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Tech Execs Fly Under the Radar at Washington’s Nerd Prom

Airbnb, Uber and Google execs descend on D.C. for annual White House dinner.

White House

Tesla Chief Executive Elon Musk was on hand at Saturday night’s White House Correspondents Dinner, even if many Washingtonians didn’t seem to realize it.

He was hardly alone. A small army of tech CEOs descended on D.C. for the dinner and related parties, an annual bout of self-congratulation that Silicon Valley has increasingly helped to bankroll over the past few years.

At Google’s pre-party Friday night, multiple D.C. politicos mentioned “the Uber guy” was at the party, but barely any of them seemed to be able to pick CEO Travis Kalanick out of the crowd, even though he spent a good chunk of the night standing in the middle of the room. Google Chairman Eric Schmidt headed for the exit, all by his lonesome, shortly after 10 pm.

Google Atlantic WHCD party

The White House Correspondents Dinner has become such a mob scene in recent years — some 2,700 people crammed into a Hilton ballroom Saturday night, according to a White House estimate — that it’s actually hard to spot anyone unless you’re really looking for them.

“I’ve never been!” said U.S. chief technology officer Megan Smith* of the dinner, at the joint Yahoo/ABC News pre-dinner party, shortly after posing in front of the party’s wall-sized selfie frame. “Where’s the Washington Post party? We’re doing a circuit.”

U.S. CTO Megan Smith posing for a photo with entrepreneur Craig Forman at the Yahoo/ABC News WHCD pre-party
U.S. CTO Megan Smith posing for a photo with entrepreneur Craig Forman at the Yahoo/ABC News WHCD pre-party

Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky sat with Fortune Magazine editor Alan Murray, who said Friday night at the annual celebrity-studded TIME/People pre-party that they’d be joined by Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson — which is headquartered in the D.C. burbs and competes with the home-sharing startup.

(NBC** also had full coverage of President Obama’s remarks at the dinner.)

After the dinner, many of the tech CEOs who attended were whisked away to the exclusive Bloomberg/Vanity Fair party at the French ambassador’s mansion a few blocks away. Among the attendees: Musk, who was briefly shown by C-SPAN’s cameras during their coverage of the event, Kalanick and Lyft President John Zimmer, who both sat at one of Bloomberg’s tables during the meal.

Many of Silicon Valley’s largest companies chip in for the party weekend as part of a broader effort to influence Congress or federal regulators on issues important to their business, like curbing the U.S. intelligence agencies’ mass surveillance efforts or advancing patent reform.

Tumblr helped kick off the festivities Thursday night with a “Bytes and Bylines” party in Georgetown while Twitter partnered with Rock the Vote across town to co-host it’s first major WHCD event.

Lyft joined Microsoft to co-host, along with Yelp and AOL, a “New Media Party” Friday night at the Carnegie Library, where the dress code was “startup casual,” a phrase that was explained to baffled D.C. party-goers as “smart casual … it’s hip, current and new.”

Google’s Friday night party — co-sponsored with the Atlantic — wasn’t as flashy as it has been in years past. But there were still plenty of bartenders — unlike most WHCD weekend parties you rarely waited long for a drink at the Google/Atlantic party — and interesting nibbles, including mini clotheslines of chocolate-covered graham crackers.

A line of desserts at Google/The Atlantic’s “Art of Expression” party
A line of desserts at Google/The Atlantic’s “Art of Expression” party

The highlight of the “Art of Expression” party was actually the venue: Right on the National Mall with the Washington Monument glowing behind a plastic tent wall. That raised some eyebrows around D.C. since the Mall isn’t generally for rent. But Google/Atlantic party planners were able to reuse a cavernous tent that had been erected on the grounds earlier in the week for an unrelated fundraising event.

On Saturday morning, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, fresh off killing Comcast’s** $45 billion deal to acquire Time Warner Cable, was among the Washington types squished into Washington media personality Tammy Haddad’s annual garden brunch. Wheeler lives just a few blocks away from the Georgetown event, which honored two veterans-focused groups this year, Blue Star Families and Dog Tag Bakery.

Not surprisingly, Wheeler didn’t appear to make it (or at least I didn’t spot him) at Comcast’s splashy MSNBC party, which attracted hundreds of party-goers after the dinner. A few Comcast lobbyists didn’t look particularly happy (see: failed merger). But everyone else seemed content to sample Grey Goose sorbets, slurp gazpacho shooters and dance under the trippy domed roof of the U.S. Institute of Peace, just steps from the National Mall.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the Lyft executive who attended the dinner. It was Lyft co-founder and President John Zimmer, not CEO Logan Green.

* Disclosure: Megan Smith is married to but separated from Re/code Co-CEO Kara Swisher.

** Comcast owns NBCUniversal, which is a minority investor in Revere Digital, Re/code’s parent company.

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