Challenge Seattle has substantial ambitions. The new organization officially came out of stealth mode earlier this month, announcing plans to solve the region’s pressing transportation and education problems with the help of government, the University of Washington, and 17 leaders from some of the largest and most successful local companies.
However, some of the initial reaction from readers wasn’t pretty. Many aren’t confident in the group’s ability to be successful, particularly related to fixing transportation infrastructure given the region’s historical struggles with such tasks.
But former Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, who is leading Challenge Seattle as its CEO, told GeekWire in a follow-up interview that she’s quite optimistic about this particular group.
“I don’t know of anywhere where you have this unique combination of putting together the best and brightest at a university that is world-known, with a public sector that has the welcome mat open, and a private sector that wants to offer up what they can,” Gregoire said.
Some question Gregoire’s leadership for Challenge Seattle, given her involvement with Bertha, the tunneling machine making its way below Seattle’s Alaskan Way Viaduct that hasn’t been without its share of frustrating setbacks.
But Gregoire seems confident that Challenge Seattle can make a difference, particularly with the help of leaders from companies like Microsoft, Boeing, Amazon, Alaska Airlines, Starbucks, REI, Nordstrom, Expedia, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and others that helping fund Challenge Seattle itself.
“They want to provide leadership where they can and not get involved with finger-pointing or political division,” Gregoire said. “They want to work together and get blame behind us and help make things happen for our community.”
Here’s more from our conversation with Gregoire, which has been edited for brevity and clarity.
GeekWire: Thanks for speaking with us. Let’s start by talking about Challenge Seattle as a whole. Why is it the right time for something like this?
Challenge Seattle CEO Christine Gregoire: “So, let me start by sharing with you that if while I was serving as governor, 17 CEOs from the largest regional philanthropies and companies came to me and said we want to partner with you, offer our expertise and technology and innovation, and work with you to deal with some of your most challenging problems — I can’t tell you how exciting that would have been.
A couple things to know about the public sector. We don’t have the financial resources to buy the kind of technology or create the kind of innovation that the private sector has — that goes without saying. So, to have them say they’re going to offer up some expertise, technology, and innovation, it’s skills that money can’t buy, literally.
Secondly, in the public sector, when you take a risk and you fail, it’s kind of with your head. These CEOs are people who have succeeded taking risks. They have also failed, but they have proceeded to get back up and go on. The result of their success goes without saying.
So, we want to offer the technological skills and risk-taking abilities of these companies and CEOs, but do it in a way that so far as we know, has never been done. As we talk to a number of larger companies that are dealing with transportation, they tell us they’ve never seen this idea of having the public sector with a welcome mat out for technology and innovation, team up with the private sector and a university like the University of Washington who want to look at things in a holistic way that involves the public.”
GeekWire: Some of the feedback from our original article from two weeks ago included frustration with how the local government handled recent transportation projects that may not have met expectations. Your response to that?
Gregoire: “That frustration you express, that frustration the public is expressing — I share that frustration. When things don’t go right with Bertha, I share that frustration. But most mega-projects have hiccups. You have to work your way through them, and as frustrating as it can be, people are quite positive about the end result. I heard that very clear in Boston, for example, by people who had profusely complained and were frustrated by the Big Dig. It resulted in a transformed city.
Here locally with mega-projects, when State Route 520 [bridge replacement] opens, it will be a delight. But it had hiccups. I think the same will be true when we open up the waterfront.”
GeekWire: At the press conference earlier this month, you unveiled the long-term vision of Challenge Seattle in regard to transportation fixes. But what about in the more near-term? What do you want see in, say, five years?
Gregoire: “I hope that over the course of the next five years, we will have had multiple projects go through the UW that we’ve been able to put on the streets and implement, whether it’s an app that tells you every mode of transportation you can take at any given time from any given location; or an app that lets you pay for any mode of transportation. By that I mean today, the way I pay my toll on 520 is worthless to get me on the ferry, which is worthless to get me on the bus, which is worthless to catch an Uber. What if there could be a single app to do that?
I would also hope the city knows what it has to do and is in the process of implementing what is necessary so we can be at the forefront for semi-autonomous and autonomous vehicles because it’s real and it’s coming. This city, this mayor, the other mayors in Puget Sound, and the county executive have all said they want to be at the forefront of this and they want to be ready.
I also really want tackle Interstate-5, and make sure we are doing everything we can technologically to make it a smart corridor.
Moreover, I hope that with what we’re saying in terms of planning, that cities understand how you shouldn’t just plan and then as an afterthought realize you need infrastructure for public transportation. But, rather when you plan for a new transportation project, you’re absolutely aware that there is an adequate budget for operation and maintenance. The Washington State Legislature invariably will fund new projects and there will be no operation maintenance funding to go along with it. That is wrong and I hope to motivate folks to do things differently in the future.
Those are the kind things I’d like to see. We may not see all of the results within five years, but we should be well on our way.”
GeekWire: Challenge Seattle has other plans outside of fixing the city’s transportation issues. Tell us about that.
Gregoire: “Education is another piece. What we find with these CEOs is that they keep hiring and they have huge needs — some of them say we are two universities short for what we need for STEM-related jobs, both now and in the future. We don’t enjoy hearing that we can’t find talent locally.
The CEOs with Challenge Seattle want to be clear that they are personally contributing and personally invested in local schools and that these young future employees see that. They want to motivate them. For example, we’ll go into schools that are quite challenged with higher drop-out rates and sometimes we’ll have videos, or sometimes we’ll have CEOs in person. Imagine Boeing CEO Ray Conner going into a school and telling the students how the company wants to hire them. He can tell them how he started as a mechanic at Boeing, how the company put him through school, and how he became CEO. He can show them that they can do the same, but first they need to stay in school, get decent grades, keep their noses clean and be a good citizen. Whatever everyone else tells them, one thing they can’t always say is that they have a job opening available. Only CEOs can do that. They want to be engaged and be a role model and inspire these kids and hire locally.”
GeekWire: Did you model Challenge Seattle after other efforts? What about Seattle makes this initiative unique?
Gregoire: “When they asked me to undertake this, I went back and looked at Forward Thrust. I talked to the founders of that and they made it clear that the circumstances back then are not present today, and how they did things back then will not work today. But they were very reinforcing that they love the idea of what we’re doing and that it’ll be a big positive to really make things happen.
We didn’t model ourselves after anything specific in the past, though. We did, however, model ourselves after that civic mindedness, where the private sector steps up and provides leadership. I should be clear about one thing: The CEOs in Challenge Seattle signed up for five years and no more. This is not an organization to last in perpetuity. After five years, the CEOs are free to have a discussion and talk about whether they want to re-up and continue or drop out.
But these CEOs we have now, they come from a school of “show me.” We want to show people we are engaged and intending to make things happen. We aren’t just a name or a bunch of CEOs getting together for coffee. We are absolutely committed to the community and that’s what we are about.
When I traveled to other cities to see how they were doing things, I found that Seattle is very different. We have this unique culture of working together and collaborating and so on that you just don’t find elsewhere. All too often in the business world it’s dog-eat-dog, or it’s not cooperating with the public sector because they hold you up with rules and regulations. That’s just not what we have here. I think we can be a model because of our unique culture and now with this opportunity of bringing it all together, I’m really quite optimistic.”