This past Monday, Inauguration Day, I arrived at the White House for a breakfast with President Obama and twelve Silicon Valley leaders.
While seated at a table with these moguls in the West Wing, I had a sudden personal emergency: too much coffee. I'd flown out from San Francisco on a redeye and unwisely hydrated at Starbucks. There was no way to sneak out and relieve myself unnoticed, but I finally had to get up and make a quick dash down the hall, prompting a Secret Service agent to follow me all the way to the men's room.
When I came back the table, the President was finishing a remark to Eric Schmidt of Google. He seemed frustrated with him. There was a pregnant pause after Obama finished his sentence. My hopes of quietly returning to my seat were dashed as my chair caught on the carpet while I struggled to pull it out. All eyes fixed on me! Before I could sit down again, the President asked:
"So, what do you think?"
I had, of course, been out of the room for their conversation, and from the smirk on Obama's face, he must have known it. For a moment, it felt like I was in one of those nightmares where you're late to class and forgot you had a final exam.
But, I had been thinking all night about what I'd wanted to say at this meeting, and I figured this was my opportunity to say it. I stood for a moment and pointed out the window behind me at the crowds of people swarming in anticipation of the Inauguration.
"When I look out the window this morning and then to all of you around the table, it's clear we are privileged," I began. "But that wasn't always true. Every one of you is self-made. Everyone started out there in the cold. There was no certainty that we'd ever be so cozy in here. None of us imagined this as a child. In fact, I didn't think I was better than the rest, but I did believe I could get better every day. We were all driven to be our best. As I saw in your notes for the Inauguration, Mr. President, we all wanted to 'work harder, learn more and reach higher. This is (still) the land of opportunity.'
Thank you for the opportunity to share some ideas about how to jumpstart growth in America, but the secret isn't here -- it's out there. It's out where we must recruit and invest in 'the people who will build the future' of every organization.
It's Martin Luther King's birthday and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The only way to jumpstart growth in America is total engagement of the people -- to emancipate their hearts and souls to realize power doesn't come from the top.
Each of us must emancipate the imagination of our teams and get the hell out of the way. We must give them equal rights to tap their own creativity, get a more practical education and test their own sense of entrepreneurship. Our job is to give them access to tools and resources and accountability so they can be the leaders of their own lives: to write their own futures better than we could ever do for them."
He grinned, shook our hands, and we shuttled to the the Capitol rotunda.