Joe Downtown

Joe Downtown: Downtown Project’s growth left some young employees underserved

American ‘holacracy’: Downtown Project’s new management system is less top-down, yet some want Tony Hsieh to be more hands-on.
Photo: Steve Marcus

For a couple of Downtown Project’s young, promising employees, the experiment may be coming to an end. Two 20-somethings who came to Las Vegas with the Venture for America program may move on before their two-year fellowships end.

Comparable to Teach for America, Venture for America is a new program that pairs college grads interested in business with start-up businesses in “lower-cost” cities around the country. Fellows are currently in places hit hard by the recession, including Las Vegas, Detroit, New Orleans, Cleveland and Baltimore.

The fellows’ departures, some of which were confirmed to me by a DTP source, have outsiders wondering what’s going on inside the $350 million private redevelopment agency. Are the fellows, top graduates from some of the best colleges in the country, so closely knit that when one of their own, Ovik Banerjee, committed suicide in January, they just wanted to leave? Or are the potential departures related to something said by Tony Hsieh recently?

Hsieh launched a bombshell last week when he announced that Downtown Project had formally abandoned its “Return on Community” ethos—the concept that investments had to take bolstering community into account, along with making money.

“We found that when we used the word ‘community,’ there were a lot of groups that suddenly expected us to donate money to them or invest in them just because they lived in the community or because it was for a good cause,” Hsieh said. “People would be upset if donating or investing in them did not happen to fit in with our priorities and business goals, and they would refer back to our use of the word ‘community.’ We are also not a charity or nonprofit.”

Sustainability for Downtown Project means making enough money to replenish some of the cash it’s investing in Downtown. Even $350 million only goes so far when the goals—reforming an urban core—are so grandiose.

Human capital only goes so far, too, an issue Downtown Project is coming to grips with. As fast as it’s growing, it’s also recognizing some difficulties dealing with its own internal management.

Downtown Project has several projects in various stages of movement Downtown, yet, as one DTP source said recently, it’s pulling back on some projects because it simply can’t do them all at once; it doesn’t have enough people.

In the case of the Venture for America fellows, sources say, too few people to guide them is one of the key problems.

Two years ago, Hsieh donated $1 million to VFA, and DTP took on seven fellows, followed by seven more in 2013. Now they have 13, where one source said less than half of that would be optimal. These are some of the brightest young men and women you’ll find in Las Vegas, but most are just out of college, with little to no hands-on knowledge in the business world. They need guidance, direction and mentoring, but they aren’t all getting it, sources say.

DTP has taken up a new management system, called a “holacracy,” that might help. It’s supposed to create a less top-down environment, giving rank-and-file employees power to voice concerns and ideas without going through the soul-sucking layers inherent in a corporate hierarchy.

Or maybe people at the top, namely Hsieh, have to become more involved. As one DTPer said, Hsieh “either doesn’t see that some of his people are driving his dream into the ground, or he sees it and doesn’t want or doesn’t know how to do anything about it.”

Then again, his statement last week about “community” was remarkably honest, considering that for two years he’d promoted “return on community” as one of DTP’s foundations. Does that kind of talk mean DTP will look beyond its own veneer to sort out internal issues?

Some recent college grads are counting on it.

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Joe Schoenmann

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