I'm the Co-founder and CEO of The Grommet. We launch undiscovered consumer products. It's also the birthplace of Citizen Commerce. I write about design, cultural anthropology, and start-ups, mostly.

Seven Surprises about going to The White House

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I’m sitting perched on a chair in a corner of my family room, with my youngest son.  We are trying to stay out of the way of the five brawny movers who are emptying our house of 22 years. That’s a big deal in anybody’s book, but it is happening the day after I took my very first trip to The White House–so houses are very much on my mind. This visit to our nation’s capital was exceptional:  Joanne and I were asked to be there to launch Grommet Wholesale as part of their first-ever White House Maker Faire.

It was an inspiring and out-of-body experience, being seated in the same room as President Obama while he proclaimed June 18, 2014 a “National Day of Making.”

Here are the highlights.

First of all, I never expected to have this gem of a document sitting on my computer desktop.

Screen Shot 2014-06-12 at 10.37.56 AM

They only ask for one line of spreadsheet information.  I guess they can pretty much find anything they want–without our help.

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The team surprised Joanne with a “Presidential Seal” birthday cake just before she left the office for the airport.

Our first glimpse of The White House, the night before.  No way we were going to risk missing the event so we came in the day before.

Our first glimpse of The White House, the night before.  This is us rushing a photo while a Secret Service guard is actively giving us the bum’s rush.

This is Joanne near the D.C. Ellipse excitedly checking her phone to see, for the first time, how the White House shared our Grommet Wholesale announcement with the Free World.

This is Joanne near the D.C. Ellipse excitedly checking her phone to see–for the first time–how The White House shared our Grommet Wholesale announcement with the Free World.

We were delighted at the location and wording of our business announcement, high up in the painstakingly-assembled and closely guarded White House Fact Sheet.  We were happily wedged between commitments from Tech Shop and Intel. I was surprised and kind of tickled that they called us “Grommet.” It’s what “insiders” and real supporters tend to say. It was clear that White House staffers are very smart and it was not much of a surprise to observe they are also like startup people: our Office of Science and Technology contact Phil Larson was always back to us in nanoseconds no matter what time of day or night.

There were seven big surprises along the route to securing these treasured day-of photos in the Blue Room and other iconic locations. I will sprinkle them between the snapshots.

Suprise #1: The White House procrastinates. We were contacted many months before the event because The Grommet has been central to the Maker Movement since before it had a name. Having a Maker Faire at The White House was the biggest cultural moment we could imagine in this long journey. But we did not expect the actual date to be left undetermined to just about four weeks before! I guess that when you are The White House you can issue last-minute invitations and still command a full house.

Oddly enough, I could not use this invitation as any kind of excuse to get out of something, or for obnoxious name-dropping, or any other kind of public social media behavior because we were barred from telling anyone were were attending until midnight the day before. I wondered if this was a security precaution or more an effort to assure we did not steal the White House’s thunder by pre-empting their announcement of Grommet Wholesale.

Waiting outside to be admitted with Maker Movement "royalty" Dale Dougherty and Sherry Huss, of MakerMedia.

Waiting outside to be admitted with Maker Movement “royalty” Dale Dougherty and Sherry Huss, of Maker Media.

Surprise #2.  The Secret Service is sometimes surly.  Probably not the plainclothes people (who were of course invisible to me), but the uniformed ones could be a wee bit nasty. Truth be told, there is a barely-human specimen of an agent just out of frame of the above photo. I can’t imagine being rude to people who are the President’s guests but she had completely mastered that behavior.

As Sherry and I strolled into this entrance (passing plenty of security check points) I stopped to photograph a few Grommets AT The White House.  Here is Pocket Monkey.

As Sherry and I strolled into this entrance (passing plenty of security check points) I stopped to photograph a few Grommets at The White House. Here is Pocket Monkey.

Here is the Lumi inflatable solar lantern.

Here is the Lumi inflatable solar lantern.

