Inside The White House Friday…

March 15, 2009 · Print This Article

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On Sunday March 1 I got a voicemail. The call was from Elliott Bisnow. It said, “Come to The White House on Friday.”

Background on The Summit Series

I’ve written about Elliott before. He’s 23 and somehow, with an excellent team, has put together The Summit Series, designed to bring together the top entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, and innovators under 40 in the world. The group started in April 2008 in Utah wanting to bring together cool people. The purpose has evolved and strengthened as the group as grown.

Today, the purpose of The Summit Series is to bring future global leaders together to figure out how to make the world better. They’ve brought together people like Jessica Jackley, co-founder of Kiva, Scott Harrison, the founder of Charity Water, Eric Ryan and Adam Lowry, co-founders of environmentally-friendly soap maker Method, and Blake Mycoskie, CEO of TOM’s Shoes, who has given away tens of thousands of shoes to children in developing countries.

They’re working to build a community of the most influential young entrepreneurs, social entrepreneurs, and innovators to make a positive impact. It’s the Clinton Global Initiative, Davos, and TED for Generation Y.

At the next Summit Series in April in Aspen, the focus is on philanthropy. They’ll be bringing in Mikkel Vestergaard Frandsen (inventor of the LifeStraw) and Elizabeth Gore from Nothing But Nets, Lauren Bush from Feed Projects which sells bags that enable a contribution to feed a child for a year, Bobby Bailey from Invisible Children which works with child soldiers in Uganda, and Ethan Zohn from Grassroots Soccer, who took his $1 million from winning Survivor:Africa to set up soccer leagues in Africa that enable children there to get tested for HIV/AIDS.

In just one year, The Summit Series has grown through hustle, hard work, and word of month to 120 members, including some of the most well-known and respected ‘under-40′ entrepreneurs and social entrepreneurs in the world.

This brings us to three weeks ago.

How The Meeting Transpired

On February 22, Elliott met David Washington and Yosi Sergant (the guy who launched the iconic HOPE poster) from the White House Office of Public Liaison at a DC event. Elliot told David and Yosi about Summit Series. They were interested in getting the message out on the Obama Administration’s efforts on job creation, the economy, energy, health care, transparency, and new media and building relationships over time with the attendees.

So it happened. David and Yosi told Elliot to find 30 people from Summit Series to come to a meeting at The White House on March 6th.

When someone calls to tell you to come to a meeting at The White House, you go. The White House has a “strong gravitational pull” as David Sutphen of Brunswick Group put it on Friday morning. And so I went.

Friday At The White House

So on Friday morning I flew to D.C. After getting a last minute haircut at an ‘old-school barbershop’ on 15th and H and running into my NASA-friend Stephanie Fibbs on the walk back, the Summit group met at 12pm at the Hay Adams Hotel for a reception.

At the reception I had a chance to meet Jake Nickell from Threadless, Evan Williams with Twitter, Mark Ecko from Ecko, Michael Chasen from Blackboard, and investor Chris Sacca from Lowercase Capital and reconnect with Tony Hsieh from Zappos, Aaron Patzer from Mint.com, Ben Kauffman from Kluster, and Josh Abramson from College Humor.

Lunch followed. At the table was Jessica Jackley from Kiva, Aaron from Mint, Ivanka Trump and her fiance Jared Kushner of the New York Observer, Catherine Levene of Daily Candy, and David Sutphen of Brunswick Group.

Setting Expectations

Prior to heading to The White House, David Sutphen and Phillipe Lanier of Eastbanc set expectations. We were not there to add on to the endless to-do list of the Administration. We were there to understand what was currently being done, ask questions, and build a long term relationship.

We heard that the Administration members we were about to meet were “drinking from a firehose” currently. They explained that we not there to give lots of ideas, but rather to learn what was happening so that we could be the entrepreneurial implementers and doers in our own communities working toward addressing critical needs. It wasn’t just about one day, but an ongoing relationship that started that day.

They shared that the Obama Administration saw us as one medium to communicate what they were working on to others via new media and as one filter of constituent thoughts and suggestions. With the CEOs of web firms Twitter, Zappos, iContact, Threadless, Mint, and Blackboard in the room we could certainly do that. They wanted to build a long term relationship with us and authentically wanted our contribution and ideas–just not all at once and in a usable ’summarized, bulletted form.’

So we walked over. We got our security passes at The Eisenhower Building and then went inside. We went up three floors and down a hallway to a room with thirty chairs and a table.

The Agenda from The Meeting

The meetings during the 90 minute session went as follows:

2:00pm – David Washington, Ph.D – Assoc. Director of the White House Office of Public Liaison and Michael Strautmanis – Chief of Staff to the Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Relations and Public Liaison

2:15pm – Jason Furman – Deputy Director of the National Economic Council

2:30pm – Martha Coven, Special Assistant to the President for Mobility and Opportunity; Greg Nelson, White House Office of Public Liaison; and Heather Zichal, White House Office of Energy and Climate Change

2:50pm to 3:30pm – Macon Phillips, Director of New Media

Notes from The White House Meeting

Here are my rough notes from each session. All quotes are paraphrased and could be incorrectly attributed in some cases due to my sub-par note taking system

David Washington

  • We want to know your ideas on how we can make government more transparent.
  • We want examples of how the stimulus is helping–anecdotes and stories that you see.
  • Our focus is creating jobs–but we need your help in doing this.

