Washington hotshot trying to make a difference in Wichita

Bob Litan, an attorney and economist, has inserted himself into the mix of Wichita’s efforts to rebuild an entrepreneurial culture. (May 19, 2016)
Bob Litan, an attorney and economist, has inserted himself into the mix of Wichita’s efforts to rebuild an entrepreneurial culture. (May 19, 2016) The Wichita Eagle

Wichita State University basketball and an easy commute lured Bob Litan back to town after 46 years.

And, as a homecoming gift, he has helped lift the city’s promising entrepreneurial revival a notch or two.

A prominent antitrust attorney, economist and policy analyst in Washington, D.C., for decades, Litan fought in many of the policy debates that have roiled America since the 1970s. He has worked for, with and against some of the country’s most influential people.

He served as a senior antitrust lawyer in the U.S. Justice Department in the 1990s and describes himself as a “Bill Clinton Democrat” who is feeling less and less at home in Washington these days.

He also served for a decade as vice president of research and policy for Kansas City’s Kauffman Foundation, which studies entrepreneurship. He has written 27 books, consulted for global companies, authored columns for a score of prominent publications and delivered a TED talk.

Last year he was criticized by Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., for a paper he had co-written and resigned an unpaid position at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., where he had worked off and on for 40 years.

And now he’s here, helping Wichita find its lost mojo.

The Wichita that Litan left in 1968 at age 18 bustled with energy and ambition. By 2014, the city’s energy had slowed considerably and people lamented the disappearance of its vaunted “entrepreneurial spirit.”

Amid this communal self-doubt, Litan showed up at age 64 looking for a little peace and basketball.

He said he thought Wichita might be a nice place to slow down. He and his wife are from here and have family here. They can get a lot more house for the money than in Washington.

And getting around, well, it just doesn’t compare.

“There were days I drove, and I had a mile, mile and a half to go and it would take 45, 50 minutes,” he said. “When I say traffic, I’m not kidding.”

Most of his legal work – for St. Louis firm Korein Tillery – and consulting can now be done from home, with a few trips.

But, Litan said, 60 percent of the reason he moved here is the Shockers.

“Honestly, if we hadn’t gotten season tickets, I’m not sure we would have come back because I wasn’t just going to go off and play golf,” he said.

Hard rebound

What he found in Wichita is an entrepreneurial rebound slowly gathering speed and focus.

Entrepreneurship here has been at a low ebb since the late ’90s and early 2000s. Willard Garvey, Fran Jabara, the Carney brothers, Tom Devlin, George Ablah and the many others who made Wichita so dynamic in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s grew older or passed on.

That generation had operated in a way that a true entrepreneurial community does: It’s all about having relationships among people who can get things done.

In Wichita, they all knew each other, made connections for each other, funded and advised each other, split off and started new companies.

When the pace slowed, city leaders tried conventional things to bolster the economy, such as creating the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition to help existing companies grow and bring in new companies.

It worked OK, but growing your own is usually best because start-ups tend to hire locally and spend locally. And they have a stronger likelihood of staying in Wichita and contributing to the community.

Honestly, if we hadn’t gotten season tickets, I’m not sure we would have come back because I wasn’t just going to go off and play golf.

Bob Litan

Entrepreneurial communities pop up regularly on their own, but consciously creating one is extremely difficult.

Starting about a decade ago, those who were interested in high tech grew into adulthood and started getting more active. They found each other through WSU, social media and a growing downtown culture found in coffeehouses and co-working spaces.

In the past few years, the efforts have blossomed. There are a range of new economy-type institutions such as Ennovar, a WSU public-private organization that combines students and companies, and MakeICT, a space for members to create projects. There are places to work, such as the Labor Party; backing from WSU, the Wichita Metro Chamber of Commerce and local government; and events, such as 1 Million Cups.

But it’s all very new and fragile, and hasn’t yet created much in the way of successful companies or jobs.

Smooth operator

Litan knows all this. He’s an expert on entrepreneurial communities.

A successful entrepreneurial city needs talented people, good ideas and the willingness to act on them … and money. And it needs to connect all of them.

Wichita is making good progress on the first two, and the third seems to be coming, Litan said. His contribution is knowing what works and encouraging the right people to get together to make it happen.

He’s smooth, smart, affable, a prolific writer and talker, and knows literally hundreds of important people nationally and regionally.

He is a facilitator, an accelerator to the ongoing gelling of the city’s entrepreneurial rebound.

“He just has this instant level of credibility,” said Tonya Witherspoon, marketing director of tech company SNT Media. “He can shortcut a path to where you need to be. He’ll just pick up the phone and get the right person.”

He’s a millennial stuck in a baby boomer body.

Jacob Wayman, director of the e2e accelerator

Accidental return

The speed of his reconnection in Wichita’s nascent entrepreneurial revival is partly an accident.

He had asked a former colleague at Bloomberg News, now a senior executive at Time Inc., whether he could write a story for Sports Illustrated. He did write one, on the antitrust issues surrounding NCAA athletes.

But he also decided to write one on the 1970 airplane crash that killed 31 WSU football players, coaches and boosters.

He thought the tragedy deserved a higher profile nationally.

So, he went back through The Wichita Eagle clips and interviewed people, including WSU President John Bardo.

As Litan and Bardo chatted, the conversation turned to Wichita and Bardo’s efforts at economic development. Bardo later wound up inviting Litan to be part of his advisory council.

“I wrote the story,” Litan said. “It was a great story. SI never published it. …

“But I met Bardo because of it.”

Since then it seems like he’s been everywhere, met everybody. He helped start the Wichita 1 Million Cups event for entrepreneurs.

Jacob Wayman, just named director of the planned e2e Accelerator, met Litan in January during the organizing effort for 1 Million Cups.

“I wasn’t really sure what to think because we are from completely different generations,” Wayman said. “He’s a baby boomer and I’m a millennial, but it turns out we had a lot of things in common.”

Wayman dropped the ultimate compliment: “He’s a millennial stuck in a baby boomer body.”

Litan said he’s been amazed at how much change he has seen in just the two years he has been back. In the next five, change will speed up as millennials assume more control — and the city’s gloomy self-doubt will start to lift with each success, as it has in similar cities across the Midwest.

“You got to start the ball rolling, and once it starts rolling downhill, it picks up speed,” he said. “We’re just at the very beginning stages of that right now.”

Dan Voorhis: 316-268-6577, @danvoorhis

Robert Litan

Age: 66

Home: Wichita

Jobs: Too many to mention all of them. Now semi-retired but works more than full-time for Korein-Tiller law firm. Also consults for several companies.

Education: Wichita Southeast High; bachelor’s degree, University of Pennsylvania; law degree and Ph.D. in economics from Yale University.