Upon entering a ground floor corridor lined with casual photos of Presidential families romping about, we saw the first of about 30 Maker exhibits.  Here is Sherry looking at a prototype of a mechanical device built into your shoe to create and store power to charge your phone.

Upon entering a ground floor corridor lined with casual photos of Presidential families romping about, we saw the first of about 30 Maker exhibits. Here is Sherry looking at a prototype of a mechanical device built into your shoe to create and store power to charge your phone.

Here is a "Pancake Bot" making 3-D printed pancakes.  Note the Eiffel Tower.

Here is a “Pancake Bot” making 3-D printed pancakes. Note the Eiffel Tower.

Surprise #3.  They take the budget deficit seriously. The event was from 9:30 to 2:00 and the only items served were copious glasses of water. I didn’t really mind. I was too excited to eat, and if it were my house I sure as heck would not want a bunch of people spilling cocktail sauce in the Blue Room.

Me, in said Blue Room.  I am wearing four current Grommets, and one future one.

Me, in said Blue Room. I am wearing four current Grommets, and one future one.

Carpet detail

Carpet detail

The flowers were amazing.  I had to keep reminding myself, "This is The White House.  This is The White House."

The flowers were amazing. I had to keep reminding myself, “This is The White House. This is The White House.”

Bill Nye with one of our Grommet Makers, Lisa Fetterman.  He was very accommodating with the selfie action.  My son could not believe I talked to him and did not ask for a photo.  Ditto with Will.i.am.  I did not recognize him, truth be told.

Bill Nye with one of our Grommet Makers, Lisa Fetterman. He was very accommodating with the selfie action. My son could not believe I talked to him and did not ask for a photo. Ditto with Will.i.am. I did not recognize him, truth be told.

Surprise #4.  The people in the room looked like America. Half the Makers were women, and half were minorities. The guests were also diverse. This should not be a surprise, but it was a dramatic contrast to my usual business events. I have described that sad reality many times in this blog, like here and here. It was thrilling not to not feel like the exotic zoo animal I am at tech events.

Note the press of, well, press behind the crowd eagerly awaiting the POTUS.

Note the press of, well, press behind the crowd eagerly awaiting the POTUS.  The media was also lined up along the two other walls.

Surprise #5.  The Secret Service is sometimes funny.  Overheard while waiting for the President:

  • Guest to Secret Service agent: “Do I have time to go to the bathroom?”
  • Secret Service agent: “It’s a crapshoot.”

No joke. Well I have no idea if it was a joke, but it really happened.

No caption needed.

No caption needed.

 Surprise #6.  The President looked fresh and relaxed.  He was funny, he went off script a lot and his hair was not all grey. He opened up with this:

The only thing I asked my staff was “What’s up with the ‘e’ at the end of Maker Faire?” Are we going to joust? Do we have to get dressed up or something? I’m warning you next year the ‘e’ won’t be there.  This is America.  We don’t put ‘e’s’ at the end of things.

Just last week we had one of President Obama’s former cabinet members do a fireside chat with the Grommet team. Karen Gordon Mills, who ran the Small Business Administration, told us that small business owners and Makers are some of Obama’s favorite people. In fact, way back in 2009 he asserted his understanding of the Maker Movement with the prescient statement:

Let’s be a nation of people who make things, not just people who consume things.

Related to that, I did a Marketplace Morning interview with David Brancaccio about the Maker Faire just before I went to The White House.  I mentioned this same quote from Obama because I thought it gave him wonderful cred for understanding the importance of what many are calling the Third Industrial Revolution.  (You can hear the short public radio broadcast here.  That quote did not make the cut, however.)

Surprise #7.  The White House formal rooms are not very big.  We were asked to supply a “dream guest list” for the event, and in the end most of our suggested invites were (thankfully) extended. But we were warned that “It’s a small house. We can only fit about 200.” They were right! I did not see the East or West Wings but I assume they are pretty giant.