Michael Strautmanis

  • Some of the stimulus may work. Some may not. We’re here for solutions not banter.
  • When I met Michelle Robinson, she treated me as if I had value.
  • President Obama challenged us to make government more transparent.
  • From transparency comes legitimacy.
  • The OMB is more transparent now. Longer explanations. Posting on Recovery.gov.
  • As entrepreneurs, I want you to think creatively about the world of making the world a better place for our children.
  • Only way to fix economy is to get on a sustainable path with fiscal responsibility.
  • We have to create dynamism and energy. It takes heart.
  • Other generations have had other challenges. Together we can meet these challenges.
  • We are partners for creating a sustainable future.
  • In response to question from Chris Sacca on will Obama start Twittering again: That is up to the Secret Service.

Jason Furman

  • We’re working on unfreezing credit, bringing down the cost of health care, energy independence, the climate, education, and fiscal sustainability.
  • In response to question on budget deficit from Aaron Patzer of Mint: Right now a fear is deflation. A deflationary spiral is the biggest nightmare for economists. The amount we’re borrowing today is small in comparison to our GDP and needed. Our economy can afford the deficit. We have a path to cut the [annual] deficit by 50% in 5 years. People are lending to the U.S. cheaply at 2.5%.
  • We have 12.5M unemployed. Some banks may have negative net worth. Housing was overpriced.

Martha Coven

  • We are working on creating green jobs.
  • I want the best ideas from the private and social sector to bubble up to Federal Policy making.

Heather Zichal

  • In response to question on solar power and home owners selling energy back to grid: We will think about homeowners selling electricity back to the grid.
  • We are focused on energy and climate change.
  • Administration making a commitment to CAFE standards and reducing dependency on foreign oil
  • Cap and trade revenues to start in 2012 according to budget

Greg Nelson

  • As business leaders you have a chance to redefine what the role of a business leader is.

Macon Phillips

  • Creator of change.gov, whitehouse.gov, and recovery.gov
  • We want to work with you on creating a PSA 2.0
  • I love free dissemination
  • We’ve made time for this because we want you to be empowered.
  • Wants abilities to get mass response, but with usable outcomes. 8,000 comments can be unusable sometimes.

What They Asked of Us

Overall, I was very glad to participate. Each of the 30 attendees has been asked to do the following:

  1. Act as a filter/community ambassador for the best ideas/suggestions/thoughts on what we can do on the economy, budget, energy, healthcare, education, and new media. Get feedback from your community and send the best to us from time-to-time in summarized, bulleted form.
  2. Send any examples/anecdotes/stories that we hear of due to investments from the Stimulus making a positive impact in your community.
  3. Send any ideas/suggestions/thoughts on how to make government more transparent and open.

Finally, they asked us to go back to our communities and work entrepreneurially to create positive change, address social needs, and create jobs. They said we must create a true partnership between the public, private, and non-profit sector for it to work.

My Thoughts on The Meeting

I very much appreciated the meeting. It was done with good intentions, and not as a media stunt. They shared with us what they were working on and how we could be part of it to increase the chance of success.

It was clear how smart, busy, and focused these people were. They were glad to meet us and we were certainly glad to meet them. They could be us and we could be them.

They gave us their direct email addresses and encouraged us to act as a filter for them for them on the best ideas. Finally, they invited us to build a long term relationship and explained that as we built trust over time, our influence as a group would grow.

After the Meeting

After the meeting, we all went to a local restaurant to discuss what we had experienced. We broke out into four groups to talk about our ideas and begin to refine them. The groups were:

  1. Economy and the stimulus
  2. Education and job creation
  3. New media and transparency
  4. Energy and the environment

I led the group on the economy and the stimulus. I’ll be writing up my notes and posting them soon.

Where It Goes from Here

So we’ve been asked to be one informal filter (of many) for these individuals in the Administration and Office of Public Liaison and help ensure they’re getting the best ideas from the best people filtered to them every few months in summarized form.

I’ll be holding an Entrepreneur & Social Entrepreneur Meetup at my house in Chapel Hill on Friday March 20th at 8pm at which I’ll present what we’ve been asked to do and start the discussion with the group.

We’ll likely hold a separate meetup (date TBA) in early April to discuss and debate ideas and policy proposals on the topics of: economy, budget, energy, healthcare, education, transparency, and new media. We’ll then filter the ideas and present a summarized form to our new contacts in the Obama Administration.

If you have any ideas or thoughts please post them below via the comment section.

The Tweets From The Meeting

Since Evan Williams, the founder of Twitter with 231,000 followers, Tony Hsieh of Zappos with 197,000 followers, and Chris Sacca with 132,000 followers were with us, we may have been in the most tweeted meeting at The White House in the history of the world.

The post-meeting Tweets were positive.

@ev wrote: “Lessons from today: Obama’s team: smart and committed. Learned a lot and was inspired.” and

@saaca wrote: “The folks from the White House are sharp. Obama made it cool once again for awesome people to serve in government.”

@tomsshoes wrote: “Just left the meeting – pretty inspirational. The administration really does want our input, each gave their personal email addresses and encouraged dialogue.

Feedback from Readers and Friends Prior to the Meeting

I was amazed at the response I got by soliciting feedback prior to and during the meeting on Facebook and Twitter. More comments flowed in than I’ve ever gotten before on a status update or Tweet.

I asked on Thursday night via Facebook and Twitter, “meeting at White House Friday to discuss ways to improve economy. Any suggestions?” I got 29 responses. Note that you’ll have to be my Facebook friend or in the UNC or Raleigh-Durham network to read them I believe.

I also asked on Friday, “just challenged by the Obama Administration to provide idea on how to make govt more transparent and open. Ideas?” I got 17 responses.

Comments Sought

What are your thoughts/ideas/policy proposals in the areas of economy, budget, energy, healthcare, education, transparency, and new media? Post and get the discussion going…

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