From Silicon Valley to Stockholm: Meeting the US Ambassador, Part 1

From Silicon Valley to Stockholm: Meeting the US Ambassador, Part 1
Nobel luncheon with George Smith, Elizabeth Blackburn, and Carol Greider
In Part 1 of a two-part interview, David Landes speaks to new US Ambassador Matthew Barzun about fundraising for Obama, adjusting to life in Sweden, Alfred Nobel's legacy, and engaging citizens in online networks.

Set against the relatively drab confines of the American Embassy’s utilitarian compound, the effusive energy of Ambassador Matthew Barzun can seem somewhat out of place.

After all, this is a man who helped define what it means to be a successful internet publisher in just a few short years, about the same time it took his current US government employer to figure out how to reformat diplomatic notes so they could be printed easily on a standard-sized sheet of paper.

And while Barzun’s time as one of the top fundraisers for President Barack Obama helped acquaint him with the gray suited, button-up world of official Washington, he remains a Silicon Valley entrepreneur at heart, bubbling with big ideas and ready to roll up his sleeves to make something happen.

Of course, he still has to make time for the everyday work of diplomacy.

“It’s been action packed since we got here,” Barzun tells The Local.

Officially named as Obama’s pick for US Ambassador to Sweden back in June, the 39-year-old Barzun left Lexington, Kentucky in August, along with his wife Brooke and their three children, to take up residence in the Swedish capital.

As his family adjusted to life in Stockholm, Barzun hit the ground running, crisscrossing Sweden to attend conferences, carry out speaking engagements, and catch up with developments in Sweden’s then nascent EU presidency.

In his first three months, the busy Barzun traveled from Umeå in the north to Malmö in the south, as well as to the Baltic island of Gotland.

The diversity of the Swedish landscape has impressed Barzun, as has the country’s ability to weave world-class design with no-nonsense functionality.

And in the midst of December’s Nobel Prize-related festivities, Barzun was also quick to highlight the importance of the legacy left by Alfred Nobel, one of Sweden’s most influential innovators.

“There’s a real power associated with the history of the Nobel Prize,” Barzun explains, finding himself hard pressed to come up with anything close to a US equivalent for the Swedish inventor of dynamite who bequeathed his fortune to fund the prize that now bears his name.

In addition to Nobel’s achievements as an entrepreneur, Barzun also credits the Swedish industrialist for making the prize accessible to people of all nations.

“To his credit, his vision was to not put up barriers based on nationality, which may sound politically correct in 2009, but was radical back then,” Barzun explained.

“As you read about the history of the Nobel Prize, it was criticized from both ends of the political spectrum, but his wisdom in taking down those barriers is wonderful.”

And if there’s one thing that gets Barzun excited, it’s the human potential unleashed by taking down barriers.

At CNET, the internet publishing company he helped found in the early 1990s, Barzun blazed new trails by advocating the purchasing of domain names. The company went public in 1996, and was sold to CBS for $1.8 billion in 2008.

Barzun is also credited with pioneering grassroots political fundraising by opening up fundraisers, which were traditionally the stomping grounds of the well-heeled and well-connected, to people with more modest means who felt inspired to support the candidacy of a then somewhat obscure first term senator from Illinois.

“The idea was, ‘Don’t just go after people who can write $2,000 checks, let them write checks for $25’,” says Barzun, reaching for his notebook.

Opening to a blank page, he first goes on to detail many of the hi-tech tools employed by the Obama campaign, including text messaging, internet fundraising, and social networking sites.

“There were really smart people in the Obama campaign who did this stuff,” he explains.

As a former IT entrepreneur, Barzun recognizes the power to technology for reaching out to people and shifting accepted paradigms, although he takes no credit for the recent efforts by the US embassy to boost its presence on popular social networking sites like Facebook and Flickr.

“It all started before I arrived, but it was pleasant to see the stuff was already up and running – and growing – when I got here,” he says.

“Those are some wonderful high tech tools we can use to accomplish our goals, but I think the guiding principles are kind of low tech.”

Turning back to his notebook, Barzun begins scribbling furiously.

After a few seconds, he then leans back to reveal a page graced by three terse lines which he sees as the essence of the “low-tech” mantra which made the Obama campaign’s high-tech outreach so effective and which he hopes to apply to the work of the US embassy:

1) move the metrics that matter

2) lower barriers to participation

3) raise expectations of what it means to participate

During the campaign, this seemingly simple three-point plan was about voters, money, and mobilizing political supporters, Barzun explains.

“But I think this cycle can be applied outside of campaign life to what we do in government,” he adds.

“How do we connect government, citizens, businesses, students, NGOs, and all these different people in these different networks so they can engage? How do we get people to engage, that’s what I think my job is.”

For Barzun, “engagement” is something of a unifying thread through what he sees as the three primary chapters in his career thus far.

“Whether it was e-publishing or e-campaigning or e-government, the e-part isn’t really electronic, it’s engagement,” he says.

“It’s empowering people with the tools to go help build something big and it’s about connecting networks of networks.”

Part two: Ambassador Barzun on succeeding President Bush’s envoy, eco-friendly former Ambassador Michael Wood; technological developments and The Pirate Bay; and, introducing TED.

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