Vocademy goes to the White House

How does one get invited to the White House? A lot of work, a little luck and a good idea.

Gene Sherman with Dean Kamen (right) at the White House Maker Faire on the National Day of Making.

After years of planning, Vocademy opened it’s doors in October of 2013. Because of good timing and my involvement in a local group, Tech CEO Forum, we had the opportunity to have our Congressman, Mark Takano, visit and tour our facility. The congressman had not heard of makerspaces nor the maker movement, but he liked what he saw and understood the impact we could have on our country. A few months later his office launched The Congressional Maker Caucus “to promote America’s growing maker economy”; Vocademy was mentioned by name in the press release. The congressman’s office also helped spread the word about our “education-focused” makerspace around Washington and people were beginning to talk. A few months later, an invitation-only White House Maker Faire was announced, with no date being given.

Meanwhile, Maker Mayor and Maker City initiatives were starting around the country. The moment we found out, we wanted to get our mayor and the City Of Riverside involved. Since both city hall and Mayor Bailey were already big supporters of our mission, they gladly signed up! Together, we are really putting Riverside on the “maker map.” As a small business with big dreams, you cannot imagine how good it feels to have the support of your local government and the community. Fast forward to June 4th and The White House announces the date for the Maker Faire. There would be 100 invited guests and I didn’t think much of it. There was no chance we would get to participate. Until, on June 11th, I received an email that read “On behalf of the White House, it is my great pleasure to invite Gene Sherman as an honored maker to the first-ever White House Maker Faire” and that’s when this adventure began….

The first-ever White House Maker Faire was not merely an exhibition for Makers. It was a symbolic gesture on behalf of The Capital to tell the Maker Movement what many of us have known for a long time: that we, the Makers, are the innovative backbone of this nation. Not only are we getting the recognition we deserve, but we are now beginning to get the government support that is necessary for the Maker Movement to continue to grow and to reach it’s full potential. On June 18th, I was one of 100 Makers to attend this first-ever event, an experience that left me feeling inspired and empowered in my goal to make more Makers. Thirty of the guests were Exhibiting Makers, they got to show off what they created, while 50 of us were “Honored Makers” who were invited because we are considered leaders of this movement. I fell into this group because some folks in Washington felt that our unique business model could help solve a number of problems, such as the massive skills gap, the lack of hands-on education, providing access to the tools of making and more. So on June 16th, Vocademy’s Marketing Specialist, Neeley Fluke,  and I flew to DC….

Tuesday, the day before the Faire, I was invited to attend a briefing on the Maker Movement, hosted by Intel in conjunction with the Maker Caucus, STEAM Caucus, and the E-Learning Caucus. I knew something special was happening when I entered the room, which was so full that the audience eventually took up all standing space. I felt tremendous pride in knowing that my representative, Congressman Takano, was partially responsible for the amazing buzz happening around this briefing. Congressman Takano’s Deputy Chief of Staff, Yuri Beckelman, hosted the proceedings. I felt incredibly honored that during opening proceedings he mentioned my name and told the crowd how Congressman Takano was unaware of the Maker Movement until he visited his local makerspace. It was a very special moment for me to realize that I, too, had a (however small) part in bringing those people together. There was a panel that spoke to the 150 or so people in the room for about an hour. The main panelist was Dale Dougherty, founder of Make Magazine, the Maker Faires and the man I consider the godfather of this movement. Listening to him speak is an absolute pleasure and I highly recommend people watch his interviews and TV appearances. I’d like to think that after this trip I can call him a friend. We are certainly on the same mission to “make makers.”

Maker Summit; Dale Dougherty (right) hosting a panel about children and making.

Soon after the speakers were finished, we made some connections, exchanged some cards and left for the next event; the Maker Summit, hosted by MAKE Media. It was held in TechShop DC, a beautiful facility located a few miles away. There were many fantastic speakers and they covered a wide range of Maker-related topics you can watch them all here. Many of the White House Maker Faire invitees were in attendance at the summit, and it was wonderful to spend this time getting to know some of them. Also present were entrepreneurs, corporate representatives, and educators. Regardless of our professional backgrounds, it was obvious that each person was there because of their love of making and passion for spreading the Maker Movement. One of the consistent conversations was how we need to get kids, young kids involved in making and as soon as possible, but still have these tools available for people of all ages. We made some very good connections and got to know a few of the people we have only known on-line. Including the three amazing women that run the Maker Faires! At the same time we were at this Summit, President Obama was at another TechShop speaking about “Manufacturing and Innovation.”. It was a fantastic day and there was still the White House tomorrow….

But first… let me take a selfie.

