She was part of the marketing organization in the early days of my last company — a fantastic woman — she was looking for an update on what I was doing and agreed to write a recommendation for me as a CEO.
She reminded me of a life-changing event that took place while I was CEO — a time that I still think about to this day.
We’re always stressed and under an enormous amount of pressure to perform. Sometimes, unexpected events happen that elevate us beyond what we’re going through at our companies and offer us new energizing perspectives.
For me, this event took place about seven years ago. It was springtime.
I was right in the middle of a challenging fundraising process.
It was a Monday morning, the first week of April. I was doing what most CEOs do, reviewing the mountain of emails calling for my attention.
As I scanned my inbox looking for responses from my outreach to potential investors, I noticed an email that seemed to come from the White House.
I assumed it was spam (or phishing) and opened the email skeptically.
I skimmed it.
I was about to hit delete until I read the part that said,”…Jeff Bussgang suggested we reach out to you.”
For those of you who don’t know him, Jeff Bussgang is the general partner of Flybridge Capital Partners, a Boston-based VC firm. He’s also a professor at the Harvard Business School and the best selling author of two books: Mastering the VC Game and Entering StartUpLand.
Flybridge was an investor in my company.
I thought, “You know what, let me forward this to Jeff just to see if this is legit by any stretch of the imagination.”
So I did, and he responded right away.
“Haha. Yes, this is for real,” he wrote.
He explained that the White House reached out to him via email as well. They were looking for entrepreneurs in markets outside of Silicon Valley. And, he instantly thought of me.
He also shared that there was a big event planned that week around a bill the President was going to sign into law. They contacted Jeff to invite him and other entrepreneurs like me to the event.
I was blown away.
He suggested I respond right away, so I did, of course.
In my response, I wrote something like, “Is this legit?”
They said, “yes this is for real, please send the following information: your social security number and your bio.”
I enlisted the help of my marketing team. As you might imagine, they were pumped.
They put together my bio, and I sent it back to the event organizers as requested.
The next email — which came back in less than 30 minutes — said, “We’d actually like to invite you to another event that’s happening just before the signing ceremony. We’d like you to attend that instead, it’ll take place in the morning. We’re going to send you details soon.”
I was so surprised, I brought my wife into the fold. “Hey, babe, I think I’m going to the White House for this event,” I said with excitement.
And so, I geared up and prepared to take the train down to DC a few days later. The organizers explained that the event would start at a particular time, somewhere around 10am.
On my way down, I sent them a note saying, “Hey, I’m on my way, and it looks like I’m going to be there early. Can I pop into The White House a little earlier?”
They said, “No, you cannot come earlier. You have to arrive at the security gate only at the time we shared.” I also asked, just out of curiosity, if my wife could attend. Again, they said, “No, your wife cannot attend.”
That was when I thought to myself, “Okay, you know what, I’d better stop asking questions.”
When I arrived, I cleared the security desk and was directed to the historic Roosevelt Room in the West Wing.
I passed two towering Marines guarding the entrance to the Wing. As I entered the anti-room for the Roosevelt Room, one of the President’s staff responsible for the event — I believe his name was Greg Nelson — said, “You must be John Belizaire.”
(I didn’t know if it was the way I was dressed or something.)
“Yes, I am John Belizaire,” I said with a surprised look.
He welcomed me and immediately pulled me aside.
“Listen, in a few minutes, we’re going to go into the Roosevelt Room. After that meeting is over, you are going to notice several people exiting through one of the doors. We’re going to need you to stay in the room. Is that all right?” He whispered.
(I was thinking… “Did I pay all my taxes last year?”)
“Uh, sure. Got it. That’s fine,” I replied.
As I entered, the small Roosevelt Room is was full of people.
The architects of the bill had already arrived: the Secretary of the Treasury, the chairman of the SEC, several Congressmen and women, the founder of AOL, Steve Case, Barry Silbert, founder of SecondMarket, Danae Ringelmann, founder of indiegogo, and Angie Hicks, founder of Angie’s List.
There was also a host of other young entrepreneurs from all parts of the country.
The meeting launched right away into discussions of the bill known as the Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act. They were there to determine how best to implement the new law. Much like a focus group, we guests were there to provide them with our advice.
If you’re not familiar with the JOBS Act, it’s the law that opened the door to the concept now known as crowdfunding for startups. The new law would allow small businesses to raise money through a network of small investors, both accredited and non accredited alike. It also created an on-ramp for smaller companies to go public, and it was one of the essential laws behind President Obama’s strategy for job creation and entrepreneurship growth during his tenure. It focused on boosting the economy in rural America by solving a funding problem.
There was lots of discussion in the room about concerns we might have about the law.
It was a fascinating meeting.
I was sitting there thinking, “Wow, this is this is pretty fascinating.”
They appreciated our comments and suggestions around the rollout. In fact, if I remember correctly, the most vocal was Angie Hicks. She emphasized the importance of being very clear about how the law works so that people wouldn’t get scammed.
The meeting wrapped just as Greg Nelson suggested. A door opened up across from where I had entered the room. And, just like he said, several people were shuttled out of that exit.
I turned to him, and he winked as a reminder for me to stay in the room.
Now there was only a handful of us left in the room. Among them was a young woman named Samantha Abrams, co-founder of Emmy’s Organics, a gluten-free snack-maker based in Ithaca, NY. (Home of my alma mater.)
