Amazon's new HQ in South Lake Union (Callison photo/Chris Eden)

Is Amazon as involved as it should be in Seattle? How involved is that? And how much does it matter?

These questions have become the talk of the tech town after a special report in The Seattle Times put Amazon’s local involvement, or lack thereof, in the spotlight. The report sparked debate not just over its driving question — whether the tech giant’s local presence meets an acceptable standard — but whether it should, and whether we all agree on what that standard is in the first place.

Spoiler alert: we don’t. Reaction from geeks has run the gamut from calls for Amazon play a bigger role in local affairs to louder, wait-just-a-minute assertions that the company’s booming business presence, employee base and growing downtown footprint is contribution enough, and who are we to demand more?

But in a tech space where inspiration, connections and behind-the-scenes support circulates more widely than dollars, geeks who think Amazon could step it up zeroed in on one area of civic life where Amazon is noticeably AWOL — the local marketplace of ideas.

To them, Amazon doesn’t have to pay up. Just show up.

“Why not share the wisdom?” entrepreneur and patent attorney Adam Philipp asked on a Facebook thread on the topic. Amazon employees rarely if ever show up on speaker lineups at local tech events and conferences, an absence that’s not gone unnoticed.

“Amazon’s problems are far deeper than their parsimonious attitude towards local not-for-profits. They just don’t want to engage,” developer and designer Dylan Wilbanks wrote in a comment on a previous GeekWire post.

To Nadia Mahmud, CEO of tech nonprofit Jolkona, which connects the smallest potential donors to philanthropic opportunities around the world, Amazon’s relative absence from local tech events leaves the company in a poor position to do something she believes is “extremely important and critical” for it to do — make a lasting impact in its area.

“I attend conferences and networking events all the time and notice other large Northwest technology companies being catalysts for social innovation through event and conference sponsorships, but have yet to see that level of commitment and support from Amazon,” she wrote via email.

Look closely at goings-on in the local event space and you might see, as I have, a handful of Amazon employees who tip-toe outside the company norm to speak and engage at local events. They’ll do it. Just very, very carefully.

Bryan Zug, a strategist and producer who co-organizes the popular Ignite Seattle event series, runs his business across the street from one of the newer buildings in Amazon’s expanding South Lake Union campus. He shared his take on Amazon’s involvement at the Uptown Espresso on Westlake, a popular neighborhood meeting spot.

Bryan Zug

Zug goes to his fair share of camps, meetups, mixers, networking events and conferences around town, and the Amazon employees he typically sees show up, shake hands or present, he says, are people from Amazon’s Web Services division who look to recruit top talent.

“You don’t really see Amazon showing up in any other way, so my question to them is, ‘How much do you care about the community you’re in?'” Zug said.

Amazon’s recent purchase of blocks in upper Belltown will mean that the King Cat Theater, which has played host to Ignite for a couple years now, will be forced to shut down in May. Zug has heard that Amazon’s blueprint includes plans for a large theater space, a 2,000-person auditorium, in fact, but Amazon has said it has not decided whether the space will be made available for use by the community.

That brings up an interesting point. As Amazon expands its physical presence both in South Lake Union and, soon, downtown, it’s more likely that its posture toward the local idea economy — will it let ideas flow through it, or only around it? — will begin to influence or even shape those defining conversations.

“The issue is, who is Seattle meant to be, and how do we become that?” Zug said. Figuring that out “requires everyone from startups and independent entrepreneurs to big businesses. It requires everyone’s involvement. To have a major player not show up, it’s sort of a deafening silence.”

And yet, it’s tough to walk around South Lake Union and not be within earshot of one of the thousands of Amazon employees who spend their workdays inside the company’s unbranded buildings and out on the neighborhood’s now buzzing streets.

It’s tough, too, not to appreciate that despite its conversational isolation, Amazon already has shown up — right in the middle of Seattle.

“Is not locating the headquarters in the heart of the city not the ultimate community move?” Emily Chen, who works across the street from Zug, TechStars, Founder’s Co-Op, BigDoor and others in Amazon’s Fiona building, wrote on the Facebook thread.

“I (and other Amazon employees) actually support the local economy during our lunch breaks. And! Hiring! When so many other companies have been trying to save money by laying people off. That’s the best way to support a community.”

What do you think: has Amazon “shown up” enough? Let us know your thoughts in the poll and in the comments.

Update: The spelling of Adam Philipp’s name has been corrected in the story.

Mónica Guzmán is a community strategist in startups and media and a digital life columnist for GeekWire. You can find her tweeting away at @moniguzman, subscribe to her public Facebook posts at facebook.com/moniguzman or reach her via email. See a list of her clients on her website. Also see this archive of her weekly GeekWire columns.

