Glendale — Growing up in Glendale, Ari Matusiak never imagined he would end up working with the president of the United States.
But he did dream of making the world a better place.
His dad, who emigrated from Israel, is a family psychologist. His mother is an attorney who focused on child advocacy issues. His parents’ work with disadvantaged children impacted him at a young age and inspired him to pursue a career that would help young people reach their full potential.
During his time as senior class president at Nicolet High School, he helped create a senior service day in which the senior students would volunteer at non-profit organizations.
"My belief is that people want to contribute to making the community and world around them a better place. If you can play a role in making that happen then you are making a real contribution to your community and society, overall," he said. "That’s why I’ve made the choices I made."
After graduating from Nicolet in 1995, Matusiak earned a bachelor's degree in political science from Brown University. He stayed in Rhode Island after college and worked with the Rhode Island Foundation for seven years. In 2007, he moved to Washington, D.C., to attend Georgetown University Law Center. Just as he was beginning law school, he began volunteering for then-Sen. Barack Obama during the Democratic Party primary election. He knocked on doors during the Iowa caucus in his mother’s hometown of Ottumwa and volunteered in multiple primary states including Wisconsin.
Once Obama was elected president, Matusiak and his Georgetown classmates wanted to harness the unusually high enthusiasm among young people and direct it toward health care reform — a topic that he saw as particularly important to young people, which were the largest group of uninsured people in the country. He started an organization called Young Invincibles, telling stories of young adults across the country and trying to shape policy to help young people. One example is the provision of the Affordable Care Act that allows people younger than the age of 26 to stay on their parent's health insurance plan.
Through his advocacy work with Young Invincibles, Matusiak became connected with people from the Obama administration. When he graduated from Georgetown, he was offered a position, eventually becoming special assistant to President Barack Obama and director of private sector engagement. In this role, Matusiak was the bridge between the private sector and the Obama administration, working to develop, promote and implement policies that spurred job creation and promoted long-term economic competitiveness. He worked directly with Obama on a number of occasions, briefing him on issues and accompanying him to meetings.
"My job was to ensure the president and administration were hearing directly from business leaders and private sector job creators about what we could do to spur their growth and success in communities across the nation," he said. "I had a front-row seat and was able to participate in the policy process to help businesses create jobs."
Some of the issues Matusiak worked on include tax reform, extending middle class tax cuts, raising the debt ceiling limit, reintroducing veterans into the workforce, supporting the implementation of the Affordable Care Act and helping entrepreneurs scale their businesses. He also worked on Obama's My Brothers Keeper initiative, which ensures that boys and young men of color have access to education and job opportunities.
When their daughter Gabrielle was born in July 2014, Matusiak and his wife Marissa were looking for a change of pace from the high-stress Beltway environment. In his next position, Matusiak wanted to find an opportunity where everybody was aligned to the same purpose, and where he could build something new that would make the world a better place. In December 2014, he joined Renovate America, a San Diego-based company that partners with state and local governments to enable homeowners to reduce their energy and water consumption.
With a change in administration, the issue closest to Matusiak's heart — Obama's landmark Affordable Care Act — will likely be repealed or amended under President Donald Trump. While the program has room for improvement, Obamacare provided health care to an additional 22 million people, resulting in the lowest uninsured rate in American history. Whatever shape Trump's health care reform takes, Matusiak is hopeful that Trump will maintain his promise to ban the denial of coverage to people with pre-existing conditions, as well as allow people under the age of 26 to stay on their parent's health care plan.
"The Affordable Care Act is saving the lives of millions of people," Matusiak said. "That's a pretty important metric for how it's working and how society should work."
The Matusiaks were personally invited by Obama to attend the outgoing president's farewell address on Jan. 10 in Chicago. Reflecting on his four years working at the White House, Matusiak said Obama "was an example in class, dignity and grace."
"He was the same way when the cameras were off as when they were on," Matusiak said. "His example was incredibly meaningful to me and has shaped how I view my own work and my own leadership. He helped make America better, and he helped people be better as a result of his example. I am incredibly proud of that, and we are all indebted to him for that."