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January 22, 2013

President Obama & Mark's Emergency at the Inauguration

Mark C. Thompson

As expected, we arrived at the White House for a breakfast w President Obama & 12 Silicon Valley entrepreneurs.

While seated at a conference table in the West Wing, I had a personal emergency. Too much coffee. I was about to burst, but there was no way now to sneak out, so I finally got up as if I had better things to do and dashed down the hall. A Secret Service agent followed me to the men's room.

When I came back the table, the President seemed a bit frustrated with one of the stiff CEOs who was finishing a remark. There was a pregnant pause as he finished.

My chair caught on the gold carpet as I struggled to squeeze into my seat unnoticed. All eyes seemed fixed on me.

Before I could sit down, the President asked:

"So, what do you think?"

I had been out of the room and, from the smirk on President Obama's face, he must have known I could not have caught what the topic was. For a moment it felt like one of those nightmares back in school when you're late to class and forgotten the final exam.

But as you said on Twitter this morning... Chance favors the prepared mind. I had been thinking all night about what I wanted to say at this meeting, and I figured this was an opportunity to make a point about entrepreneurship.

Pausing for a moment, I pointed out the window behind me at the crowds swarming in anticipation of the Inauguration:

When I look out the window this morning and then all of us around this table, it's clear we are privileged. But that wasn't always true. Every entrepreneur starts out there in the cold.

Every one of you is self-made. There was no certainty that we'd ever be so cozy in here.

None of us imagined this as a child. In fact, I had a learning disability so I never thought I was better than anyone. I did believe I could get better every day. One thing is for certain, we were all driven. Your speech for the Inauguration, Mr. President, hits the nail on the head. Everyone deserves the right 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 is out there, not in here. It's out there where we must recruit and invest in 'the people who will build the future' of every organization. Those potential leaders work on the shop floor, or a taxi, or as a single parent. They struggle to work out all the government forms to start their own business or reinvent their careers.

It's Martin Luther King's birthday and the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation. The only way to jumpstart growth 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 write their own futures better than we could ever do for them!

Mark C. Thompson is CEO and cofounder of Virgin Unite Mentors, Sir Richard Branson's network for executive coaching and entrepreneurial innovation. A leadership coach, bestselling author, venture capitalist and Tony-nominated Broadway producer, Mark brings real-time solutions to today's leadership challenges. To learn more, visit