This is me with one of my "guests", the rock star Mayor of Somerville Joe Curtatone.  We are in the Lincoln Room.  Note the portrait.

This is me with one of my “guests,” the rock star Mayor of Somerville Joe Curtatone. We are in the Lincoln Room. Note the portrait.

The Red Room, I presume.

The Red Room, I presume.

Joanne taking a breather gazing out at the beautiful gardens.  Our travels were, understandably, circumscribed so we did not exactly roam around the Rose Garden or anything.

Joanne taking a breather gazing out at the beautiful gardens. Our travels were, understandably, circumscribed so we did not exactly roam around the Rose Garden sniffing flowers.

I like this photo I took of two Grommets spiffing up this ordinary mason jar:  Cuppow on top, and Holdster is the "holder."

I like this photo I took of two Grommets spiffing up this ordinary mason jar: Cuppow on top, and Holdster is the “holder.”  This is just outside the White House door.

Yesterday, as Joanne and I landed back in Boston and were moving through Logan airport I told her, “The last six years have been the most dramatic of my life.” Much of that drama has been chronicled here on this blog–a continued collision of personal and professional events that have been massively challenging, sometimes upsetting, and usually exciting.

You can see the little strip of yellow in the back of this ring where I hacked it to fit with one of my favorite Grommets, Sugru.  It's an air dry silicone putty household essential.

You can see the little strip of yellow in the back of this ring where I hacked it to fit with one of my favorite Grommets, Sugru. It’s an air dry silicone putty household essential.

I wore my dad’s ring to The White House. It’s engraved with the Ford logo and a number 30. It was given to him after thirty years of perfect attendance as a toolmaker at the Livonia Transmission plant. Although my father passed away in 1999 before the Maker Movement had taken hold, I believe he would truly grok it. Whereas the digital revolution left people like him behind, this movement is democratic, inclusive and even biases in favor of people like my dad.  People who already know how to make things can use these new prototyping and manufacturing tools to even surpass those who gain most of their learning behind a computer screen. I see this healthy phenomenon every day at Grommet, with the 200 weekly ideas that are submitted to us. These Grommet ideas come from people in every walk of life, from third-generation plumbers, to retirees to lawyers. As I always say, “Betting on human creativity turned out to be pretty smart.”

My Detroit-born dad (and mom) would have been stunned to have one of their four children invited to The White House.

But I have to admit my youngest son was really disappointed I did not catapult across the room to take a selfie with the President. However I managed to get this far more impressive picture of both myself and Joanne helping him enact extremely important legislation.

whitehouse_silly

Meanwhile back at the ranch, I perch writing in my mother-in-law’s chair (it too has a story which you can see here) while every possession I own evaporates around me. As my 94-year-old neighbor and good friend Rada Vlajinac told me when I sadly informed her of our move, “Don’t worry about it. I have my memories.”

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Yesterday created a pretty amazing memory for me and Joanne. Thank you President Obama.

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50 Responses to “Seven Surprises about going to The White House”

  1. Ian

    Love the “Nothing on this table moves” note in the moving picture. I wonder who wrote it!

    Reply
    • screw you

      On wait, you’re New Englanders?? I’m cancelling your emails. Done. Not kidding!!!

      Reply
      • julespieri

        Our business was indeed born in Lexington MA where the first battle of the American Revolution was fought. We continue to carry that kind of independent and brave vision about how our country should work, by and for the people.

        I further believe businesses, in particular, have to acknowledge and accept deep moral responsibility for our impact on the world , no matter where we are located, in our country.

  2. Claude Dinsmoor

    Jules – Great post and great recognition. Please keep promoting the core of the US experience, innovation and making not just consuming.

    Reply
  3. Tim B.

    now that I know you suck up to such an incompetent president(no capital on purpose), your lack of moral judgement leaves me no choice but to never purchase your products and I will be deleting emails.

    Reply
    • julespieri

      We’ll keep working to ensure that 10% of US purchases flow through small and independent businesses and Makers. That’s our focus.

