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