But when asked what drives him to take on so much at such a young age, it’s his youthful idealism that becomes evident.
“The motivation…is a willingness to make a difference—not just in the abstract sense, but actually to make a tangible difference on humanity,” he says earnestly, “whether that’s having some sort of interest in politics or doing something in technology.”
In pursuit of that goal, he used to operate on three to four hours of sleep a night, causing his parents and friends concern when he was in high school. These days he aims for six or seven hours, “especially now that I’m working seven days a week.”
Those seven-day workweeks include 80 to 100 hours at FiscalNote along with classwork on weekends as he pursues a bachelor’s degree from Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. (“I’m pretty much done with my [academic] requirements,” he says when asked about his graduation date. But “it’s not like a huge priority for me right now.”) He’s also under contract to write a book—he won’t say for whom—that he describes as “basically trying to link macroeconomic trends between large youth unemployment and entrepreneurship around the globe.”
Three or four nights a week he sleeps in an 800-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment in Gaithersburg that serves as little more than a crash pad. “Other nights I’m either traveling or sleep in the office,” he says.
Yao says he doesn’t know how his longtime friend does it. “I don’t know anybody else who handles as much as Tim tries to do,” he says. “I always worried he would burn out.”
Yao himself is hardly a slacker: In addition to his role as CFO, he serves as FiscalNote’s de facto chief operating officer even as he earns a degree in sociology and finance from Emory.
“I guess Tim is just really efficient at what he does,” Yao says. “I can’t really explain it. [But] I would not recommend most people trying this method out.”
For his part, Hwang says, “I’m trying to get myself to be more of a balanced person.” But he acknowledges that his social life—which doesn’t include a significant other right now—is largely limited to attending the occasional film festival in New York, where he travels almost weekly on business. He also flies monthly to the West Coast to meet with investors, and has flown in recent months to London, Paris, Moscow and Beijing to attend open government conferences and promote the business.
“It’s not an abnormal amount of travel for somebody who’s in business,” Hwang says with a shrug. “A lot of it is opening up new markets…being able to utilize government data for business intelligence.”
Upon first meeting Hwang, “it took me about three minutes to realize this is not a normal person,” says Chi, a Princeton alumnus (class of ’83) who was assigned to mentor Hwang through the school’s Asian-American alumni association. “He not only dreams big, but he has this conviction that he can do it,” Chi says. “He looks at 10 different curveballs a day and says, ‘I can hit them all.’ ”
Aside from Hwang’s obvious intellect, Chi was struck by the fact that he was “extraordinarily articulate for his age. Second, he has a natural calling to lead. He’s not a soloist.
“This is a young man who really knows that he has a magnetic personality, combined with organizational skills to be able to handle more things than I have seen a young person handle before.”
Jeeseong “Jay” Hwang chuckles when asked the secret to his parenting skills.
“You might be disappointed,” Tim Hwang’s father says over dinner at a Korean restaurant in Gaithersburg. “I mean, I didn’t do that much, really.”
A modest, soft-spoken man, Jay Hwang emigrated from South Korea three decades ago to earn his doctorate in physics at Michigan State University. His son was born in East Lansing, where the school is located, in 1992.
The elder Hwang jokes about the stereotype of Asian parents who tell their children “either you can go to law school or medical school, and do music.” Hwang, a biophysicist who works for the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), and his wife, Michelle, who holds a master’s degree in computer graphics, clearly don’t fit the stereotype.
When Tim was in middle school, he came to his father one day. He said “he wanted to have a serious discussion,” Jay Hwang recalls. “He said, ‘I don’t want to follow the [usual] path. I want to try many different things to see what I really want.’ So he did, and I supported his opinion.”
Jay Hwang knows something about following the unconventional path. His grandfather was a Christian pastor in Korea in the 1930s who found himself persecuted during the Japanese occupation in the years leading up to World War II. Nearly a half-century later, Jay Hwang’s parents encouraged him and his siblings to immigrate to the United States during a period of political instability.
“I tried to share with Tim the frustration that my parents and my grandparents went through,” Jay Hwang says. “It’s been really tough for them.”
The family moved to Potomac in 1996, when Jay Hwang, then doing post-doctoral work at Johns Hopkins University, became a guest researcher at NIST. He joined the NIST staff a year later, and worked at the Gaithersburg facility for more than 15 years before relocating recently to a NIST facility in Boulder, Colo.
The Hwangs raised Tim and his younger sister, Sharon, a chemistry major at Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Mass., as observant Christians. Jay Hwang recalls the impact of a trip that his son took to Guatemala with a church group while in elementary school.
“The place he went to was a high poverty community,” Jay Hwang says. “He realized other places on the globe were quite different from the U.S.”