I was instructed to arrive at a certain White House gate between 9:30 and 10am or the doors would close. Even with leaving a hour early, Neeley dropped me off at 9:45 and I passed through security. A short walk and I entered the White House. It was cool, I don’t know how else to describe it. I know there are White House tours, but I was going in as an invited guest. I walked down a few corridors where some Exhibiting Makers had their projects on display and ended up one the first floor. There were dozens of people meeting and greeting and checking out the exhibits set -up in the “Cross Hall” and the “State Dining Room.” People were taking pictures in the Red, Green and Blue rooms. I, being the grown up CEO, wandered off and took a bathroom selfie. Some things you do just to make your own kids happy and it worked. Then I had to make an important call, to my grandmother, to tell her I was calling from the White House; she cried tears of joy.  Not bad for an immigrant family from the former Soviet Union.

I mingled with a lot of interesting people, saw a few familiar faces and made new connections. Even took some pictures with people I admire and made some new friends. The overarching sentiment in everyone was how good it felt to be here, in the White House, and surrounded by people who are makers, loved making and who wanted making to become more popular in the mainstream. People who could actually have an influence where it mattered. At around 10:45 we were all shuffled into the East Room for the President’s speech. The room was PACKED with about 150 people and press. I was lucky enough to get an aisle seat with a clear view from about 30 feet away. I was even more fortunate to be seated next to a NASA Administrator, and we had a nice chat about how engineers MUST have hands-on skills. We heard that the President was viewing the exhibits then, at about 11:20 he entered the room. He pointed out some of the key people in the maker movement (like Dale Doughery) and pointed out other special guests like Bill Nye, Dean Kamen, and our Congressman Takano. It was surreal to hear President Obama speak the same mantra that I have for many years. His speech was awesome. Here are my favorite quotes:

  • “Today’s DIY is tomorrow Made In America” “If you can imagine it, then you can do it — whatever it is. That’s a pretty good motto for America.”
  • “We’ve got to make sure that more Americans have the skills and opportunities to land a job in a growing industry, or to create entirely new industries.”
  • “There are kids out there, there are adults out there, right now, who have a great idea. And they don’t have access to the capital they need. They don’t have the tools they need to put together a prototype. They don’t know how to link up with folks who could help refine those ideas. And what the Maker Movement does, what technology does, what the information revolution does is it allows all those folks to suddenly be a part of this creative process.”
  • ” And what better place to do that than here in the United States of America? This is a place where we know how to invent and we know how to dream and we know how to take risks. And this is a place where people who work hard have always been able to make it. We want to make sure that continues.”
  • “I hope every company, every college, every community, every citizen joins us as we lift up makers, and builders, and doers across the country.”
  • “So that’s why I’m declaring today (June 18th) a National Day of Making”

It felt as if he was giving an abbreviated version of my TEDx Talk from 2011 about the Importance Of Making Things. Without exception, the room was nodding and smiling. Everyone who goes to Washington has an agenda, and we were there with ours. We need to bring back Shop Classes to our middle and high schools, we need to give people these hands-on skills and here was the most powerful man on Earth agreeing with us! President Obama also issued a written proclamation, in which he acknowledged the importance of makerspaces to the future of America:

Today, more and more Americans are gaining access to 21st century tools, from 3D printers and scanners to design software and laser cutters. Thanks to the democratization of technology, it is easier than ever for inventors to create just about anything. Across our Nation, entrepreneurs, students, and families are getting involved in the Maker Movement. My Administration is increasing their access to advanced design and research tools while organizations, businesses, public servants, and academic institutions are doing their part by investing in makerspaces and mentoring aspiring inventors.

After the speech, we all shuffled back into the hall and continued to have our conversations. I met up with Congressman Takano and he invited us to lunch the next day. The White House event itself was a mere four hours, but the impact was significant. As I spoke with people at the Faire, I quickly learned that word about Vocademy had spread, and I was being met by great enthusiasm and excitement to the concept of our education-focused makerspace. After the White House event, we met up with many of the attendees for dinner and conversation. We made some of our best connections at these after-events.

Gene Sherman with Congressman Mark Takano (right)

Thursday we met with the Congressman and his Chief of Staff, Yuri, for lunch. The entire conversation revolved about how he and his office can help Vocademy be successful. We, in turn, offered our help as ambassadors for the Maker Movement. We are incredibly grateful for the help they have give us. They are a big part of why we got invited and we are thankful to them. We also discussed an upcoming event that will be hosting in the Inland Empire. We will be releasing the details shorty, but when we do, it will be big news!

I left Washington DC with confidence, knowing that so many people see the value of Vocademy on a community-based and national level. The future of Vocademy is promising, and with the many new contacts that were made during my short time in DC, I am hopeful that we will soon be working on replicating our education-focused makerspace across the nation! Vocademy’s success will also enable us continue the battle to bring back Shop Class.

Please help us spread the word that hands-on skills matter and we always welcome conversations about partnerships, scholarships and other opportunities.


Lets MAKE things happen!

Gene Sherman
Founder/CEO
Vocademy – The Makerspace