Hwang’s school board experience inevitably led him to establish a new lobby for millennials, the National Youth Association, in 2010.
“I essentially ran the operation out of my dorm room,” says Hwang, who served as president for three years before stepping down last June.
Hwang’s impetus was to give students a voice in the cuts being made in education. “Why wouldn’t you involve the largest stakeholder in the system?” he asks. “When you extrapolate that to the national level, there are tens of millions of kids who are going to school and are perfectly cogent and articulate to talk about what they care about.”
The group has a politically diverse board and has lobbied on issues ranging from student loan debt to youth unemployment. “I think so far our major impact has been showing people on both sides of the aisle that there is a lot we can agree on for millennials,” says Erich Reimer, the NYA’s current board chairman.
By the time Hwang left as president of the NYA, FiscalNote was a fully formed idea. During his time on the Montgomery County school board and as leader of the NYA, Hwang had experienced the frustrations of accessing the most up-to-date information from state legislatures.
“When I was on the school board, we would get reports every week or so, but that’s not fast enough,” Hwang says. And “at the National Youth Association, all I could do is get a bunch of interns and have them sit in front of computers and try to get the information.”
FiscalNote adviser Lu, an aide to Barack Obama since the president’s days in the U.S. Senate, remembers being “struck that [Tim had] smartly identified a gap of knowledge in terms of state and local resources.”
Hwang first approached Lu at a White House gathering in the spring of 2013, several years after hearing him speak at a Wootton graduation. When Hwang started explaining the concept behind FiscalNote, “you realized that he had not only identified a niche that needed to be filled, but, for someone who was 21 years old, he had an amazing business sense and great technical expertise,” Lu says.
Hwang also discussed the idea with Chen last March. Chen, who is completing a computer science degree at the University of Maryland, convinced Hwang to enter the idea in an entrepreneurship competition at the College Park campus. Even without an actual product to demonstrate, they won second place and $1,500—enough to get Hwang, Chen and Yao on a plane to California. There they gained admission to a Silicon Valley “accelerator”—a technology center that provides logistical support to start-ups—while sharing a room at a Motel 6.
Ten weeks later, the trio returned to Washington and set up offices in Bethesda in order to be closer to the potential client base.
Today the company has 16 employees—with plans to add more—and charges clients anywhere from $2,000 to $20,000 a month for access to FiscalNote’s database, depending on the corporation’s size and number of users. Hwang eventually hopes to add state and local regulations and court cases to the database, even as he seeks to design apps that could predict the likelihood of a particular law passing or yield a potential regulatory solution to a business problem.
Hwang declines to say how many clients the company has or how much revenue it has generated. But at 22, he’s already a millionaire “on paper,” he acknowledges. And if all his plans come to pass, he could become a really wealthy man.
For the time being, Hwang is focusing on technology rather than his longtime passion for politics. “Technology just moves a lot faster and tends to have a lot more impact,” he says. “It’s just a lot more disruptive than politics.”
But he adds, “I definitely want to go into politics at some point.”
Chen, the elementary school friend in whom Hwang confided his early goal of attending Princeton, can see that happening. Two years ago, the young men were talking. Hwang “said he was going to be president,” Chen says. “I said, ‘OK, I hope that works out for you.’ His first goal was, ‘I’m going to be governor of Maryland, and then I’m going to be president.’
“And I don’t doubt him,” Chen says—with only the trace of a chuckle.
Photo by Michael Ventura
Louis Peck has covered politics extensively at the local, state and national levels for three decades, most recently as the writer of Bethesda Magazine’s online MoCo Politics blog. He lives in Bethesda and is on the faculty of Boston University’s Washington, D.C., Journalism Program. To comment on this story, email firstname.lastname@example.org.