By Austin Ramirez
Chief Executive Officer, HUSCO International
This column was published in the 2017 edition of Wisconsin Business Voice.
I first learned of the White House Fellowship in 2003, when a colleague at McKinsey & Company encouraged me to apply for the program. I was in my early 20’s at the time, with a casual interest in politics but a laser-like focus on building my business career. Thirteen years later, frustrated with the deterioration of civility and thoughtful discourse among our political leaders, I decided it was time to stop complaining and start trying to make a difference.
Founded in 1964 by President Lyndon Johnson, the White House Fellowship is considered one of America’s most prestigious leadership development program. Each year, 10-20 mid-career military and private sector leaders are selected to serve for 12 months as paid, full-time staff to senior White House leaders or Cabinet-level government officials. It is a non-partisan program and provides an unparalleled opportunity to experience working at the highest level of the Federal Government. Notable alumni of the program include General Colin Powell, Missouri Governor Eric Greitens and CNN correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
It was the honor of a lifetime to be selected to serve as a White House Fellow in June of 2016, after a six month application process and three grueling days of interviews in Washington, DC. After being selected, I interviewed at 14 federal offices including the Department of Defense, United States Trade Representative and the Office of Management and Budget. I was ultimately placed at my top choice, the National Economic Council, where I reported for work in August. In the six weeks between being selected as a Fellow and starting my new job at the White House, I implemented an interim leadership structure at HUSCO, relocated my wife and two young children, transitioned out of seven nonprofit boards, ran a 100-mile trail race at elevations between 9,000 and 12,000 feet, and secured a top-secret clearance. So you can say it was a hectic time.
My time working in the White House was uniquely defined by the transition between President Obama and President Trump. I had the opportunity to observe these men operate in both public and private settings, and I worked closely with their respective teams to wind down one administration and ramp up another. My work responsibilities included policy development related to self-driving cars, unmanned aerial vehicles, smart city technology, semiconductor industrial policy and manufacturing. During my year as a Fellow I had the opportunity to work in the Oval Office, attend meetings at the United Nations in New York, interview members of parliament in the African nation of Swaziland and land a jet on a working aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean. My kids trick-or-treated at the White House and rolled Easter eggs on the South Lawn. My wife and I toasted President Obama at his last White House Holiday party and witnessed President Trump’s inauguration from the National Mall.
I am immensely grateful for the opportunity to serve these past 12 months, but more frustrated than ever with the inability of our elected leaders to deliver the policy solutions that our country so desperately needs. My time in Washington renewed my love for HUSCO and deepened my pride in the vital impact that small- to mid-sized manufactures have on our nation’s economy. It reinvigorated my commitment to the Milwaukee community as one the best places in the country to live, work and run a business; and it ignited a desire to do what I can to help transform the broken incentive structure that rewards unproductive behavior by our representatives in Washington and Madison.
Years from now, I hope I look back at this formative time as the spark that drove me to more fully engage in issues that matter to our community and our country. It’s a responsibility we all share, and is one I now take more seriously than ever.