Comments

  • Jim Wright

    What about all the money that Jeff Bezos gives to local Robot teams.  My team was about to fold in 2005 when Bezos stepped up and sponsored us for three years enough to get you feet on the ground.  Bezos is really big in the local robot community usually sponsoring five to six teams a year.

    • http://moniguzman.com Monica Guzman

      The debate so far has drawn a distinction between what Jeff Bezos contributes personally and what Amazon, the company, contributes as a business. Your comment raises an interesting question, though: Should a founder’s contributions be considered part of his company’s contributions? 

  • Foo

    What about the concept that a corporation owes a duty not to its employees (other than to treat them with respect and follow employment law), or to the community (again, other than to properly follow relevant law); but rather, its duty is to its shareholders.  It is the shareholders, who can then decide how they want to reinvest earnings from investment in the corporation (reinvest in the corporation, invest in a different corporation, or spend in any way they want–including give to charity).

  • http://twitter.com/chrisamccoy Chris McCoy

    My Amazonian-pal Ian McAllister (@ianmcall) has contributed a book worth of genius product management advice over on Quora. Not sure if he’s a regular on the local circuit, but for anyone doing anything with product, his stuff is a must read: http://www.quora.com/ianmcallistersposts

  • http://www.facebook.com/nckaiser Nathan Kaiser

    There should be no expectation for corporate giving. They are free to reinvest their money in the business and their people. If the employees want to participate civically, that is up to them.

    • Milling

       This is perfectly acceptable if Amazon chooses not to be a fully participating member of the community.  Being part of a community for a corporation has a lot of ways to be measured.  Certainly, Amazon has created a lot of jobs, and props for that.  Other measures of their involvement include participation in other aspects of the community – support for the arts, sciences (tech community), sports, human services, government (taxes), transportation, etc.  On these measures, Amazon falls down. 

      They are not required to participate, but it is in their best interests, and in the best interests of their stock holders.  When I chose to move here, the position that drew me was only one aspect of the decision to come here; I also considered the life aspects that occur outside of 9-5.  Drawing top talent when equally compelling offers exist may come down to the strengths of the outside community. 

      “With great power comes great responsibility.” 

      • Guest

        Would you kindly name one other company that has participated in “support for the arts, sciences (tech community), sports, human services, government (taxes), transportation, etc.” and which is as successful as Amazon is? Please don’t mention any that have recently laid off staff so that the cheques can keep coming to the charities.

        • Milling

           With 2 minutes of research, Boeing, Microsoft, AT&T, Google, …
          And there are so many others that are not as large.

          • Guest

            Boeing and Microsoft have laid off staff.

            What have AT&T and Google done in “support for the arts, sciences (tech community), sports, human services, government (taxes), transportation, etc.? You can name Fortune 500 companies until the cows come home, but I don’t exactly see people flocking to “Google Symphony Hall” or “AT&T Cancer Research Labs.”

  • http://wac6.com/ William Carleton

    I agree 100% with what Emily Chen said. Wow, we are totally crazy if we think the branded civic underwriting of any suburban office-parked giant contributes anything to the city like the physical development of downtown and the circulation of gainfully employed talent.

  • Joe M.

    Did the Seattle Times report mention the Seattle Times contributes nothing?  It is absolutely disgusting, and indicative how entitled our society has become, that people think they should be able to demand what anyone else does.  It is because of blatant stupidity, and also ironic, that the loudest critics are also those who wouldn’t have jobs if it wasn’t for these tech companies that “give nothing back” to their cities.

    • http://wac6.com/ William Carleton

      I’ll defend the Times as well. Their series this week is classic “accountability journalism” and speaks well of our civic health.

    • bigyaz

      You clearly know nothing of everything the Times contributes to. Just start with the Fund for the Needy, which raised well over $1 million last year.

      Learn more — if you’re really interested in learning rather than spouting uninformed opinions — here: http://seattletimescompany.com/community/index.htm

  • http://twitter.com/lstigerts Lauren Hall-Stigerts

    Comparing “creating jobs” to other community philanthropy is like comparing apples to oranges: creating jobs is (at times) an essential business strategy and a positive side effect, where giving to nonprofits isn’t critical to business operations. (Although I’d argue that it’s critical in other ways, but that’s another post.) 

    Amazon can only use the “we create jobs as a community service” argument if they hire simply to reduce unemployment and not out of a business need–and there are many reasons what that will never (and probably, for the sake of the business’s health, should never) happen.

