How I Snuck Backstage to Meet President Barack Obama, Sir Richard Branson, Oprah and Ashton Kutcher
How I Snuck Backstage to Meet President Barack Obama, Sir Richard Branson, Oprah and Ashton Kutcher — But Didn’t Get That Selfie
What I Learned Sneaking Around the Qualtrics X4 Conference
My life changed when I snuck backstage to where my heroes: President Barack Obama, Richard Branson, and Ashton Kutcher, were all hanging out at Qualtrics X4.
I didn’t think life would change again after my daughter was born in August of 2018. From being one of those entrepreneurs who hustled 12 hours a day, my priorities quickly shifted from business and my own goals to being there for my daughter and giving her love.
Suddenly, paternity leave and skin-to-skin time was priceless, and becoming a hands-on dad — I believe — forever changed my neural makeup, that into one of more love for the world.
When I went back to work, I noticed a slight decrease in my own personal production, which I believe has impacted our company. I was probably performing at 70% of what I normally did and our company numbers showed it tool.
But what was weird though was that I was surprisingly okay with this — I still wanted to work on numbers and get them up to at least 100% over last year, but my largest priorities in life are now my wife and my daughter. I want to give them my undivided attention when they need it.
You could say fatherhood does things to you, or put more accurately, changes you.
My life changed “again” forever when my wife and I went through sleep training a couple weeks back and my daughter started sleeping through the night.
As I’m typing this, I can imagine all the fathers in the world breathe a collective sigh of relief,
“Sanity has come!”
(My apologies to the random strangers I hugged or pointed at cheerily walking down the street — that was likely my dad-brain taking over. How it feels good to be getting some zzz’s again!)
So with newfound sleep, I was re-inspired by my life coach to start looking into creating again, both in my business and personal life. I love my life coach. We meet monthly (when I’m on it) and he knows exactly what is lacking in my life by asking really good questions and listening. Thank you Daniel Fine!
As an adult, I’m not excited to meet many celebrities, or see bands play and “meet the band”.
But, there are some all-star people in my life whom I think truly “get it”. These people have influenced me so much, in such a profound way that I just want to thank them and connect with them, possibly share a couple moments on this planet to just let our souls connect for a minute.
There is something about them that feels so present and genuine — whether it’s their approach to business, their lives, or simply the way they think, but most impressively how they all give back so much.
Richard Branson is on the top of the list. What makes Richard my biggest role model is the fact that he has been able to raise two admirable children, who are now raising their own children who — I’m sure — are admirable and ready to change the world for the better.
His two kids, Sam and Holly, are so unpretentious and humble, and just want to do what’s good in the world, like their father, and grandmother. Sam embarked on a three-month dogsled expedition to the Arctic to raise awareness about climate change, while Holly climbed Mont Blanc to launch Big Change. They are both dedicated to the Strive Challenge and while Holly has an active role in Virgin Unite, Sam is a founder of Sundog Pictures, which, I believe, are telling relevant and much-needed stories.
If you look backwards, you’ll also notice Richard’s remarkable parents and his still shifting-the-world 95 year old mother, Eve.
Eve, through the Eve Branson Foundation, enriches the lives of people in Morocco, providing skills training and education to young women. How did this happen? She was visiting Morocco before Richard went off on one of his hot air balloon trips and fell in love with the culture and the people, and now gives back to the area. Seeing a trend?
So why does this make Richard #1 on my list? No disrespect to the others — I’m sure they all have family as a high priority, but at a time when I read many entrepreneurial books by entrepreneurial legends, it always seemed they forgot about their children on their path.
As an aside, being from a big family myself, and knowing what present parents can bring, I decided I wouldn’t get married or have kids. I’d save them the hassle and just start a business.
But when I read Richard’s autobiography (he recently wrote a second one!), I was so very relieved to learn of someone who has shifted the world through entrepreneurship AND sowed love and compassion and drive into his children (with his wife’s help of course) at the same time.
So when I heard all four of these all-stars were going to speak at Qualtrics X4 this year, I had to go. Just a quick side note again: Ryan Smith, the founder of Qualtrics is legit, the real thing. I witnessed how he cares and works with his people, and I’d like to think it’s no happenstance a panel of such ethical, socially-conscious all-stars were all present that moment.
(Ryan, if you ever read this, you can hate me, or press charges, or both..)
