For a start-up founded a decade ago in a dusty L Street basement with the mission of delivering broadband to underserved communities, One Economy has come a long way. Today, the nonprofit is a multimillion-dollar global enterprise that has brought affordable high-speed Internet access to 360,000 residents in 42 states and has created technology centers and online hubs for low-income people in a dozen other countries.
With the help of Hollywood actor and producer Robert Townsend, One Economy also produces documentaries and dramas for its Public Internet Channel, including the critically acclaimed Diary of a Single Mom.
The group's success at promoting broadband connections is due in large part to its savvy at forging Washington connections. Chairman Rey Ramsey, former CEO and one of its four co-founders, is a longtime friend of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski. The regulator, who was honored last week along with a large contingent of FCC officials at the nonprofit's 10th-anniversary celebration at the Newseum, said he was first introduced to One Economy in 2002 by co-founder Alec Ross, now Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's senior adviser for innovation. And in 2006, then-Sen. Barack Obama joined Ramsey at a news conference to announce the Internet channel's launch -- with Obama and Sen. John McCain serving as honorary co-chairmen of One Economy.
The group is just as well connected in the corporate world. Its new CEO, Kelley Dunne, previously held senior positions with two of the nonprofit's benefactors, AT&T and Verizon. Last November, Ramsey became president and CEO of TechNet, a political-advocacy group that represents Silicon Valley companies -- some of which are One Economy sponsors.
With ties like that and a mission that dovetails with the Obama administration's goal of expanding broadband (the nonprofit received a $28 million federal broadband stimulus grant), corporate America has flocked to One Economy. Since 2009, its business partners have included AT&T, Cisco, Comcast, Google, Intel, Microsoft, Qualcomm and Wal-Mart. Its biggest donation to date came in 2006 from AT&T: an in-kind contribution valued at $30 million.
"It's not completely out of the goodness of their heart," Joel Kelsey, policy director for the watchdog group Free Press, said of the aid, noting that One Economy's donors benefit by gaining access to policymakers and sprucing up their reputations. "But that's not necessarily One Economy's fault," he said. "The mission is to take that corporate philanthropy and use it to serve low-income communities."
The lavish Newseum event underscored the nonprofit's exalted perch in Washington. "One Economy is a technology start-up as successful as any from Silicon Valley, but with the sole focus of enriching the lives of others," Genachowski said in remarks at the gathering. He called the organization "one of the most vital nonprofits in the technology space."
Returning the compliment, Ramsey said of Genachowski: "You're not always going to read his name in the newspaper, but he's making a difference in the country."
Ramsey later said that he has "always believed" in the public-private partnership model, and noted that the FCC's national broadband plan recommends it. The group equips low-income housing developments with high-speed access and trains disadvantaged youth about technology.
The evening's main sponsor was Comcast, which is seeking federal approval for its $30 billion proposed joint venture with NBC Universal. Seizing the moment, David Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, offered more praise for Genachowski.
Asked later whether Comcast's partnership might be motivated by interests beyond philanthropy, Cohen said, "I think it's a fair question." Comcast views investments in areas it serves as a way to make the company stronger, he explained. "It's not because we think this is the way to get more customers -- though that might be a nice thing. We understand, maybe in a more innate fashion than General Motors," the power of broadband to "break down barriers," he said.
The group seeks collaborations that Ramsey considers a "natural fit." But despite the largesse, Ramsey said he's never felt pressured over expenditures. "No company has ever influenced a policy decision that One Economy has made. Period."
The party at the Newseum underscored just how far it has come from its obscure operations on L Street. A glitzy reception featured a live band on an upper level, an electronic ticker listing benefactors, and special lighting that displayed the group's name.
In the old days, when the basement was an embarrassment, the co-founders concocted a ruse with the receptionist: Client meetings were held in a sixth-floor conference room, and everyone pretended that One Economy's office was nearby.
"No money -- and people thinking that it was crazy that the poor would want to use technology," Ramsey said of the early challenges. "Everybody said [technology is] a luxury, and we said it's a coming necessity."