A Day at the White House

A Day at the White House

I recently had the privilege of being part of a group of regional businessmen and women selected to attend a series of discussions on economic development and job creation with administration officials from the White House Business Council.  This program was sponsored by Business Forward, a national organization whose mission is to bring business leaders into the policy making process.

While this in and of itself was quite an honor, an email I received three days  before the event totally astounded me.  Imagine reading:  “…We are very much looking forward to seeing you here this week at the White House.   In addition to our conversation, on behalf of President Obama, we would like to invite you to an event at the White House where the President will deliver remarks on business and the economy…”  Talk about an offer you cannot refuse!  Regardless of where one’s beliefs are in the political spectrum, here was the President (albeit his staff) extending a personal invitation to me to witness an event that I would normally watch on the evening news.  Needless to say, I accepted with much pleasure.

In order to ensure a timely arrival for this morning event, my wife and I travelled to DC the night before thus sparing ourselves and early wake-up and drive to DC where we would be subject to the vagaries of rush hour in Northern Virginia.  Excellent planning on our part as some, unfortunately, could not arrive in time for the President’s announcement.

On the assigned morning, our group assembled outside the East Entrance to the White House in particularly chilly and windy weather awaiting our time to pass through security and enter into both the grounds and the White House itself.  Inside we were greeted by a phalanx of White House military aides in full dress uniforms who regaled us with the history of the building and its contents. 

The doors to the briefing room opened and we were shepherded into our seats to await the President.  Sitting in the third row about 15 feet from the presidential podium I took the opportunity to speak with some of the people around me and  just take in the grandeur of the room and the atmosphere of what was to take place.

On announcement, we stood, the President stepped to the podium and welcomed us to the White House.  He announced his intentions to streamline government and make it more responsive to the needs of the 21st Century.  He also announced that he was elevating the Small Business Administration to a Cabinet level position.  After about 15 minutes of making his case, both to those of us in the room and the public at large, he departed the podium and left the room.  It seemed to be over in the blink of an eye -- but what an event.

In the afternoon our group assembled in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building where we were hosted by the Executive Director of the White House Business Council who described what he hoped would be accomplished in the next four hours of briefings and discussions.  We received an interesting overview of both the global and US economies and the challenges that need to be addressed.  Sadly, from my perspective, little was said either about the national debt or current and projected budget deficits…but there was more than enough information to digest. 

This briefing was followed by discussions on job creation and business expansion.  We met with former Virginia officials, Aneesh Chopra, the White House Chief Technology Officer, and Matt Erskine, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Economic Development in the Department of Commerce.  Both of whom provided us with overviews of several highly effective administration initiatives which harnessed the innovation and creativity of the private sector in creating innovative ways to increase job growth.  Mr. Chopra discussed technology initiatives in healthcare (Information Technology), energy (Smart Meters and other projects) and education (information digitalization and modeling and simulation initiatives) that hold promise for future growth.

One interesting project concerned the matching of veterans with civilian job opportunities.  This project, done at little cost to the government, establishes a central portal for both veterans and employers to find each other.  It translates military education, training and experience into related civilian activities thus removing a barrier which prevented employers from fully understanding the talents and capabilities that veterans can offer their companies.

Following these presentations, we received an in-depth report from Andre Gudger, Director of the Office of Small Business Programs from the Department of Defense.  His office is leading the way in ensuring that small businesses are able to effectively compete for, and participate in, government contracts.  Initiatives like Quick Pay, moving away from Low Cost-Technically Acceptable contracts, establishing a Rapid Innovation Fund, and requiring program managers to successfully complete a small business course at the Defense Acquisition University prior to administering their programs are some of the initiatives currently underway.

The day closed with an extended networking session with Fred Baldassaro of the Small Business Administration who addressed the ramifications of elevating the SBA Administrator to a Cabinet position.  It is believed that this will give a stronger voice in this, and future administrations, to a vital segment of the economy which is responsible for the majority of economic growth in the country.

Throughout the day, I had the opportunity to witness highly intelligent, motivated and determined individuals wrestling with complex challenges that makes unraveling a Gordian knot look easy.  However, the issue that remained first and foremost in my mind throughout the entire day was just how policy decisions that occur in our Nation’s Capitol gets translated into actionable steps here on Main Street and what will be the ultimate impact? 

While there certainly is a role that the federal government must play, just what exactly is that role and just how much will it cost both us and our small businesses in taxes and compliance costs?  Is it more or less government?  The President’s initiative hopefully seems to indicate the latter.  Yet, overarching any discussion or initiative is the daunting issue of our national debt and budget deficits.  I believe that these will take center stage for some time to come.

This being said, I would not trade this day for anything.  It was certainly both an honor and a humbling experience.

Jim Carroll is the vice president for small business for the Hampton Roads Chamber of Commerce and the executive director for the Small Business Development Center of Hampton Roads, Inc.  He can be reached at (757) 664-2595 or at jcarroll@hrccva.com.