So, with sleep training still in process back at home with my wife, I could only dedicate one day to this conference as I would have felt too guilty leaving her for two nights while we’re just starting off sleep training.
Luckily 3 of the 4 speakers were talking on the same day (Oprah was slated to speak on the next). My goal was to not only get re-inspired as the new dadpreneur that I am, but also meet Richard Branson and get some of the above mentioned soul time.
But, how to meet Richard? My wife’s friend’s son’s best friend’s dad is best friends with Richard Branson! YES!
But that felt too slimy, to ask favors of all of those people.
So I waited for Richard to tweet something and then challenged him to a game of chess in Salt Lake City. Taking some words of advice from Dale Carnegie when nothing else works — throw down a challenge!
After this I promoted the tweet to try to get some love and put some social pressure on my role model (I know, what a nice tactic to get some soul touch time — don’t worry, it gets worse). The tweet got some love, but went unanswered, likely because my desperate message wasn’t as compelling compared to other Branson fans.
I got deep with it and tried to pray and meditate to think of the best way to approach this problem. The next thing that came to mind was that I just needed to at least show up, and use any persistence I could.
Deal. I’ll show up as the first person in line for the show, Branson will see I’m DEDICATED and — I don’t know — it’ll work. I know, how foolish. So I get to the conference right at check in time at 7:00am and to my surprise, so did a lot of others.
Talk about line, this thing was already FAR down the hallway with probably 500 or so already lined up. I spoke to the people standing in the front of the line, two professors from “the U” or what I found later, should have been called “the U U”, The University of Utah. They went to the conference last year and found the doors actually open around 5:30am to 6:00 am, so they were waiting outside. The CEO of Qualtrics, Ryan Smith, let them in, and they lined up immediately.
I went to grab some caffeine and brainstorm ways how I could get in as at least one of the first 100 attendees.
I couldn’t cut the line, but perhaps there was a different way in to the room?
I spotted a door further away from the entrance and, instead of risking it working and me going in early, I’d try to open it after about 10 or so people went in.
While waiting for 8am, I befriended a lot of other marketers and found the crowd to be full of true hustlers and people just eager to learn and see these speakers. Finally the line started, which was now winding around the whole conference center like a 3,000 person caterpillar and I went for the door!
It was locked, so was the one next to it. And now, instead of being able to go in as #500, I’d probably be # 3,500. So I stayed waiting by the door for a time when someone might exit, giving myself a limit of 30 minutes or I’d just wait in line, defeated for a second time in the morning.
With 5 minutes to go, the door opened! I moved towards it, and it quickly shut again. I got closer, and when the time limit hit, the door opened again! I courteously held it for the two ladies leaving the room, and went in! I was probably #700 into the hall — a fail — but I’ll take what I can get.
I walk to the front and notice about 5 full rows all around the stage that are reserved. WHAT! So now, unless I can get into one of these seats, I’ll have to sit in row 6 at the minimum, which will be way too far for me and R. Branson to get some bonding in.
As I was creeping around in the reserved section for far too long looking for my “the U” professors, I noticed another guy I befriended by a tea stand, James. I asked him whom he was most excited to see. He answered Obama.
I told him my story and let him know I’d pay up to $200 to sit in his seat for Richard Branson. He said he felt bad, but I insisted. He said he’d do it for $100. So I gave him the $60 cash I had, and promised to get the rest out of an ATM later that day.
Sir Richard Branson
So when the time came, I left my seat behind a pillar and walked forward and couched by the row. James glanced at me, made eye contact, and left his seat while giving me a fist pump as he left. MY GUY!
And then it happened, all of a sudden, my lifetime role model is walking out from behind the stage and doing a goofy little dance. In multiple interviews I’ve heard Richard mention he doesn’t particularly like public speaking, and much rather would speak in an interview style and that’s exactly what this was. You could tell he was a little nervous, but after his first story, he was completely relaxed and present, and ready to have some fun! Maybe he’ll look my way I thought!
Richard got into his multiple projects around the world and covered some of his favorites, The Elders, Virgin Unite, and Virgin Galactic along with his other space and orbit companies.
Some notes I hope you’ll find useful:
At Virgin, Richard says they have all employees draw a circle. This circle is for them. They should always be making sure they’re taking care of themselves, their health and their well-being. Virgin practices what they preach by giving unlimited paid vacations to most employees in their companies. After this circle, they can then draw one for their family. And then for their friends, other family, neighbors. From here, their community, and so on.