      Reply
    • Elise

      It’s people like this that keep our country from moving forward in a positive way for the people

      Reply
    • mellie

      Tim B., my sentiments exactly. What a disappointment! I feel sick inside.

      Reply
  4. Regina Bowden

    Congratulations to both of you for representing the most creative side of human nature by advertising and promoting cool products and more importantly, encouraging creativity and giving support to their developers! I’m so glad you were showcased and got to go to the White House. It is indeed an honor! Congratulations!

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Thank you for the encouragement Regina. I believe the Makers we support represent the best side of America and I was delighted they were recognized in such a fitting fashion.

      Reply
  5. David B

    I wonder…Did President Obama tell anyone “You didn’t make that, someone else did”, and did they serve Kool-Aid??? What entrepreneur in their right mind would want to be seen at this event, with this President? All I can say is I find it amazing that any self respecting business person would want to be seen with the President.

    Reply
    • julespieri

      When my family lived in Ireland there was some degree of local knee-jerk bashing of the current US President. It came to a head with a great deal of protest about his upcoming visit to Dublin. A reporter called me for comment on this, being an expat American. My reply was “Even if I do not entirely support the actions of the individual who serves as President, I always respect the office.” I was incredibly honored to have our business and the almost 3,000 small businesses we work with be recognized at The White House.

      Reply
  6. Karen Schaupeter-Hefferan

    The ‘i’s have it: insight, inspiration,ideas, imagination,individuality, incentive, infinite. As a team you both are brilliant and have an indelible remembrance.
    Detroit does breed movers and shakers ! Bravo !

    Reply
  7. Nan

    What am I missing here? All this negativity because you are promoting products made in America?

    And you chose to promote American made products in the Nation’s Capital, with the assistance of the CURRENT Commander in Chief?

    Reply
    • julespieri

      I had the same reaction Nan. My commitment to my country does not waver based on office holders, and I support the Commander in Chief fully. I always do. I don’t have to agree with all of his actions but in this case it is pretty hard to argue with supporting Makers and giving them deserved support and recognition.

      Grommet is working on a mission that is deeply important to our economy–we are opening up access to opportunity for anyone who aspires to create a worthy product. As the daughter of a union worker without a college education–that kind of access to opportunity is very important to me.

      I loved seeing that side of America–the deeply creative, diverse, and independent side–so fittingly recognized at The White House.

      Reply
  8. IdaDohoney

    Amazing, what an experience. You have so many wonderful products from aspiring people. I only wish more of them were made in the USA employing Americans.

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Thanks for sharing your point of view Ida. The majority of our Makers try to produce domestically and a great many of them succeed. But we also have international companies who need to produce locally to wherever they are located, and there are many manufacturing processes that have become narrowly located and specialized in various parts of the world.

      Reply
    • Carol

      Sir, I don’t believe this is the correct forum for that kind of comment. Shame on you.

      Reply
  9. Suzanne Wynn

    I don’t understand the negativity. If you have nothing nice to say why say anything? Our Pres is damned if does and damned if he doesn’t. I think it was great you got to go and great the Pres is recognizing the maker movement!

    Reply
  10. Pentool

    Wow! This President can do no right with these people. It’s truly amazing.

    Sometimes I think there is a forum whose members seek out every online mention of “Obama”, then spritz the comment sections with drive-by one-liner negative anti-Obama comments. Even a non-political celebration like this draws them out from under the rocks.

    President Obama knows that small businesses and the creativity of the American people are the fuel that runs this economy. Kudos to him for highlighting that on such a public stage. I love the creator vs consumer statement. It is key to this country remaining a leader in the world.

    And kudos to you for being a part of it. Fantastic! And many thanks for taking us along on your journey. It was especially interesting to get a look at the process from over your shoulder.

