Executive Q&A: Seller in Chief

Former Governor Christine Gregoire takes on new responsibilities as CEO of Challenge Seattle.

Since ending her term as governor of Washington in 2013, Christine Gregoire has lived a somewhat less public life taking care of grandchildren, chairing the 2015 advisory committee of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, and serving on the boards of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the William D. Ruckelshaus Center. She is coming out of semiretirement to head up a new initiative aimed at raising Seattle’s awareness of itself — and its international profile.

POST-RETIREMENT: I’d been out of office for only a few months when Brad Smith [now president of Microsoft] invited me to lunch. He wanted my takeaway from being governor. I told him I came home from overseas trips with this wonderful sense of enthusiasm about Seattle’s phenomenal reputation only to find we were unaware of our reputation internationally. We’re too shy to talk about our assets, and that’s not healthy for us. So he said, “Well, let’s get to work on that.” At the time, Phyllis Campbell was working with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Boston Consulting Group on the question of how to make Seattle a global city. Brad asked me to help. I traveled with a group of people to San Francisco, Boston, Austin and New York to look at what they were doing. We looked back on the history of Seattle and early days of dramatic civic leadership. We realized that if we wanted to remain a globally competitive international city, we would have to step up to the challenge. 

CHALLENGE SEATTLE: Last March, Brad asked me if I would be CEO of a new entity called Challenge Seattle. It’s made up of CEOs of 17 organizations [including Microsoft, Amazon, Starbucks and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation]. We have dinner about three times a year. We don’t lobby. Everybody contributes what they want to, but they must commit to five years of support. What I discovered was we have a group of CEOs who don’t know [each other], so they can’t take advantage of opportunities for collaboration. These CEOs are civic minded; they want to do good. [Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO] Ray Conner called me last summer to ask what we could do about the terrible forest fires in eastern Washington. I made some calls. Within 48 hours, we had full participation of all 17 CEOs to the tune of $750,000 [to contribute to the Red Cross]. That gave us a sense of what we could do. With Challenge Seattle, we are focused on four things: education, jobs, selling Seattle and transportation.

EDUCATION: We are a major partner with the University of Washington in the creation of GIX [the Global Innovation Exchange]. It’s an 18-month master’s program with a multidisciplinary approach to learning. The CEOs might do some teaching and mentoring. In turn, they get a first look at students they might snatch up and hire. There is a development group in China that wants to co-locate an incubator next to GIX to house startups from China. We are also partnering with the Road Map Project, which encourages students to seek college educations and certifications. We’ll offer the business perspective. We’ll have CEOs talk to students in person or through videos. Ray Conner might talk about how he started as a mechanic. The CEOs can show students what they have to do to get into college and get those $80,000 Boeing or Amazon jobs.  

JOBS: We have lots of efforts to promote economic development in the region, but not a lot of coordination. The single best asset we have to attract companies to the area is our CEOs. If Seattle has Alibaba on the hook as being interested in locating here, we would have the CEO of Microsoft give them a call. When CEOs travel, we want to know where so they can visit a company we might want to attract. We tell the economic development agencies, “We’ve got the big dog in the room. You make it work and our asset is waiting there to help you out.” [Howard Schultz at] Starbucks asked us to help re-create a program they did in Chicago where they brought together unemployed 16- to 24-year-olds to meet with employers. At the end of the day, thousands were hired. We said, “Sure, we’ll do it.” We estimate there are about 10,000 young people here that fit into that category. 

SELLING SEATTLE: When the rest of the world hears “Washington,” they think you mean D.C. For [outsiders], the state of Washington is Seattle. We grow grapes, we harvest wheat, we have Microsoft. And if we want to prosper, we have to get over our humbleness a tad. We have such a track record of success, whether it’s in music, food or business. We will soon launch a domestic ad campaign showing famous Seattle personalities with the slogan “Incredible Works Here.” A campaign in China will show magazine covers featuring [famous] Seattle-area executives such as Jeff Bezos. This is not about tourism. It’s about attracting companies and talent. 

TRANSPORTATION: The people in this community will embrace growth if they believe someone is paying attention to transportation. I put together a group of experts who will come up with some metrics about what a good transportation system should look like. We also want to create a think tank of leading experts at the University of Washington that can look at the cutting edge of transportation technology. The “Good To Go” pass works for Highway 520 tolls, but it’s useless on the ferry or bus. Seriously? It ought to have a single app for everything. There ought to be a real-time system managing traffic like in London, so that if there is one accident, we can divert everybody and traffic doesn’t come to a grinding halt. We want to show how we take the driverless car and introduce it into the community. We have unique challenges. We need solutions that adapt to our uniqueness. 

