Why President Obama doesn’t need to come back

Never in my dreams did I ever think I’d meet Barack Obama. I only had a short time to talk to him, but he immediately exuded kindness, charm, and caring. After we told him a little bit about our work, he said, “It sounds like you’re doing really good work. Keep it up!”

I had the incredible honor of meeting President Obama last month because I was invited to speak at a tech conference produced by Okta, called Oktane, where President Obama was the keynote speaker. Thanks to our friends at Okta for Good and Erin Baudo Felter for the invitation and the amazing opportunity!

After that once in a lifetime experience, Okta’s co-founder and CEO Todd McKinnon had a discussion with President Obama, one of his first public talks since he left the presidency. He touched on everything from life after the White House to his upcoming project with Netflix, and there were a few topics that he discussed that specifically struck a chord with me and our work at One Degree.

We can make government and human services more user-friendly.

In front of thousands of IT professionals, Obama talked about how we have the ability and an obligation to make government systems, like social services, more user friendly. And he acknowledged that this kind of work requires front-end investment.

This is something that we’ve been talking a lot about at One Degree because we basically created a demonstration and template for a better social safety net.

But as President Obama also said, “Government needs to do a better job with procurement.” Over the last couple of years, we’ve been exploring governmental contracts, and this may not come as a surprise to anyone, but it’s been a bureaucratic zoo. Requests for Proposals are written in a super restrictive and structured way, which limits the way tech innovations can be developed and improved over time.

We also know that government typically is not a first-mover or risk-taker when it comes to funding innovation, and this is a place that philanthropy can play a role. The philanthropic community has an opportunity to play a catalytic role by intentionally funding the infrastructural technology innovations that can be scaled up by government.

Spend time with people whose lives are going to be disrupted

Obama gave some tips for those of us who are working in systems and with people who are not as accepting of innovation. While building culture at the White House, he deeply understood that systems or institutions are “all just human enterprises.”

“Whether it’s a Fortune 100 company, nonprofit, the United States government or a family. They’re all human systems that we’re building, and they’re going to be flawed.”

He reminded us to spend time talking to people whose lives are going to be disrupted.

“If they feel heard, they can be partners and together you can implement the change.”

We think about this a lot at One Degree since one of our values is that everything we do is in service to people first. So we’ve spent a considerable amount of time working with and listening to our community about what they want and need from One Degree.

One of the things that we are working on is how to get more proximate to the nonprofit and social services systems, and practitioners. While over 80% of our members are people who are looking for services for themselves or for families, 20% are nonprofit, healthcare, and social service practitioners. And One Degree’s platform has already begun shifting the way nonprofit, healthcare, and social service practitioners are doing their work. For example, in the Bay Area, over 3,000 social service professionals rely on One Degree in their day-to-day work, and they’re already saving time using our collaboration tools and referral management system.

We want to go deeper with this and get more One Degree integrations into nonprofit, healthcare, and governmental systems, so that these systems are coordinated, talking to each other, and ultimately serving their clients better.

Stories help us see that we’re all connected

President Obama was asked about his recent project with Netflix, and he told us, “I would not have been President if I didn’t know about the importance of stories.”

The dominant narrative in our country (and White House) right now is that there’s an us and a them.

“When we feel threatened, we go tribal. There’s an us and a them.”

We’re living in a time when our country’s leadership is encouraging us to see our fellow Americans as foreign and as “other.” This is being done on racial lines, by immigration status, and even socio-economic class. And this is a slippery slope. When we are seeing our vulnerable and marginalized neighbors as “other,” we also begin to see them as not human.

President Obama reminded me about our shared humanity. He reminded me that everyone has a story that is sacred, and that if we uncover those stories, they can form the basis of a relationship and from there you can work together.

“If we are hearing each others’ stories and hearing ourselves in each other, then our democracy can work. If not, then we’re seeing each other as foreign, other, and democracy doesn’t work.”

At One Degree, we’re going to be doing more to share the stories of and from our community, so that we all can be reminded about our shared humanity.

“Come back!”

When I told people that I was going to meet President Obama, I got a mix of excited yelps and screams, and almost everyone told me to tell him a variation of this message: “Come back!”

But I think the most important lesson that he wanted us to take away from his conversation and his presidency is that we don’t need him or any other authority figure to make positive change in our community. Rather than waiting for a leader to step up or for Obama to “come back,” he reminded me that we have the power. We are the ones we are waiting for. No one is coming to save us. And it’s up to us to make positive change in our world.

Thanks again to Okta for including One Degree’s story at Oktane and giving me the gift of meeting President Obama.

And check out this video of my talk at Oktane, alongside two of my friends and fellow social entrepreneurs, Alex Bernadotte and Jared Chung: