In the true spirit of hope and change -- two terms that have come to characterize Barack Obama's historic presidential campaign -- Virginia businessman Earl Stafford is bringing the inauguration to those who would rarely glimpse such a star-studded, political event.
The former CEO of Centreville, Virginia-based UNITECH, a defense contracting firm with earnings around $140 million, has invited more than 400 disadvantaged citizens to Washington, D.C., including disabled veterans, indigent children, the terminally ill, the chronically unemployed, the homeless, battered women, and the elderly, to take part in the festivities. Attendees will join some 600 business people, celebrities, and politicians at four events, including a prayer breakfast and a luncheon where Martin Luther King III will speak on Monday, and two Inaugural balls on Tuesday.
Stafford will be housing his guests at the JW Marriott Washington where they will have unobstructed views of Tuesday's Inaugural parade from a glass-enclosed, heated terrace, providing formal attire for the balls, and even picking up the tab for hair and makeup. Guests will also have a chance to attend seminars on topics ranging from budgeting to life and work skills to health care, as well as to seek assistance from counselors, doctors, social workers and business people.
The event, called the People's Inaugural Project, organized by The Stafford Foundation, a non-profit organization Stafford founded in 2002 to help improve and lift up the lives of the nation's underprivileged, comes with a hefty price tag of $2 million. A small price to pay, Stafford says, for bringing together people from all walks of life to witness history. Inc.com recently caught up with Stafford.
What drives you to give back to America's marginalized people and give your time and money so freely?
It's my faith and the values that I was raised with. I believe that if you're blessed with much then you have an expectation and obligation to look around you and see how you can bless others. I don't think that's unusual; there are many businesspeople that have done great things in society and in their communities. But we're hoping that with this effort, it will encourage others to do so.
What do you hope the attendees -- both the fortunate and not so fortunate -- will take away from this event?
We're hoping that through this experience, people will not only be inspired but re-inspired to see what good they can do in the community. I'm hoping that this experience will remind us that we are in fact our brother's keeper and that we have a responsibility to others.
What do you think it means to these people who often feel excluded from politics and from having a voice that Barack Obama won?
We decided to do this before the election, but I think it's great because it parallels the message of Barack Obama. This event will inspire people; it shares the message of hope and optimism about tomorrow. We think that people all across America -- those with means and those without means -- are getting excited about the future.
I read that the price tag for the project will top out around $2 million. How was it funded?
Well, I hope it doesn't go over $2 million! It's approaching $2 million right now. It was funded through my family and the family foundation. We've taken the brunt share of this. But one of the great things that's happening is we're getting a lot of contributions -- $100 here and $200 there -- from the grassroots level. There are so many people that want to be a part of this and that want to contribute in some way. We have a foundation website, TheStaffordFoundation.org, where people can log on and find out about the events. We're going to post pictures and videos of the events. And if more people want to be a part of this, even going forward, they can make a donation.
How important is it that business owners give back to underserved communities?
It's critically important that we can contribute to those who are hurting in America. I think that's the rent that we have to pay for doing business here in this country. There's an obligation that we have, not just to give, but to help teach others to help themselves. There has to be accountability and expectations when you give -- there has to be a return on your philanthropic dollar.