President Obama pays visit to start-up hub 1776 on day before the Fourth of July


President Obama speaks about job numbers and the economy during his visit to 1776, a tech start-up hub based in the District. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

President Obama spent the morning before the Fourth of July in a fitting location: 1776, the District hub for technology start-ups that was named for the year America’s forefathers declared independence.

The president used the bulk of his hour-long visit to tour the start-up hub’s 12th-floor office space and hear quick business pitches from roughly 40 of the dozens of young companies that work in such fields as health care, energy, education and transportation.

Then, like a venture capitalist considering an investment, Obama started asking questions: What’s your business model? What’s your mobile strategy? How will you handle the competition?

1776 is no stranger to political visitors, but Obama will certainly be the highest-profile signature in the guest book to date. In April 2013, Queen Rania of Jordan spent time at the start-up hub.

“For many politicians, sometimes what you’re hearing is the words that have been written for them, and it was clear to me he not only had a firm grasp on the importance of start-ups but how all the myriad issues impact them,” 1776 co-founder Donna Harris said.


President Obama gets a tutorial on how to use the RideScout app from the start-up's Vice President of Business Development John Gossart. (Photo courtesy of RideScout )

The visit wasn’t void of politics. Obama remarked on the nation’s economic outlook — highlighting numbers from an employment report released Thursday that shows the economy has gained 200,000-plus jobs for five consecutive months.

The president also reiterated his administration’s desire to raise the minimum wage, give women equal pay, reform immigration policy and fund new highway projects — an economic agenda that Obama has vowed to pursue through executive orders and legislation.

“We can make even more progress if Congress is willing to work with my administration and to set politics aside, at least occasionally, which I know is what the American people are urgently looking for,” Obama said. [Read his full remarks below.]

Obama’s visit came as a surprise to Harris and her 1776 co-founder Evan Burfield, who were sitting down to a 10 a.m. meeting with some of the office’s occupants when they were told the president would soon be en route.

“We had a visit from the Secret Service to check the place out, so we knew it was on his radar,” Harris said. “But we got a call this morning that said he would be here in an hour.”

“It was stunning,” Burfield added. “Ten minutes after the call, there were Secret Service, dogs, guns, swarming the place.”

The start-ups who would soon get a face-to-face meeting with the president of the United States had even less notice. Matt Caywood, the president of TransitScreen, was on his way to a business meeting when he received an e-mail about the visit. He turned around quickly.

The day the Bureau of Labor Statistics released a report showing the U.S. added more than 200,000 jobs for the fifth-straight month, President Obama spoke about the encouraging numbers from D.C. startup hub 1776. (Associated Press)

Caywood had nearly two minutes to sell Obama on his company’s vision of installing screens in building lobbies that provide commuters with status updates on trains, buses and other forms of public transit.

“I’ve been in some pitch contests before but, I have to say, the pressure was a little more intense here and the preparation time was a little bit less,” Caywood said.

The executive team from RideScout, a smartphone app that also provides real-time transit updates, was sitting down to a morning strategy meeting when they got word of the impending arrival. In seconds, they were out of their chairs and straightening up their desks, said communications manager Rachel Charlesworth.

The company, which is founded by veterans, had a full six minutes with Obama, Charlesworth said, during which the president picked up an iPad to get a hands-on feel for their app.

“He really was interested in talking to a number of start-ups,” Charlesworth said. “He wasn’t just interested in getting a tour. He was interested in talking to people.”

REMARKS BY THE PRESIDENT ON THE ECONOMY

1776 - Washington, D.C.

11:57 A.M. EDT

THE PRESIDENT: So we’re going into the 4th of July weekend and what more appropriate place to be than 1776. (Applause.) This is an incubator for all sorts of tech startups, a lot of them focused on social change issues, on education, on health care. And so we’ve got a range of entrepreneurs who are trying to figure out how can we do well by doing good, in many cases.

And I just have to say that the young people -- and some not so young people -- (laughter) -- that I spoke to, coming from a wide range of backgrounds -- we had former Army Rangers; we had lawyers; we had former HR folks, transportation experts, engineers -- all of them had the kind of energy and drive and creativity and innovation that has been the hallmark of the American economy.

And part of the reason I wanted to come here today is to focus on what’s happened in the U.S. economy over the last several months and last several years. We just got a jobs report today showing that we’ve now seen the fastest job growth in the United States in the first half of the year since 1999. (Applause.) So this is also the first time we’ve seen five consecutive months of job growth over 200,000 since 1999. (Applause.) And we’ve seen the quickest drop in unemployment in 30 years.

So it gives you a sense that the economy has built momentum, that we are making progress. We’ve now seen almost 10 million jobs created over the course of the last 52 months. And it should be a useful reminder to people all across the country that given where we started back in 2008, we have made enormous strides, thanks to the incredible hard work of the American people and American businesses that have been out there competing, getting smarter, getting more effective. And it’s making a difference all across the country.

Now, what we also know is, as much progress as has been made, there are still folks out there who are struggling. We still have not seen as much increase in income and wages as we’d like to see. A lot of folks are still digging themselves out of challenges that arose out of the Great Recession.

Historically, financial crises take a longer time to recover from. We’ve done better than the vast majority of other countries over the last five years, but that drag has still meant a lot of hardship for a lot of folks. And so it’s really important for us to understand that we could be making even stronger process, we could be growing even more jobs, we could be creating even more business opportunities for smart, talented folks like these if those of us here in Washington were focused on them, focused on you, the American people, rather than focused on politics.

And I’ve given a number of examples over the last several months of things we know would work if we are investing in rebuilding our infrastructure -- that doesn’t just put construction workers back to work, that puts engineers back to work, that puts landscape architects back to work, it puts folks who are manufacturing concrete or steel back to work. It makes a difference and it has huge ripple effects all across the economy.

If we are serious about increasing the minimum wage, that puts more money in the pockets of people who are most likely to spend it. They, in turn, are most likely to hire more people because they now have more customers who are frequenting their businesses. If we are making sure that there’s equal pay for equal work, that’s helping families all across the country. If we’re focused on making sure that childcare is accessible and affordable and high-quality, that frees up a whole bunch of potential entrepreneurs, as well as people who are just going to work every single day, doing the right thing, being responsible, but often are hampered by difficult situations in terms of trying to manage parenting and families.

And so there are just a series of specific things we can do right now -- many of them I’m doing on my own because we have the administrative authority to do it, but some of them we can’t do without Congress. We can’t fix a broken immigration system that would allow incredibly talented folks who want to start businesses here and create jobs here in the United States, would allow them to stay and make those investments. That’s something that we need Congress to help us on. (Applause.) We’re not going to be able to fund the Highway Trust Fund and to ramp up our investment in infrastructure without acts of Congress.

So my hope is, is the American people look at today’s news and understand that, in fact, we are making strides. We have not seen more consistent job growth since the ‘90s. But we can make even more progress if Congress is willing to work with my administration and to set politics aside, at least occasionally -- (laughter) -- which I know is what the American people are urgently looking for.

It’s a sort of economic patriotism where you say to yourself, how is it that we can start rebuilding this country to make sure that all of the young people who are here but their kids and their grandkids are going to be able to enjoy the same incredible opportunities that this country offers as we have. That’s our job. That’s what we should be focused on. And it’s worth remembering as we go into Independence Day.

Thanks, everybody. Appreciate it. Thanks. (Applause.)

END 12:04 P.M. EDT

Steven Overly covers the business of technology, biotechnology and venture capital in the Washington region for The Washington Post and its weekly Capital Business publication. In that capacity, he has written about start-up struggles, investment trends and major drug discoveries.
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