By Nick Erickson
Anthony Shop, M.B.A. '11, used to wonder if revealing his identity would cause more harm than good, illustrated by an earlier memory when a manager confronted him as a closeted teenager and asked if he was gay. Shop quit the job but never forgot that feeling of discomfort.
He was reminded of it again when he and his husband, Thomas Sanchez, first launched their digital agency—Social Driver. As they sat across boardrooms from people who at the time had more power and influence, they wondered if it was safe to come out as a couple or as gay.
But what Shop once deemed risky has turned out to be a great strength. When he decided to fully come out and make it a point to bring up his relationship with Sanchez early in any conversation, he felt the importance of allyship.
Years later, Shop, who has also served as an adjunct professor in the GW School of Business, got a Google alert from a message board where a prospective student asked if GW was a “gay-friendly” campus. Another person responded anonymously saying they had taken a class with Shop, who talked about his husband very openly, so it was a good bet GW was. That moment was a full-circle one for Shop.
“It showed me the power of just speaking out and being authentic, so I think it’s really important to do that and an important part of our advocacy,” Shop said.
Being open LGBTQ community members have led him and Sanchez to business partners and clients who share their values and embrace individuality. That’s the exact approach they have taken with Social Driver, an agency known for its expertise in digital and social media, as well as excellence in project management and customer service. Recently, it was named the No.1 LGBTQ-owned firm in the United States as well as the No. 1 minority-owned creative agency.
To Shop, that ranking signals that Social Driver employees are comfortable being themselves.
“All progress is social, and we have to work together,” Shop said. “Diversity is important to innovation, and you can only have that if we can bring our full selves to work.”
The path to building Social Driver into a globally recognized agency with a reputation for inclusivity and individualism was far from linear. No matter where he was, natural curiosity drove Shop to find ways to connect with people. GW just helped bring it home.
He started his career as a journalist at a legal newspaper in Kansas City, Mo. Eventually, he gravitated to the public relations side of the business, ultimately enrolling in GW’s Global M.B.A. program. Despite the change in career arc, he still relies on some of the skills he learned a reporter while running a cutting-edge digital agency.
“I learned to ask questions and to be curious,” Shop said. “When I meet with a potential client, I love asking them questions about what they're trying to do. Then, when I recap it for them, that often turns into a proposal. This skill that was extremely effective early on still is today.”
His husband matched his own intense curiosity and willingness to try new things. When they moved to D.C. for Shop’s continued education, Sanchez suggested they start a business.
“I was really reluctant, and he was very persuasive,” Shop chuckled. “So, we did a trial that worked out, and the rest is history.”
Shop advises GW entrepreneurs not to fear failing, because any moment can be learnable. While pursuing his M.B.A., Shop and Sanchez tried the Pitch George competition and didn’t advance out of the first round. But despite the disappointment, they met a mentor through the program, Steve Loflin, who encouraged them to pivot to a new approach.
Their refocused idea won the 2011 New Venture Competition (NVC), which has grown into the United States’ top student entrepreneur contest. That win sparked the business and contributed to what it has become today. Social Driver clients have included many of the world’s most respected corporations and nonprofits.
Shop and Sanchez credit their victory in the competition to many others, but especially mentor Michael Grove and teammate Danny Zaslavsky. “No idea or business can thrive without a great team,” Shop said.
GW Associate Vice President for Research Jim Chung helped organize the NVC the year Sanchez and Shop won. He was particularly impressed with how they followed the customer discovery process, showing no reluctance to get out of the classroom and lab to test their business model.
“They were not afraid to talk to their potential customers, work with their mentors and take feedback that may have challenged their initial assumptions,” Chung said. “The results are apparent as we see them a decade later and after successfully pivoting to follow the needs of their customers and changing markets.”
Shop has also mentored GW students and alumni and makes frequent appearances on campus, including being the guest of a George Talks Business episode with GWSB Dean Anuj Mehrotra last March. Chung said alumni such as Shop paying forward is invaluable to the growth of GW startups.
Social Driver’s people-first approach has not only come through with satisfied clients, but it has become a destination workplace for all kinds of people. Shop and Sanchez have established a culture of inclusivity, a major contributor to the advancement and success of the company, which now has a team of designers, strategists and developers across the country in D.C., Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City and Bellingham, Wash.
Especially in a time when certain communities are legislatively targeted because of their identity, Social Driver is a shining example that allowing people to be authentically themselves pays dividends, drives innovation and can be a model for the future.
“I remember what it was like to feel excluded,” Shop said. “I have seen first-hand how building an inclusive environment where people can be themselves and thrive sparks innovation and produces incredible results.”