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Hi Pentool, I suspect that no matter who is President this kind of activity surfaces when frustrated people sense they can get a public forum. I have no problem with holding our leaders accountable, but agree that there are better places to do this. Thank you for recognizing both the spirit and the substance of this event and its true meaning.

      Reply
  11. Cynthia Frazier

    Just because I don’t happen to like our current POTUS, doesn’t make this event and your attendance any less amazing. As much as I dislike Obama, I would still jump at a chance to get this kind of ‘behind the scene’ look at the White House. Lucky you! Good job, ladies. All those Negative Nellies are just jealous.

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Cynthia,
      Thanks for your balance point of view. I suspect you represent a great deal of the readers here….they can separate their political views from the specific actions of the office. And you are also being totally honest when you say you would go the The White House no matter who is the current POTUS. It is such a moving and central part of an American experience to do so.

      Reply
  12. Bill Reames

    Well, O blow hard has done more to destroy small business than any President in my lifetime. Just wait, the ACA will become known as the biggest boondoggle this country has ever known. If you like your Dr. you can keep your Dr. LIE, your insurance premiums will go down $2500, lie and I will direct any future business elsewhere. Bye Bye Grommet

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Hi Bill, I am sorry you never became a supporter of these hard-working small businesses. You would have loved what they do.

      Reply
  13. bunny kingston

    i am quite envious of your trip. you wrote a wonderful article & the experience sounded amazing. i loved your note about the president looking relaxed and talking off script; he was looks so weighed down with worry. thank you.

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Bunny, I too was so relieved to see him looking present and fit. The last thing anyone wants is a President who is so worn down he can’t deal with his or her huge pressing decisions. And remember that on the same day of the Maker Faire he had to be wrapped up in the middle of the huge Iraq issue. He must be able to compartmentalize his worries and I hope he can maximize the positive occasions when they occur.

      I know even in my own world I can get weighed down by day-to-day issues and then I get out of the office or take a weekend away, or hear a great story from one of Grommet Makers, or meet new people, or give a public talk to enthusiastic people, and I get so much energy from those opportunities and trips. I hope each of our Presidents figures out a way to recharge themselves with positivity.

      Reply
  14. Brennan

    Jules, this is a great representation of a phenomenal personal and Grommet-level achievement. Anyone who is unsubscribing is doing you a huge favor.

    Keep up the inspiring work.

    Reply
  15. Jeri

    Jules, thanks so much for this Maker travelogue at the White House. May I say I am so happy for you and proud of you? And that it brought a tear to my eye that you brought your father’s ring with you? You rock, Jules!

    Reply
  16. Gabrielle

    I am sorry you had to deal with such negativity about this trip when this trip was a very memorable and amazing for you. One thing I’ve learned in the short amount of time I’ve been on this earth, it’s that no matter who the president is, not everyone will be happy or like him/her or agree with his/her opinions. However, I see all of these people’s negative comments as completely irrelevant to the point of your trip to the White House-which they are all clearly missing. It’s their loss if they want to cancel their subscription. So happy for you and Joanna and small businesses that were represented there and the the entire Grommet team! :)

    Reply
    • julespieri

      Thanks Gabrielle. I think you are right…being President means being a lightening rod for every possible criticism. As you and others have commented, I’m baffled by why the critics want to show up here and render their comments so marginal and downright odd in this forum.

      Reply
  17. Caroline

    I find it endearing that there’s an ‘e’ at the end of Maker Faire. I think it harkens back to the good old days of small shoppes and ice boxes (although I think ‘shoppe’ stems more from Middle English, haha!). :)

    Reply
  18. Shirley Trostle

    Congratulations! What a wonderful day you experienced. I am so happy that this event was held. When I read comments online I am always surprised at the nastiness out there. Online must make it easier to vent. You rise above it nicely.

    Reply
    • Lisa Knittel

      Although we had epic fights on our trips to Florida, mom and dad did not tolerate nasty. They did however produce scrappy hard working kids. Don’t let these people rain on your parades. Not our monkeys not our circus

      Reply

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