Alec Ross says his travels for the State Department helped him identify five industries that will drive the international economy in the next two decades
Alec Ross stood before a window on the 16th floor of Baltimore's Transamerica Tower trying to peer through the clouds and identify what lay just out of sight.
Then the 44-year-old Homeland man turned, walked to the podium at the Center Club of Baltimore and began forecasting the future.
"I genuinely believe that billion-dollar companies will be created in Baltimore," Ross told 120 local business leaders at the club's City Genius speaker series this spring. "Baltimore has a very specific set of assets that map well to where future growth will come from."
Just as the Transamerica Tower provided Ross a vantage point to survey a vast swath of the landscape, the author of "The Industries of the Future," a New York Times best-seller on coming marketplace advances and challenges, is using his background — including work on Barack Obama's 2008 presidential campaign and travel to more than 40 countries as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's innovation czar — to spot nascent industries that will drive the global economy in the next two decades.
Those experiences, and the ideas he has developed from them, have gained Ross an influential international audience. Ross discussed his book last week with Prince William, second in line to the British throne, and is scheduled to appear in Rome this week for a public dialogue with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi.
"He's extraordinary," said William Kennard, a former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and former ambassador to the European Union, who has known Ross since the latter man founded his nonprofit.
"He's this brilliant young guy, a big thinker, and unlike a lot of people from the nonprofit world, he's business-savvy," Kennard said. "During meetings, Alec would do computations in his head and rattle off numbers like a hedge fund manager.
"He combines that with an incredible passion to change the world."
It's been a career-long pursuit. After growing up in a West Virginia coal-mining town, Ross spent two years teaching in a tough Baltimore public school. Then he co-founded a nonprofit dedicated to expanding high-speed internet to impoverished and underserved communities, and developed it into a multimillion-dollar corporation.
In 2008, he helped round up the Silicon Valley support that helped Obama craft technology policy. And after serving on the Obama-Biden transition team, he joined the State Department.
He's now a visiting fellow at the Johns Hopkins University, and has begun playing a familiar role in the 2016 presidential campaign: He's helping to lead a committee developing policies on technology and innovation for a potential Clinton administration.
Ross' idealism comes through in "The Industries of the Future," which has been translated into 15 languages and spent two months on The New York Times' list of business best-sellers.
In the book, Ross identifies five fields he thinks will propel the global economy in the next 20 years: robotics, genomics, digital currencies, cybersecurity and big data, or methods of analyzing massive amounts of information.
Baltimore, Ross thinks, could become the headquarters for two of those fields: genomics, because groundbreaking research on cancer and HIV is being conducted at Johns Hopkins and the University of Maryland; and cybersecurity, because the National Security Agency, CIA and Department of Defense are all nearby.
"I'm more optimistic about Baltimore in 2016 than I have been in any of the other 22 years that I've lived here," Ross said. "The open question is how broadly shared the benefits will be. Will kids who grew up in East and West Baltimore get good jobs?"
He believes that "talent is equally distributed throughout the population, but opportunity is not."
"I am utterly convinced that the people I taught at Booker T. Washington Middle School are made of exactly the same material as the people I sat with at the White House," he said.
Predicting the future is notoriously dicey. But it wouldn't be the first time that Ross has confounded skeptics.
After graduating from Northwestern University in 1994 with a bachelor's degree in medieval history, Ross joined Teach for America and was assigned to the middle school on McCulloh Street.
A three-part series in The Baltimore Sun chronicling Ross' first year as a teacher quoted an observer predicting that the short, blond, baby-faced 22-year-old leading classes of African-American students would get "chewed up."
But after five weeks, the newspaper reported, Ross was running his rooms with the precision of a drill sergeant. When the school year ended, his student retention rate was about 11/2 times the average.
One former pupil, Dawniece Roberts, reached out to Ross through Facebook recently to thank him for mentoring her.
Roberts, now 32, is a social worker.
"One day, Mr. Ross sat down with me and said, 'You are so bright. What do you want to do with your life?'" she said. "It was one of the defining moments of my life. He never lacked the belief that I could go far, and that meant the world to me."
The school is also where Ross met Felicity Messner, the math teacher across the hall — and his future wife. In 2001, she earned a Presidential Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. The couple have three children, all enrolled in Baltimore public schools.
But nurturing students one-on-one didn't fully satisfy Ross, a macro kind of guy who isn't happy unless he's tackling systemic change. In 2000, he and Rey Ramsey co-founded One Economy, the internet-focused nonprofit.
Now, One Economy runs programs on four continents and is funded primarily by private donations and from government contracts.
In 2007, Ross was chosen` by Obama's first presidential campaign to develop technology and media policies for a future administration. He convened more than 500 advisers, who formulated a plan to advance and fund the nation's technology infrastructure.
