President Barack Obama in Bellevue, WA, February 17, 2012: Long Live the ARPA-E
Today was a really exciting day for me. I was invited to a lunch with President Barack Obama at the Bellevue Westin, in Bellevue, WA outside of Seattle, WA. There were only about 400 people present.
I used to be CEO of cleantech company named Bio Architecture Lab (BAL). BAL is a spin out from the University of Washington that has developed technology to convert seaweed or macroalgae into low cost biofuels and renewable chemicals. In 2009, BAL was selected for a prestigious ARPA-E grant with DuPont from the Department of Energy. The ARPA-E stands for the Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy and is geared at funding game-changing risky energy projects. It is led by Arun Majumdar who is the former Associate Laboratory Director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories. We received the largest grant in the country to convert seaweed into bio-butanol. It was a big deal for our company and for DuPont as well which was cool to see.
A friend of mine from Harvard Business School shot be an email a couple of weeks ago, letting me know that President Obama was coming to Bellevue to raise money for his reelection campaign. Though I am financially conservative, I grew up in blue collar Massachusetts and I am about as liberal and liberal can be. I figured this was a once in lifetime chance to be the same room as the first black President of the United States. After getting the okay from my CFO my wife, I responded happily that I would be there with bells on.
Today February 17, 2012, I arrived at the Bellevue Westin about 30 minutes before the doors opened to wait in line for my chance to see President Barack Obama. There was an interesting mix of supporters and protesters outside. Majority of the protesters were from Occupy Wall Street movement. Majority of the supporters were promoting Planned Parenthood or Equal Rights for All. There were a number of petitions asking for further campaign finance reform to take corporations out of the election process. Probably a good idea.
It took us about an hour to get into the Westin. We were seated by 1:30pm. I am not sure what I did to deserve special treatment (Thank You Steve & Autumn!) but I was in the front row right as the President would enter the room near the stage. I swear I was like 20 feet away from the President or at least where the President would be. I also got the privilege of sitting next to three GREAT families - the Griffin's, Ringnesses, and the Gerberding's. The Griffin's were a large family with four children. Ed Ringness was a Harvard grad and an early employee at Microsoft and Bill Gerberding was the former President of the University of Washington. I soon learned that Bill was the longest serving President at the University of Washington in history having served 16 years.
The Head and the Heart started playing at about 2pm. What a GREAT show! Unfortunately, the President ran about 3 hours late :( Luckily we had great conversations. When the President did arrive, he first took pictures with the largest donors first prior to speaking. I think that took another hour.
FINALLY, the owner of Elliot Bay Book Store Peter Aaron introduced President Barack Obama. It was an interesting choice in that Peter is relatively unknown in Seattle, but Peter spoke of the economic hardships of running a small business with 30 employees and being unable to get a loan in 2008. The Elliot Bay Book Store is a cornerstone here in Seattle from a city flavor perspective.
President Barack Obama came on the stage right after. I hope the video does justice to how close I was to the President. It was amazing. No matter what you think about his effectiveness or his politics, he is an amazing speaker and an inspirational person. His speech was all about building an America "Built to Last" and investing in the people of America. He held Detroit and the car industry as a great example of the revival of American industry. GM has returned to its stature as the world's largest car company. He talked about the need to invest in education, training and clean energy (my heart grew a couple of sizes larger). He spoke passionately about the need to raise taxes on the rich, because it is the right thing to do, touting the Buffett Law where the boss should not pay a lower tax rate than the secretary.
The President actually admitted that he has not been as effective as he would have liked. He told us that change is hard, but he is committed to representing that American people to do the right thing. I can related to the change being hard part and that nothing happens as quickly as you want.
President Barack Obama actually complimented the Republican Party starting with Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt for making the investments into the people and infrastructure of the country (clever tactic President Obama). He did come back to politics attributing the gird lock in Washington Dc to the Republican Party.
Like a good President, he challenged us in the audience to do what we can to rebuild and retrain America into greatness. A great call to action for all of us.
Prior, I asked the Secret Service where I should go to get the best chance of shaking President Obama's hand post speech. After hemming and hawing for some time, the Secret Service told me to get to the middle. Luckily a friend of mine named Adam Tratt was also in the audience at the table right next to me in the front.
As Obama finished his speech and started to move toward the rope line, we moved rushed to the middle. Adam took my iPhone and I took his and he tried to take pictures of the hand shake. All day, I had been sweating over what I would say if I got an opportunity to say something to the President.
Here was my opportunity. The President was moving down the rope line, closer and closer. I totally forgot to take a good picture of Adam. Then it was my turn to shake the President's hand. He put out his left hand toward my right hand and then I yelled, "Long live the ARPA-E!"
The President looked startled, like he was thinking, "Why would anyone in his right mind say that?"
The President replied, "That's a great program."
I replied, "Hell yeah it is." (or something like that).
Why did I say that? I have no idea. But it is kind of funny in retrospect.
We made our way down to the parking garage and then out into the Seattle rain and Bellevue Traffic.
What a cool day.