When language-learning service Duolingo got an invite from the White House to Tuesday’s inaugural Demo Day celebration of American entrepreneurs, Duolingo leaders expected to meet fellow founders and catch a closing speech from President Barack Obama.
Instead, cofounder Luis von Ahn and VP of marketing and international development Gina Gotthilf were asked to pitch their company directly to Obama, as if he were a potential investor.
“He is extremely intimidating,” Gotthilf said. “But as a human being, he’s very warm and inviting. He was doing everything he could to make the situation as comfortable as possible.”
And while the president was there to promote the efforts of the approximately 30 entrepreneurs who were invited to Demo Day, he moved beyond surface questions and had Gotthilf and von Ahn explain their strategy for making their language-learning software profitable.
The event was held to inspire diversity in America’s startup culture. According to TechCrunch, only about 10% of venture-backed companies in the US have at least one female founder, and according to the White House, only 1% have a black founder.
The entrepreneurs who were invited to Demo Day represented a much more diverse demographic. “The next Steve Jobs might be named Stephanie or Esteban,” Obama said in a speech.
“There will always be challenges in starting your own business, but the institutional support is at an all-time high; that will only further motivate entrepreneurs from all sectors of industry,” said “Shark Tank” investor Daymond John, who was one of the event’s moderators and was also recently named by the White House a presidential ambassador for global entrepreneurship.
John said that he found the collection of entrepreneurs from all walks of life to be both personally inspiring and a hopeful sign of a growing entrepreneur culture.
Jason Crain, cofounder of manufacturing part database app Partpic, said he and his cofounder Jewel Burks were initially incredibly nervous about the prospect of meeting with the president, a hero of theirs, but relaxed after they began speaking with him.
“He’s the man!” Crain said. “I mean seriously, he is in the middle of pitching a nuclear deal to Congress, addressing local terrorism and hate attacks, and celebrating his birthday [he turned 54 Tuesday], but took time out of his day to push the agenda of technology equality and understand Partpic’s business model.
“He didn’t have to do that. We would have been happy with hearing him address the audience or just shaking his hand. His actions show that he cares about small businesses and diversity.”
In his closing speech, Obama mentioned the story of Ramona Pierson, a former Marine who was hit by a drunk driver at 22 and woke up from a coma 18 months later, blind. She went on to help found the learning platform Declara and was able to regain confidence and sight in her left eye after years of surgeries. Her company has raised $US32.5 million and she has become a mentor for fellow LGBT entrepreneurs.
Pierson said that pitching her company to Obama was a pleasure, since he engaged her on an emotional level. “The difference between President Obama and most investors is that he is listening with a view to improve the world rather than to simply advance portfolio value,” she said.
Pierson added that the president’s skillset reminded her of some of Declara’s investors, including Silicon Valley power player Peter Thiel. She thinks the president could make a good VC someday.
“Perhaps President Obama should consider working for a firm like one of these after his term to help guide funding and decision-making to solve real world problems,” she said.
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