I found this to be very touching. Often I find myself watching my daughter or talking to my wife, or even thinking about big world problems, but I hadn’t eaten lunch for the day, or meditated in the morning or exercised.
I totally agree with Virgin in the approach to first make sure we’re taking care of ourselves, so that our full cup can then be spread to others. I also love the way he slowly spreads it out. I find it very important to take care of my family first before a community project. Once I can do this, then I’ll be more equipped to help with community projects (which I am trying to do, see firebusters.tech).
When Richard was asked about what makes a lasting relationship, like him and his wife Joan have, he answered:
“Remember your partner is always right, but also remember to get some alone time. I find couples can get too clingy, and it’s good to get a week or two off on your own.”
When asked about his team, Richard mentioned he tries to give everything to his team, and encourages all Virgin brands to do so. “If someone is creating a rocket ship and they need a Kosher lunch, we need to make sure to get them a Kosher lunch.”
He also likes to promote within and give second chances. Not only to his employees if they make a mistake, but also to felons. Virgin and Branson are dedicated to hiring ex-felons and have found this that when given the chance, they will not recommit crimes.
Branson also mentioned the best way to market or work on customer experience is simply, “building a brand people want to talk about.”
As some videos were playing, I tried to catch Richard’s eye. As he left I clapped on my feet with the rest of them, and slowly found myself back in my seat behind a pillar. What to do now to see my role model?
Before I could think about it too much, Ashton Kutcher comes out and looks REVVED up.
Later when I was backstage I found he was speaking to the Obamas (yes, Michelle was in town too!) and I think they really sparked something in him. I also learned this was not the speech Ashton had planned.
So AK comes out, breaths slowly, and you can tell he is just fully there and fired up. He wants to have some “real talk”. EVERYBODY STAND UP he says.
He goes on to telling us all that he is there right now as his full Self, that yes, he is one of Forbes most inspirational people, but he also went to jail for 3rd degree burglary as a young adult. Yes, he is more than just a model or Hollywood actor, he is fighting sex trafficking and advocating for child abuse survivors.
WAKE UP TO YOUR FULL SELF, he said over and over again. Let’s be authentic with every part of who we were in the past, and forgive each other, and be here NOW as our full Selves.
I have to give Ashton credit for being the most authentic speaker of the day. He didn’t leave anything back and was definitely being completely real.
Ashton went on to talk about his poor upbringing and how he is scared about our current situation and our future.
“90% of the wealth is held by 10%,” he mentioned, “and it’s not getting better.”
He went on to say how he believes this gap will only be spread as the ultra-rich are able to utilize AI and biohacking to improve themselves and their companies, thereby bringing more of a divide.
With tears in his eyes, he mentioned his fear for poor children who won’t be able to keep up with the “rich kids” who are able to use biohacking and AI for their advantage.
I personally grew up with 6 siblings and my dad worked a corporate gig 9–5 while my mom watched us. Our vacations for a while were us driving for an hour and all cramming in to a Holiday Inn. So I get this fear and appreciate Ashton so passionately asking us all to “WAKE UP” and urging us to take action on solving some of these issues.
I don’t share the same fearful view though of our future. I see biohacking, AI and other technologies as having a huge impact on the future of society, but I also know there will always be ultra-rich folks like Richard Branson, Ashton Kutcher, and Barack Obama out there to solve problems as they arise. I also know there are other entrepreneurs who can be scrappy to help solve problems as they arise.
I’ll end Ashton’s notes by saying he himself isn’t 100% sure he’s had a full breakthrough in life, but he knows when they come.
“A breakthrough happens when something is itching at you so much that you feel it in your stomach and you are overtaken by the need to to take action on it.”
He mentioned when you’re thinking about and trying to solve real problems, this tends to arise.
There was no question as to who the majority of the attendees were there to see when the 44th President of the United States was announced.
Barack Obama, walking out so calm and cooly, waved to the crowd. Still a former President, but now even more relaxed, calm, and confident.
Barack got right into nuggets of knowledge, jokes, and engagement. When asked how he was able to handle such difficult decisions, he gave some great insight.