Coffee with Guppy: Seeking Authenticity with Tom Kundig

Coffee with Guppy: Seeking Authenticity with Tom Kundig

A chat with the celebrated Seattle architect.
Tom Kundig is a principal and owner at Olson Kundig, the Seattle architecture firm and design practice founded on the idea that “buildings can serve as a bridge between nature, culture and people.”
Nancy: What does an architect do? 
Tom: An architect solves problems. We observe what’s going on culturally, both historically and currently, and try to make buildings that resolve a situation, whatever it might be. 
Did you always want to be an architect? 
Oh, no. My dad’s an architect, I grew up with architects around me and there was a certain culture about architecture that I didn’t particularly appreciate, but what I did appreciate were the artists in that environment. Eventually, against all sanity, I wound up in architecture and couldn’t be happier. 
How important is the budget when you take on a project? 
It’s critical because a budget gives context and, from my perspective, the tighter the budget (within reason), the better the building because it makes you edit. When the budget is loose, the building can become overindulged. 
Are you a different designer now than you were when you started out? 
Oh, yes. I understand a lot more about the human condition and I understand the technical drivers much more completely. Architecture is a profession of wisdom, and it’s rare when you see that wisdom in a young architect.
Do you have a favorite building in Seattle? 
It’s a toss-up between the Pike & Virginia Building, designed by Olson Walker in the late ’70s/early ’80s, and St. Ignatius Chapel on the Seattle University campus. 
Is there a building you wish you had designed? 
Nope. There are so many conspiring forces to make mediocre buildings that when a good building happens, no matter who did it, we should just stand back and applaud! 
Tom Kundig says his main driver is "to make as much as I can out of life."
Are there signature elements of a Tom Kundig design? 
My desire is for an authenticity, both in cultural function and in the way that the natural materials — whether brick, steel or wood — age and get better with time. 
In every project you’ve done, is there always at least one thing that you hate? 
Uh, yeah, on virtually every project, but I never admit it! (Laughs) 
What gets you excited about a project? 
A client who’s curious about the world because that person is going to engage and ask questions in a way that may take me out of the way I typically answer.
What has to be there in order for you to take on a client?  
Trust. If you hire me, then I’ve got to trust you as a client and you’ve got to trust me as your architect, that I’m going to be doing my best work working for you.
Have you ever had to walk away from a project? 
Yeah. It’s difficult but it’s not about me. It’s about the situation. I’m not the right architect for you, you’re not the right client for me and we are wasting our time.
When do you know if something you’ve made is good? 
When I’m drawing and things are happening and fitting together, it’s like listening to music inside my head. It flows.
Is there a Tom Kundig Life Statement? 
I put a quote in my first book: “Only common things happen when common sense prevails.” I don’t know who came up with it, but it always makes me smile and it’s kind of true. If you’re looking for adventure, or something new or something worth living for, you’re looking for the edge, whatever that might be. 
How do you balance your creative mind with your business mind? 
I think a creative mind is a business mind because business is creative. You’re dealing with a set of issues and you’re trying to find a pathway, trying to resolve the issues, into a success. 
What piece of advice would you give to your younger self, when you were just starting out?  
Be more secure about your abilities and less insecure about your existence so that you can do things with a well-placed confidence. 
What song would you like played at your funeral? 
(Laughs) I don’t know! I won’t be hearing it so I don’t really care. 
You’re stuck on a desert island and can have one book, one record, one food and one person
My wife, Jeannie. Beethoven’s Ninth. A hamburger. Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
Who or what is your worst enemy? 
Noncritical thinking. People who don’t think about what they’re saying. 
Beatles or Rolling Stones?  
Beatles. I share a birthday with John Lennon and sympathy with his larger musical and political agendas.
What four guests would make for the perfect dinner party?
Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Feynman, Indira Gandhi, Muhammad Ali. 
Do you have a spiritual practice and if yes, how does that practice manifest? 
I was raised a Unitarian, so it is a very personal spiritual practice and certainly influenced by both Buddhist teachings and Jesuit friends. 
› For more on artists, entertainers and entrepreneurs, tune in Art Aone with Nancy Guppy on the Seattle Channel (seattlechannel.org/artzone).