    More than it just being convenient, I’ve shopped Amazon because they’re local. I have a lot of local pride for them. I wish they’d have the same local pride for their community.

  • philanthropist

    I feel like their is a bit of hypocrisy on this front.  More likely than not, the vast majority of those saying that Amazon should do more for our community, are dead set against the Supreme Courts Citizens Union ruling allowing corporations to fund PAC’s etc.  

    The wealth created by Amazon’s focus on their core business in our community leads to tremendous philanthropic generosity.  How many Microsoft employees have made $500K on stock over the last 10 years?  The real giving in our community by Microsoft and their employees are the ones that made tremendous personal wealth in the heyday and then turned to help their communities (i.e. Bill Gates, Scott Oki, etc)  

  • A concerned citizen

    I worked briefly as an Amazon contractor, and I now work at another large company with a presence in Seattle. Where I am now, I’m encouraged to present not only about our products, but also more general educational topics as a function of being a part of the Seattle tech community. At Amazon, even as a contractor and on my own time, my speaking activities were generally frowned upon. As an employee, I probably wouldn’t have been allowed.

    I can confirm what’s been said here: if anyone from Amazon is presenting anywhere, it’s either a senior product manager selling their product, or it’s a recruiter. That’s not community participation, it’s pitching, and it’s freeriding on what has for years been a collegial, friendly and open community.

    I’m not even talking about philanthropy, just giving back to an ecosystem they’ve so far ignored. Unless, of course, they want to sell them cloud services.

  • http://twitter.com/menchions Shane Menchions

    As a former member of two large Silicon Valley companies, I can think of three things that seem to be lacking from Amazon’s presence in Seattle:

    1) More Amazon employees, as an official Amazonian or just as an “employee”, need to engage more with the local tech scene/events/companies/etc. I think Amazonians drink beer too….

    2) Amazon corporate needs to allow start-up and tech focused events take place after hours in their great facilities.

    3) Amazon employees, both current and former, should mentor and invest in local tech startups. Then, when the time is right, start one of their own.

    1,2 & 3 are all ingredients that could go a long way in my mind.

    Guess what – it costs Amazon the company $0.00 with free shipping included.

  • Seattlite

    Business is about relationships, despite what the economists say.  And without contributing to the community, Amazon remains an invisible enigma.  Sure, Amazon might be a successful company, but they still must follow the law.  Without an outreach program to the community and the local government, Amazon will find itself harrassed and harried.  An example would be the recent sales tax fights in multiple states.  Thye are acting like a spoiled child — all take and no give.  Grow up, Amazon.  Realize that you are part of a borader ecosystem, and we ALL need to play in the sandbox.  If you don’t believe me, take a good look at the history of Microsoft’s interactions with governments around the world — they learned the hard way.

  • freedthinkerr

    Perhaps AMZN employees place a premium on actually WORKING instead of attending conferences or networking events. 

    Besides, what’s wrong with choosing to spend your personal time with raising your family, going to night school or contributing to a cause on your own free will? Do we really need AMZN employees to publicly pat themselves on the back to merit the approval of our community?AMZN operates on very thin margins and has been making huge investments in their business to ensure they can continue to deliver a tremendous value and excellent service to it’s customers 50 years from now.The Seattle community should applaud AMZN for their commitment to customers and learn from their model. 

  • Billg

    Supporting the local arts community, or the sports teams is a form of corporate bribery. They put millions into popular things and politicians and everybody else looks the other way when they do things that are bit more questionable, ie not paying sales taxes in states that they have warehouses because those warehouses are not owned by the parent company but are separate corporations registered in Delaware.

    And the Seattle times, they are funded by advertising, when was the last time you saw a print ad for Amazon.com? Never right? Nordstroms… they own warehouses, they buy stuff made in China, see any expose articles about them? Nope, and you won’t either.

    • johnhcook

      Just FYI, in the late 80s, The Seattle Times took a critical look at labor practices at Nordstrom and the retailer was said to have pulled its ads as a result. Nordstrom officials denied that, but called the newspaper’s coverage “horrible, the worst in the nation.”

      http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2026&dat=19900328&id=gU4tAAAAIBAJ&sjid=mNAFAAAAIBAJ&pg=4908,3796024

      When I worked at the Seattle P-I there was virtually no interaction between advertising and editorial. 

    • bigyaz

      I have yet to see the Times criticize Amazon for any of its actions, or lack thereof. Each story in the series examined issues that have been raised by many others, and presented all sides of the issues. I thought it was a fair, extremely balanced examination of the issues.

      It appears to me it’s the commenters who are bringing their own biases to the discussion.

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