Jonathan Chen remembers when his friend, Timothy Hwang, announced that he planned one day to attend Princeton University. They were in fifth grade at Travilah Elementary School in North Potomac.
“I said, ‘OK, Tim,’ ” Chen recalls, his tone at the time conveying friendly support coupled with a trace of skepticism.
Two years later, the boys were following the election for the student member of the Montgomery County Board of Education when “Tim said, ‘I’m going to be the student member of the board,’ ” Chen recounts. “And, what do you know: [Four] years later he was a member of the board.”
The year after that, Hwang was on his way to Princeton.
“I don’t know how he does it,” Chen says, “…but when Tim sets his mind on what he wants to do in the future, I’m pretty confident that he will get to where he wants to be.”
Such confidence perhaps explains why Chen signed on to become chief technology officer at FiscalNote, the Bethesda-based information firm that Hwang started last year while still attending Princeton. This spring, if all goes according to plan, FiscalNote subscribers will be able to search online for legislation being put forth in all 50 states, along with a couple of hundred municipalities around the country. As the firm’s chief executive officer, Hwang eventually plans to expand this database to include cities around the globe.
FiscalNote isn’t the first venture for the young entrepreneur. At age 22, Hwang has a résumé that would be the envy of people decades older. Little wonder that some predict he could be the Bill Gates or Steve Jobs of his generation.
The story of Hwang’s young life—which includes taking and passing an unprecedented 22 Advanced Placement exams at Rockville’s Thomas S. Wootton High School even as he deftly juggled many outside activities and interests—has elevated him to near-legendary status among students throughout the county.
“He just had many credentials that other high school students did not have,” says Hal Zeitlin, an undergraduate at Atlanta’s Emory University who was a sophomore at Potomac’s Winston Churchill High School when Hwang served on the school board in 2009-2010. “The benchmark that Tim set when he was in high school is still there today.”
Hwang was a mere 14 when he started Operation Fly, a nonprofit that raises funds to feed the homeless and provides scholarships to underprivileged children. It eventually expanded beyond Washington to three other cities, with an annual budget of $175,000, and remains in operation in the D.C. area today.
Later, as a freshman at Princeton, Hwang founded the National Youth Association, which lobbies on legislative and regulatory issues that impact the millennial generation and has since grown to 750,000 members. As an undergraduate, he also started a consulting group whose offerings included analytic software for small businesses. He sold the firm, Articulance Consulting Group, in 2012, the year before starting FiscalNote.
Both Chen and FiscalNote Chief Financial Officer Gerald Yao were Hwang’s classmates at Wootton. But his millennial peers aren’t the only ones betting on Hwang setting a goal and being able to deliver. So are some rather influential “gray hairs.” Among them: former Obama White House Cabinet Secretary Christopher Lu (a 1984 Wootton graduate) and Y.S. Chi, a top executive at Reed Elsevier, one of the world’s largest information and publishing firms. Both serve as FiscalNote advisers.
Within months of its launch, FiscalNote had garnered nearly $1.3 million in investment capital from the likes of Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang and Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks basketball franchise. By this spring, a year after its start-up, the firm hopes to have $6 million to $10 million in outside investments.
Asked why he chose to invest in a company headed by a CEO who’s still in college, Cuban says simply, “Smart people, smart idea.”
Those who know Hwang say it’s not sheer intellect that propels him, but rather a mix of motivation, organizational skills and strategic savvy.
“He’s a very bright kid, but he’s not the brightest kid I ever taught,” says Matthew Winter, Hwang’s social studies teacher at Wootton. “It’s more self-discipline and organization. …He wanted to do things that other people wouldn’t even take on.
“He was mature beyond his years. He didn’t look like a boy in a man’s world.”
It’s late November when Hwang sits for an interview at FiscalNote’s headquarters in an office tower on East West Highway. He employs humor with the ease of an aspiring politician—he briefly contemplated seeking a vacant seat in the Maryland General Assembly last summer before opting to focus on building FiscalNote—even as he discusses the firm’s business plans with the acumen of an MBA.