it’s still true. We need an all-hands-on-deck effort to position America for the future.
So, what can we do to be sure the United States does lead? That question has been at the heart of my work over the past decade and is the underlying theme of this book. The Rise of the Rest means just what it says: a way to lift the prospects of the rest of the nation—those who live and work outside the coastal tech centers in California, New York, and Massachusetts. Currently, 75 percent of venture capital for startups flows to those three states, with the rest of the country left to fight it out for the remaining 25 percent.
Our effort to level the playing field begins to bring those who have been left behind into the center of the action. The deep anxiety, resentment, and despair in some parts of the country can be addressed in part through the economic and social engines of entrepreneurial ecosystems. The revival of American cities is the practice of the art of possibility—the ability to see problems as opportunities, and focus not on what might go wrong but on what can go right. It’s not just talking about the pitfalls but illuminating the vision—saying, “What will this look like if it succeeds?” Just as they helped build America in its first two centuries, entrepreneurs can once again help to lead the way.
Today, as I write this, there is an explosion of startup ecosystem development in dozens of cities—a wonderful and largely untold story. From Seattle to Phoenix to Salt Lake City to Dal- las to Denver to Miami and all points in between, startups are reimagining cities. The new guard is reviving declining iconic places like Detroit and Pittsburgh, once great centers of innovation that fell on hard times. They are electrifying smaller cities like Chattanooga and Columbus with tech innovation in critical industries such as insurance, health care, and transportation. They are energizing classic heartland cities like Kansas City, Green Bay, Omaha, and St. Louis with a renewed focus on the future. And they are cracking the equity code, engaging diverse populations in cities like Atlanta, Baltimore, and Tulsa in the opportunity to rebuild America.
It’s often a “pinch me” experience on the bus, as entrepreneurs interact with people—some of whom are their heroes— and have inspiring conversations. Sometimes we talk about the tour as putting kerosene on the fire—trying to create a tipping point and instilling a we-can-do-it ethos that inspires a startup movement that lives on for many years to come.
After we visited Albuquerque, Mayor Richard Berry wrote to me: “I just want to let you know that your visit to Albuquerque changed our city. It was the spark that we needed. You believed in us, and we started believing in ourselves.”
Rise of the Rest has shown us that new job creation can happen everywhere, and it is now happening in countless communities. But it has to be approached in a strategic way. You can’t create lots of new jobs unless you create new companies, and you can’t create new companies unless you create a culture to nurture startups. That means also winning the battle for talent and capital and building communities that support entrepreneurs.
When we look back at this moment in America’s history, all the complicated challenges that face our country may be summarized most simply as a battle between optimists and pessimists. I am an optimist. This book explains why. It is dedicated to the extraordinary entrepreneurs, innovators, and change- makers I have met on our road trips. The Rise of the Rest is their story. And the story is just beginning.
In many ways, the Rise of the Rest is the answer to the question of whether America can maintain its lead in the world. It’s impossible to read these stories and not be filled with a sense of excitement about the future and an anticipation that, if we stay the course, there will indeed be more to celebrate in 2026, when the startup called America turns 250.