He mentioned with tough decisions as a President, most of the time they aren’t right or wrong. It’s sometimes 51% right, sometimes 55%. He said you need to look at all of the true facts and possibilities and make a decision from there. He also mentioned surrounding yourself with people that don’t just agree with you. He also mentioned, multiple times, to surround yourself with people smarter than you.
He went further into this “hiring experts” theme in multiple stories, but one that stood out was when the BP oil crisis happened.
As the crisis unfolded, he felt terrible that they couldn’t solve the problem, and to add on to that, his girls were saying, “Daddy, can’t you fix this? Pelicans are dying…” Which made him feel even worse.
He said it’s moment like this when your experts shine.
His Energy Secretary, Steven Chu, was a Nobel Prize winner and an expert physicist. Within a couple of days Dr. Chu walked into Obama’s office with a napkin looking thing and mentioned this hat type object would most likely stop the leak, which it ultimately did.
Obama, humbly and truthfully, mentioned how he was so grateful to have hired so many experts to help during his Presidency. And went on to give more examples.
He also attributes his excellent team to a theme he used early on. He would mention to everyone even joining his Senate campaign that they need to be there for the MUTUAL MISSION, it’s not about him or them — it’s about the mission. He found that him and his team having this as their North Star allowed them to weed out the selfish self-promoter types.
He also mentioned, when asked when he thought he ran the country the best, that in his second term his ego fell away. He mentioned not having to worry about approval ranking and just worrying about things as they arose and doing truly what was right. He said he also had more confidence in himself, and realized if he did make a mistake, he and his team could quickly fix it.
This hit home for me.
If I reflect enough, I can catch so many things I do with my business that are probably more filled with my personal ego than what’s best for the company, or some weird goals I had prior set up.
It’s when I have my ego at bay I’m able to create the best solutions.
Being an entrepreneur, I’ve always been a fan of the Libertarian party and low taxes.
When working with airports, I was very discouraged at our government and how slow running and scared to mess up everyone seemed. Obama made this all feel better for me though when he mentioned how efficient things need to get in the West Wing.
Also, with regards to taxes, he made a profound statement:
“Taxes pay for a civilized country.”
Let me repeat that, “Taxes pay for a civilized country.”
He went on to elaborate by saying, everyone needs a watering hole, the lions, giraffes, zebras. Libertarians would speculate that people saving money from not paying as many taxes could then donate more money to charitable causes that mean a lot to them.
From Obama’s statement of keeping a “civilized country” though, everything came into perspective.
As a new father I was able to take paid paternity leave with some government funds that I paid into as a California employee. Imagine how many new fathers around our state have also taken advantage of this package to spend paid time with their newborns?
They also probably greatly appreciate the bonding and skin-to-skin time they were able to have with their babies. This then leads to less single-parent homes, which in turn then leads to less juvenile crimes.
How many of us would actually have the foresight to invest in paid paternity leave? Not me, but with these statistics and after becoming a father, I truly see how this is helping keep a “civilized country”.
How many other government funded programs are doing the same? I’d argue a lot. I’d also argue government positions are helping to keep the watering hole filled.
Obama also mentioned how he kept filters up during his presidency and how he still keeps them up today. He doesn’t read comments in social media, doesn’t watch cable TV, and never listens to media.
If he gets good press, it could be a false sense of security and go to his head.
If it’s bad press, it could make him feel bad.
Instead, he seeks feedback from those around him and gets facts he needs as they come in. To my view, this is a wise way to stay in tune with what is really important and not get distracted by one sided press. I think our current President could learn from this.
The last question asked of Obama was what he’d like us all to remember him for. Humbly, as the whole conversation was, Obama mentioned he’s traveled to a lot of places in the country and met with a lot of people. What he wanted us to walk away with wasn’t what he wanted to be remembered for, but something else, and something much more needed.
“For all of the problems and division our country is facing, what we have in common is more,” he said.
This is what he wanted us to walk away with.
Let me repeat that, “For all of the problems and division our country is facing, what we have in common is more.”
How My Life Changed Again
We are all human.
Underneath the surface, we all actually care about each other.
It’s sad that it often takes traumatic events for people to truly come together, but how beautiful people are after they happen.
After Katrina, 9/11, the Nice attack that my wife and I survived, and so many other catastrophes, how beautiful people are. “What we have in common is more”.
Deeply inspired from all of the talks, I still felt a strong need to meet my role model, Richard Branson.
