Amazon rose to e-commerce dominance by making “customer obsession” a core value. Alec Cooper, director of strategic and mobile business development at Amazon, thinks that could be a lesson for Seattle Public Schools.
“One of the things that I’ve learned at Amazon is to start with your customer and work backwards … and I think that the situation we find ourself in with Seattle Public Schools – and people are very sensitized to the notion of customers so I try not to use that word — so we really just talk about families,” Cooper said. “Start with the family and work backwards. One of the things that I’ve really learned about Seattle Public Schools, at least the district, is it doesn’t start with the family and work backwards. There are so many things that it does that just are not about serving families.”
Cooper wants to leverage his 20 years of experience in the technology industry to change that. He’s running for Seattle Public School Board for District V, which includes Capitol Hill, Madrona, the Central District, and parts of SoDo. Cooper is running for a seat that will be vacated by Stephan Blanford. Blanford is not seeking re-election but a handful of other candidates are vying for the seat.
It isn’t just tech experience that Cooper wants to bring to the School Board table. He has three daughters — a junior and freshman in public school and a fifth-grader at a private institution. Over the years, he’s become frustrated by what he describes as the district’s dysfunction, which he says widens the opportunity gap for underserved and underprivileged students.
Cooper’s campaign hinges on a statistic from the Seattle Public Schools annual scorecard survey in which only 21.5 percent of families said the district was responsive to their concerns and input.
“Public schools are fundamental at an early stage in life in creating equal opportunities for kids,” he said. “The types of things we’re struggling with in Seattle in terms of racial equity, in terms of affordability, we’re exacerbating equity problems with the system we have. It’s just not a good system.”
A Seattle Public Schools spokesman said the district does not comment on political campaigns, as a public, educational institution.
At Amazon, Cooper’s role is focused on external partnerships with companies like Samsung and LG. Before Amazon, Cooper spent nearly a decade in business development roles for Microsoft. He started his career as a senior manager and founding team member for Dell’s online business in 1995. Cooper says his experience solving big problems at tech companies prepares him for the School Board seat.
“When you’re solving astounding problems you have to look for those points of leverage and you have to pick the points that you want to to work on,” he said. “You have to focus on where you can really make a difference.”
The tech industry is a major force in Seattle, driving economic and population growth and real estate development. But the private powers that be rarely transition into public service.
“Clearly, tech is shaping our city — on the positive side, initiatives like the Amazon partnership with Mary’s Place and Microsoft’s Give campaign are great examples on how the tech industry can make a difference … On the flip side, civic engagement and tech are very different. Tech thrives on moving rapidly and driving disruption — the opposite of the ‘process’ that is required to make change in communities … I would love to see better alignment between SPS and the tech industry — contributing to helping to close the opportunity gap and better prepare our kids to be highly employable in a world which is changing rapidly. It strikes me as a huge miss that SPS has not been able to really leverage the tech industry in Seattle the way that UW has.”
Story updated on Friday, May 26.