“Do you know why we’re being asked to stay behind?” She asked me politely.
“I have no idea. But when someone at the White House says to stay in the room, you stay in the room.” I replied jokingly.
She motioned over to Greg and asked him the same question.
He proudly said, “Oh, no one’s told you yet? Well, allow me to explain. The reason you’re staying is that you’re going to be on stage with the President when he signs the bill.”
I turned to Samantha wide-eyed. She looked at me. I think I could see some tears building up in her eyes.
I was trying to maintain my stoic demeanor. The President, no biggie.
We were super excited.
I thought, “Wow, this is getting better by the minute.”
Next thing I knew, a door opened up, and some members of Congress entered the room. Many of them were involved in the drafting of the bill. One of them was Scott Brown, the Republican senator from Massachusetts. (My company was based in Boston.)
They arranged us in a line and led us out to take our places on stage in the Rose Garden.
As we stepped out into the Rose Garden on that lovely spring day, I could see the hundreds of cameras from the leading news outlets throughout the country. The stage had a beautiful antique writing desk, where the President would sign the bill that afternoon.
After we were all taped down — I had a great spot — we were escorted back to the Roosevelt Room.
I realized that I hadn’t told my team.
I wanted to tell my team and my wife, “Hey, I’m going to be on TV. It looks like I’m going to be with the President signing the bill.”
(A little context: You’re not allowed to bring any electronic equipment into the Roosevelt room, so they had these cubbies outside where they asked us to store our electronic equipment before we entered the room.)
And so I grabbed my phone — yes, I’m a rule breaker — from my assigned cubby and started tapping a text message. I wrote one to my wife first. “Hey, sweetie, I’m going to be on stage with the President,” I wrote in the text.
Then someone from the hall said sternly, “Mr. Belizaire,” motioning me to put the phone away. I had only two seconds to tell my team, so I cut and pasted the same text message that I wrote to my wife, and I sent it to my head of marketing. I then threw the phone back into the cubby and quickly re-entered the room as directed.
(I didn’t know this, but the entire company had already been gathered in the main break room hoping that something like this would happen.)
We continued to mingle with the members of Congress for about an hour.
Just as I was explaining what my company did and its relationship to Insurance with a freshman Congresswoman, one of the walls seemed to open up.
(I didn’t even know there was a door there.)
“Hello, hello, hello,” said the visitor that seemed to appear out of thin air.
I turned around, and it was the President of the United States, Barack Obama.
The team in the room motioned us to line up in a receiving line.
President Obama made his way down the line, meeting and greeting everyone before he finally got to me.
The whole time I was thinking, “what do I say to the President of the United States? This person is not only just any President of the United States but a historic one.”
He stood in front of me and gave me a unique smile — you can tell he knew everything about me.
I said, “Hello, Mr. President. It’s nice to meet you.”
(That’s all could muster up. I was starstruck.)
He gave me a firm handshake and said how proud he was of what I was doing.
“This bill is going to be a game-changer for the country,” he says as he grabs my elbow.
He then grabbed my elbow, tapped it, and said, “Let’s do this thing.”
(I will never forget that.)
Then, he turned around, went out the door, and literally vanished.
(They must have like a bunch of secret passageways in there for security reasons. The guy literally disappeared. )
They got us into our original line formation. By now, a few of the members of Congress who were late to the initial taping session had arrived. So the line got rejiggered, and I end up just behind Senator Scott Brown.
(He is 6’ 2”. In fact, he mentioned to the President about the fact that he hadn’t been invited to the White House to play basketball yet. And Obama gave him a response that said, “Well, that’s nice. I don’t think you’re ever going to get invited.”)
It was the first time I’d witnessed a president sign a bill into law. The President delivered a brief set of remarks and sat down at the antique desk to make history.
(I didn’t know they used several pens. Apparently, those pens are gifted to the architects of the bill and members of Congress. I know what you are thinking. No, I didn’t get one.)
In turns out, Jeff Bussgang did attend the event, only to be surprised by my presence on the stage with the President. In fact, the whole experience impressed him so much, he wrote a personal blog article about the entire experience.
This all took place on April 5, 2012. The next day, I was featured on the White House homepage.
The JOBS Act ultimately led to some great companies being funded around the country. And, six years later, the law was part of the rise of Bitcoin, cryptocurrency and cryptocurrency funds, ICOs and several blockchain projects.
That moment with President Obama and being on that stage was a surreal experience.
I never imagined that I would get to meet the POTUS. It energized my company and me.
It reminded us that innovation doesn’t have to take place on a micro-level, it could take place on a national level.
I share this story because, as I said, CEOs go through a lot daily. We’re crushed by pressures to raise capital and grow our businesses.
(By the way, we successfully raised a $10 million round that spring. It ushered in some of the highest growth we had ever seen as a company, elevating our brand to another level.)
There will always be pivotal or game-changing events in the life of your venture. It’s essential to keep in mind as an entrepreneur and as a CEO: keep pushing.
Just keep driving until you get your company where it’s going because you never know where it’s going.
It could go all the way to the White House.
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About the Author
John Belizaire is CEO of Soluna, a serial entrepreneur, advisor, and investor. He is also the editor of CEOPLAYBOOK.IO — a medium publication (thoughts expressed here are solely those of the author.) Connect with him on LinkedIn and Twitter. To join the popular newsletter, Mental Candy sign up here.