I was thinking, there is always a back door.
The 8,000+ people that were just present to watch the show were now being herded like sheep to get lunch. I grabbed a quick lunch and headed for the exit door in the back which was right next to where the stage exit would be. As I left, I saw a guarded entrance to what looked like it would be backstage.
I calmly ate my vegetarian catered food as I saw police officers and secret service agents getting into cars and leaving from a backdoor. I didn’t see Richard leave.
After I finished my meal I confidently opened the back door where everyone was leaving from and entered. WOAH! I made it!
Keeping my cool, I acted busy and important with my headphones in and kept my head down. There were beautiful white couches, a nice drink table and the vibe was that of a VIP section of a Vegas trendy bar.
There were trailer looking rooms in the back that had to be where the speakers went. I walked past one, then another, and then I saw one that had a backpack, I walked further and saw the door read, “Sir Richard Branson.” YES!!! I had finally made it and was seeing Richard Branson’s backpack!!! Should I write him a love letter and slip it in the room!? No, I had to keep my cool.
I went back to a couch where no one was sitting and tried to just act like the others backstage. I took out my laptop and looked busy and caught up on work as I waited for Richard, MY GUY, to come back.
I started to feel bad though. This person that’s my role model probably gets requests everywhere he goes.
Would something I say to him even really matter much to him, or was this just a dumb approach for me to get some social proof?
My goal was to meet him and take a picture that I’d place in my office to remember to be a better, more well rounded person.
But, I also just wanted to sincerely thank him for helping me realize I could be an entrepreneur and a good dad, and I wanted to congratulate him on his two awesome kids, and the fact that he’s now a “grand-dude” to I’m sure some remarkable grandkids!
Is this really keeping my role model’s best interest in mind or am I bugging him (in what he wouldn’t know — but definitely is — a very asshole way of sneaking backstage)?
As I stayed backstage, I got to get a better feel for the CEO, Ryan Smith, who was putting on the event. He was speaking with employees, speakers, his assistant and genuinely seemed to care about what he is working on. He genuinely seemed to want to give value to all of the attendees present at his event. My initial intuition about him seemed right in the fact that he chose all of the speakers that he did.
With guilt rising within and feeling a bit slimy for my actions I decided to wait until 3pm (2 hours and 15 minutes after lunch broke). If Richard didn’t come back by this time, I’d take it as a sign that it wasn’t meant to be and go on my way — leaving our meeting day for some date in the future.
While I was waiting I heard some of the stories mentioned above about Richard, Ashton (it sounded like Mila Kunis was backstage also), Barack and Michelle. The energy was still there.
As I contemplated further I really wondered WHY I was there?
All of these people came all the way out to Salt Lake City to impart some knowledge, try to share a part of themselves in their talks, and here I am trying to meet them.
As I was back there I kept thinking of the stories mentioned above, and some of the profoundly wise statements these all-stars imparted.
I felt myself becoming more and more inspired and I realized THIS was it, this was all I needed.
With content being so accessible today, we all (at least those of us blessed with good WiFi) are so blessed to listen to Oprah speak to crowds of people, or read past speeches given from some of the greats like Martin Luther King Jr., or follow some of the all-stars that are mentioned here on Twitter, and connect with their messages.
THIS was the purpose of the conference.
3:00pm came and I defeatedly walked over to Richard’s room. I saw movement from within. The backpack was getting lifted up. When I looked closer, I saw a female’s hand grabbing the bag and putting on her jacket, and some other person putting on his jacket.
These were the speakers that were just on stage.
Richard was long gone. But his message, and the other’s were now instilled in my heart.
- I am deeply inspired after yesterday to be all in on my family.
- To confront the things in myself and my family that aren’t serving us, and to keep sowing the seed of love in my daughter and in my wife.
- I am deeply inspired to go all in on my business.
- We may not be solving a great world problem right now, but I can fucking DELIGHT every traveler that uses our platform.
- I can make sure our team is PURELY HAPPY to be working at our company.
- I can make sure our partners and investors are also getting what they want.
- Further, I can realize that a future me will be able to use these same talents and this same philosophy on other issues.
- And I can give back through the company and through myself as much as I can NOW.
How I Snuck Backstage to Meet President Barack Obama, Sir Richard Branson, Oprah and Ashton Kutcher was originally published in Hacker Noon on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.