The team devised the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act, for example. The JOBS Act, intended to make it easier for small businesses to get funding, was signed into law in 2012.
"There were all these senior statesmen, and Alec was kind of the worker bee," recalled Kennard, the campaign's telecommunications adviser. "In comes this young guy who looks like he's about 12 — and he just blew people away."
After the election, Ross was asked to serve on the president-elect's transition team as an adviser on technology, innovation and government reform.
Clinton soon made overtures to Ross.
"She made it clear that she thought she was going to be president," Ross said. "She said, 'I need one of you innovation people. Make up your own title and come work for me.'"
During the next four years, he circled the globe 25 times for the State Department, traveling what he estimates to be the equivalent of two round-trips to the moon, with a side visit to New Zealand.
He was Clinton's technology czar at the State Department, but he wants to make it clear: He says he wasn't responsible for the controversial private server in Clinton's basement.
Ross did finance a program that put technology kits in briefcases to be given to dissidents in nations that restrict internet access. His goal: to ensure that pro-democracy protesters could go online without fear of surveillance.
That got Ross banned from Ukraine in 2013, seven months after he'd left the State Department. Ukrainian separatist leader and former parliament member Oleg Tsaryov told the Armenian news site Times.am that Ross is "the world's best specialist in organizing revolutions through social networks."
Ross' former State Department colleague Jared Cohen tells another story about Ross subverting standard protocols. "Once, when we were visiting the Congo, we hijacked a police convoy," recalled Cohen, who now heads the Google think tank Jigsaw.
"We'd been having trouble finding police officers who could talk about corruption. So basically, instead of sitting in the back car and listening to officials tell us what the police thought, Alec stopped the motorcade. We jumped into the front car and talked to the officers themselves."
Ross verified the account.
Anne-Marie Slaughter, who directed policy planning at the State Department, said Clinton's 2010 speech in which she extended Franklin D. Roosevelt's "four freedoms" to the internet was Ross' idea.
"It was one of those rare moments when I felt like I was touching history," said Slaughter, now president and CEO of the think tank New America. "Without Alec, it would never have happened. He's politically very adroit, and he couples that with big vision, a rare combination in government. He had the tenacity and persistence to attend endless meetings and to do the advocating and compromising necessary to shepherd his idea through."
Ross has reached for a bipartisan audience. He asked former President George W. Bush's former press secretary, Dana Perino, to read a prepublication draft of "Industries" and suggest improvements.
"I was blown away by the book," said Perino, now a political commentator for Fox News.
"Alec is this really big thinker, and his book deals with the coming crisis the world is going to face because of automation and robotics. It's very scary what's going to happen. These jobs are going away, and not just blue-collar jobs. To me, that's not a partisan issue and how we address it really matters. I recommended that book to everyone I knew."
Still, Ross has faced criticism.
He has been accused of attacking cultural norms in some Muslim-majority countries. In "The Industries of the Future" he argues that countries such as Pakistan will be hampered economically because laws and tradition restrict women's access to education and jobs.
"If a country is cutting off half of its potential workforce," he writes, "it is taking itself out of the game."
He's also been characterized as an apologist for capitalism.
Ross' most prominent critic may be the writer Evgeny Morozov, who eviscerated Ross and his book in the Spring 2016 issue of The Baffler.
When Ross and Cohen worked for the State Department, Morozov writes, they "embarked on adventures so reckless and ridiculous, so obsequious to the interests of Silicon Valley and offensive to anyone well-versed in the diplomatic trade, that some career staffers at the State Department began to ridicule, anonymously, of course, their cluelessness on social media."
Morozov could not be reached for comment.
These critiques haven't deterred Charlie Rose or the Huffington Post from running favorable features on "The Industries of the Future." The book has collected positive reviews from business-oriented media including Forbes magazine, Bloomberg and The Washington Times.
Ross is now contemplating his next career move. He says he might continue advising nonprofits and businesses. Or he might write a second book aimed at helping parents secure their children's economic futures.
Supporters — including the author's friend, Ari Wallach, the founder of the strategic consulting firm Synthesis Corp. — envision a more public role for Ross.
"The question I always get asked about Alec," Wallach says, "is 'when is he running for office?'"
Ross doesn't rule out that possibility.
"I do whatever I think will produce the biggest impact," he said. "Today, that does not include running for office. In the future, it might."
Current position: Visiting fellow, Johns Hopkins University
Education: B.A., Northwestern University
Career highlights: Taught for two years at Booker T. Washington Middle School. Lined up the Silicon Valley support that helped Barack Obama win the 2008 election. Served as senior adviser for innovation to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton