Venture investor Dave Chen (from left), developer Mark Edlen, and Governor Ted Kulongoski

DURING A RECENT three-day business trip to washington, DC, Portland venture investor Dave Chen managed, through a series of rapid-fire e-mail exchanges with Governor Ted Kulongoski’s staff in Salem and a former Obama campaign official in Eugene, to broker a private meeting with a senior presidential adviser at the White House. Or more precisely, at the looming edifice adjacent, but not attached to, the West Wing. As Obama aide Greg Nelson escorted him down the long central corridor of the Old Executive Office Building on the afternoon of February 5, Chen couldn’t resist snapping a few digital pictures with his BlackBerry before arriving at an empty Room 158, the office of Carol Browner.

Browner was director of the Environmental Protection Agency under Bill Clinton and is now Obama’s assistant for energy and climate change. And she was running late. Accustomed to being the convener in Portland—where he is the one who calls and runs the important meetings, and where others often regard him not just as the smartest man in the room, but in the city, and, by some, in the state (he often acts as a consultant to the governor on matters of Oregon’s economic growth and leadership)—Chen found himself standing around in a formally appointed anteroom, feeling slightly humbled by his
White House experience. Even he had to admit that this was really cool.

Five minutes later, Browner—tall, athletic, smartly coiffed, and dressed in a gray business suit—breezed in, shook Chen’s hand, and apologized for the delay. They moved to a couple of armchairs and a couch arranged around an end table.

The presidential adviser and the venture investor sized each other up by playing a very un-Oregon game of getting to know you, which, within the strictures of Beltway culture, means establishing who you know. For an Oregonian, the spiky-haired Chen—whose idea of a power suit, when he’s in Portland, is a chocolate wool sweater vest worn over a starched, white, open-collared oxford; brown corduroys; and stylish Sarah Palin–esque eyeglasses—is an incredibly well-connected guy. John Podesta, Clinton’s chief of staff and co-chairman of the Obama transition team, sits on the board of Chen’s Pearl District start-up, Equilibrium Capital, a private equity firm focused on funding the expansion of successful, midsize sustainability-oriented businesses such as Gerding/Edlen Development. Chen’s first strategic hire when he formed Equilibrium almost two years ago was DC attorney Anne McGuire, who, as it happens, occupied the office next door to Browner’s when she served in the Clinton administration as Special Assistant to the President for Cabinet Affairs. Chen is also good friends with Al Gore’s former chief of staff (and Bill Clinton’s former campaign manager), Peter Knight, a managing partner at Generation Investment Management, the London-based sustainability-focused investment firm Gore cofounded in 2004.