Austin Ramirez, president and CEO of HUSCO International, an AEM member for 30 years, embarked on a year-long sabbatical in the summer of 2016 to serve as a White House Fellow. His time in Washington D.C. took him away from his role at the helm of HUSCO, and it led him to step down from his position on the AEM Board. However, his involvement in the White House Fellows program allowed him to reaffirm his passion for advocating for impactful policy solutions and the elected leaders who develop them.
By Mike Schmidt, AEM Industry Advisor Editor
The most well-intentioned plans sometimes lead to unexpected outcomes, but there is always value to be gained in trying to make a positive difference in the world.
For years, Austin Ramirez was troubled by what he felt was a steady deterioration in the civility between political leaders in the United States, and a noticeable lack of thoughtful discourse occurring in and around Washington D.C. Though the president and CEO of Waukesha, Wisconsin-based HUSCO International had spent the better part of his adult life focusing his time and attention on building a successful business career, his persistent frustration over the nation’s political climate eventually became impossible for him to ignore. And so he decided to do something about it.
“I’m convinced that we need to change the underlying incentive structure for our elected representatives in Washington,” said Ramirez, one of 16 individuals chosen in 2016 to serve a year as White House Fellow. “It’s not just about electing new people. It is not as simple as ‘draining the swamp.’ If we want to see different behavior, then we need to change the rules of the game.”
Persistence Pays Off
Ramirez first learned of the White House Fellows program in 2003, when a work colleague suggested he apply the prestigious leadership program. Each year, anywhere from 10 to 20 mid-career military and private sector leaders are selected to serve as paid, full-time staff to senior White House leaders or Cabinet-level government officials for a period of 12 months. Though he possessed an interest in politics and was a young, twenty-something-year-old business professional on the rise, Ramirez felt the timing wasn’t right to pursue such an opportunity.
Eight years went by before Ramirez finally decided to apply in 2011, shortly before he was to be named CEO at HUSCO. Ramirez felt that a year-long sabbatical working in D.C. would round out his professional experience and prepare him for the next step in his career.
“I didn’t even make it to the first round of interviews,” he said.
Now or Never
An ongoing desire to make a positive impact in the country’s political landscape, coupled with a keen interest in experiencing what it’s like to work in D.C. during a presidential transition year, compelled Ramirez to apply to the program again in early 2016. At 38 years of age, he understood he was among the older applicants seeking the opportunity to be a White House Fellow. Ramirez knew it was now or never, so he tempered his expectations, sent in the proper paperwork and hoped for the best.
“It’s such a small group of people they pick from,” he said. “No matter who you are, nobody approaches this application process thinking, ‘I’m going to plan my life around getting selected as a White House Fellow.’ The odds are just stacked against you.”
Following a six-month application process and three grueling days of interviews in D.C., Ramirez was chosen as a White House Fellow. In the six weeks between learning of the selection and reporting for duty at the National Economic Council (NEC), quite a bit transpired in Ramirez’s life. Not only did he implement an interim leadership structure at HUSCO and relocate his wife and two young children to the D.C. area, he also transitioned out of seven nonprofit boards, and completed a 100-mile trail race the day before starting his new job in the White House.
“So you can say it was a hectic time,” he said.
A Time of Transition
The massive scale of change associated of the presidential transition that occurred last winter came as a bit of surprise to Ramirez, but it also made his year in the nation’s capital all the more memorable for him.
Every member of the Obama National Economic Council, except Ramirez, left in January and was replaced by President Trump’s new political appointees. His role changed. And perhaps most notably, Ramirez said, the whole ethos of the White House changed when Donald Trump was elected on Nov. 8.
“Walking into the White House on Nov. 9 was a surreal experience,” he continued. “Up until that morning, everyone in the White House was absolutely certain that Hillary Clinton was going to win. There were a lot of red eyes and more than a few tears.”
While his responsibilities as a White House Fellow included working on public policy related to self-driving cars, unmanned aerial vehicles, smart city technology, semiconductor industrial policy and manufacturing, his time in D.C. was ultimately defined by the presidential transition.
“I had the opportunity to observe two very different Presidents operating in both public and private settings, and I worked closely with their respective teams to wind down one administration and ramp up another,” he said.
His participation in the White House Fellows program also afforded Ramirez a wealth of opportunities to make unique and unforgettable memories. Whether it was attending meetings at the United Nations in New York or landing a jet on the USS Dwight D. Eisenhower aircraft carrier, Ramirez got to enjoy a number of once-in-a-lifetime experiences.
In addition, he watched his children trick-or-treat and roll Easter eggs at the White House, celebrated with the Obamas at the White House holiday party, witnessed President Trump’s inauguration ceremony from the National Mall, and even took in an impromptu screening of the Chicago Cubs’ victory in the deciding seventh game of the 2016 World Series from the White House Rose Garden.
Ramirez’s time in Washington provided him with unprecedented access to our nation’s government officials and private industry leaders, including Supreme Court justices, representatives from Congress, business experts and authorities on policy. In addition, he was able to cultivate a number of lasting friendships with the colleagues he worked alongside in both the Trump and Obama White House.
“It was an incredible group of people from very diverse backgrounds,” said Ramirez. “The relationships I developed with those people were really special, and it was probably the highlight of the year.”
The HUSCO CEO’s year spent as a White House Fellow did not go exactly as planned, but it did reinvigorate his belief in southeastern Wisconsin as one the best places in the country to live, work and run a business. More than anything else, though, it reaffirmed his motivation to see the country’s elected leaders deliver policy solutions he feels Americans desperately need.
“It ignited a desire to do what I can to help transform the broken incentive structure that rewards unproductive behavior,” said Ramirez. “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 it’s one I now take more seriously than ever.”