A state dinner invitation is, for most people, a once-in-a-lifetime event, which means spouses or mothers are the preferred dates. But at Friday’s White House dinner honoring Chinese President Xi Jinping, we noticed a mini-trend: the business date.
Amid the 200 who attended were a few guests who brought along corporate partners or friends, a strategic move to maximize networking in a room full of political and technology power brokers. Netflix’s Reed Hastings brought his colleague Ted Sarandos, DreamWorks Animation chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg came with Democratic fundraiser Andy Spahn, Apple’s Tim Cook brought company vice president and former Environmental Protection Agency head Lisa Jackson, and Blackstone Group co-founder Stephen Schwarzman teamed up with fellow billionaire Ray Dalio.
Traditionally, invitations to a state dinner are extended to one guest who then is allowed to choose his or her plus-one. For decades, this meant husbands, wives, parents or children— and, for the most part, that remained true Friday night. Billionaires David Rubenstein, Mark Cuban and Mark Zuckerberg brought their wives; director Lee Daniels and singer Ne-Yo showed up with their very proud mothers.
The unconventional couples got little attention because the dinner itself was largely overlooked: It happened during the pope’s historic visit to the United States, it was scheduled for Friday night, and (let’s be honest) state dinners in the seventh year of any administration don’t generate much excitement.
Still, it’s worth taking note. Amid the glamour and elegance of a formal White House dinner, business cards have always been exchanged. Taking a business date instead of a conjugal partner is just acknowledging the value of such VIP face time.
So let’s take a closer look at the business tag teams:
Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings and chief content officer Ted Sarandos.
This was the first state dinner for both men, who left their spouses at home in order to double their exposure in what was an especially business-rich environment. “It gave both Reed and Ted the opportunity to meet those in attendance,” said Netflix spokeswoman Anne Marie Squeo.
Hastings co-founded the company in 1997; Sarandos, named as one Time Magazine’s 100 Most influential People in 2013, is the guy responsible for bringing “House of Cards” and “Orange is the New Black” to the network.
Hastings wants to go global and has made no secret that he wants to be in China, a difficult task for many tech companies. (Facebook, for example, is banned in the country, as are Google and Amazon.) The trick, he told Reuters this summer, is getting the required government clearance and partnerships.
Face time with an official from an emerging capitalist country can’t hurt — and probably helps.
DreamWorks chief executive Jeffrey Katzenberg and political adviser Andy Spahn.
This isn’t Katzenberg’s first rodeo, or Spahn’s. The DreamWorks executive was invited to Obama’s first state dinner, in November of 2009 and brought his wife, Marilyn. Spahn, a former DreamWorks exec turned political consultant, was invited to the state dinner honoring Mexico the following year.
(Fun fact: Katzenberg, along with Steven Spielberg and David Geffen, famously came up for the idea for DreamWorks when they were all guests at Bill Clinton’s 1994 state dinner for Boris Yeltsin.)
With Spahn’s guidance, Katzenberg has become one of the most powerful figures in Democratic fundraising and is widely regarded as the go-to man for any serious liberal candidate. Those relationships proved fruitful when he was looking to expand into China: After meeting a few years ago with Xi Jinping, he was able to open Oriental DreamWorks, a partnership with the studio and the Chinese.
A representative for DreamWorks said Katzenberg invited Spahn to Friday’s dinner because “they work together often.”
Apple chief executive Tim Cook and vice president Lisa Jackson.
Cook picked a former Obama official for the dinner, which makes small talk so much easier, doesn’t it? Jackson, who served as Obama’s administrator of the EPA for four years, was hired by Apple in 2013 as a vice president for environment, policy and social initiatives and reports directly to Cook.
China, of course, is huge for Apple, both in manufacturing and as a burgeoning market. The company is creating products designed for Chinese tastes; sales are exploding.
Cook landed a prized spot at Friday’s head table along with both presidents, Zuckerberg, Katzenberg, Rubenstein, Disney’s Bob Iger, Microsoft’s Satya Nadella and Salesforce’s Marc Benioff.
Blackstone Group co-founder Stephen Schwarzman and Bridgewater Associates founder Ray Dalio.
Perhaps the most interesting couple of the night, the two billionaires are bona fide masters of the universe, hedge fund wizards collectively worth (give or take a bad day on Wall Street) about $25 billion.
Schwarzman and Dalio “have been friends for a number of years,” said Blackstone spokesman Peter Rose, but they also have a China connection. In 2013, Schwarzman donated $100 million to Tsinghua University in Beijing and pledged to raise another $200 million for the international scholarship program.
Schwarzman attended the 2014 White House dinner honoring African leaders and brought Sean Klimczak, a senior managing director at Blackstone who handles investments in Africa. This time, he invited Dalio to come with him.
But his billionaire buddy was not Schwarzman’s first choice for the dinner. That honor went to his wife, who passed for an even better invitation.
“Christine, who is Catholic, attended the papal Mass at Madison Square Garden that evening,” Rose said.