Pittsburgh was Mister Rogers’ neighborhood, but a couple key connections could make it a front runner to become Mr. Bezos’ second neighborhood.
Some of Amazon’s top executives have close ties to Pittsburgh. And those personal ties could make the Steel City a serious contender for Amazon’s second North American headquarters, one of the most prized economic development projects in recent memory.
Amazon Chief Financial Officer Brian Olsavsky grew up in Hershey, Pa., a company town for, you guessed it, Hershey’s, on the other side of the state from Pittsburgh. Olsavsky attended Penn State and later went to graduate school at Carnegie Mellon University’s Tepper School of Business in Pittsburgh, where he retains close ties.
Olsavsky isn’t the only Pennsylvanian making key decisions for the online retail giant. Jeff Wilke, CEO of the company’s worldwide consumer business and a speaker at next week’s 2017 GeekWire Summit, grew up in Pittsburgh, and is reportedly a big Steelers fan.
Wilke, who joined Amazon as vice president and general manager of operations in 1999, is often discussed as a potential successor to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. Olsavsky and Wilke are among the eight executives listed on the company’s officers and directors page, making them two of the most powerful people in a company that now boasts a market value of nearly $460 billion.
In 2002, Olsavsky moved from his job at Pittsburgh’s Fisher Scientific to a VP role at Amazon in Seattle. He’s worked at Amazon ever since, appointed to the CFO role in 2015.
As a no-nonsense numbers guy, Olsavsky certainly will be a key decision-maker in determining where Amazon lands.
Olsavsky helped establish a recruiting pipeline to Amazon from Carnegie Mellon, according to the school’s Carnegie Mellon Today magazine. That expanded even further, from the business school to engineering, and there now more than 150 CMU alumni at Amazon. He was also instrumental in setting up an alumni group for the university in Seattle. Pittsburgh is also his wife’s hometown, according to the magazine.
While many consider Pittsburgh a long-shot for HQ2, it was chosen as a top pick by GeekWire in an analysis published shortly after Amazon released its RFP for its second headquarters.
The city, known for its many bridges that span the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers, boasts serious tech bonafides beyond its connections to key executives. That starts with Carnegie Mellon, one of the top engineering schools in the country, and a partner in Uber’s self-driving car research.
Pittsburgh’s biggest weakness in its quest to become Amazon’s second headquarters? It’s not a transportation hub, like other contenders such as Chicago, Denver and Atlanta.
Even so, it does have plenty of land available, with Pittsburgh developers putting forth as many as 20 possible locations for Amazon, everything from the 178-acre Almona site that formerly housed bustling steel mills to a former shopping mall.
Furthermore, Pittsburgh has always been an innovative city, Mayor William Peduto tells GeekWire.
“We were a global leader in the second Industrial Revolution – we built America and we built the middle class. Back then Pittsburgh’s industries were forged by natural resources and goods transported by river and rail,” Peduto said in a statement. “Today the city’s rebirth is fueled by a unique pipeline of talent, ingenuity and authenticity that has the world on notice. And that happens to feature robot cars.”
While Amazon is asking for everything from available land to tax breaks and more, a big driver behind HQ2 is the need to land the best talent. Seattle is a highly desirable place to live, but it’s expensive and a long way for people coming from the Midwest and East Coast.
Pittsburgh has its own talent base to draw from thanks to its university system and burgeoning tech scene.
Here is the meat of Mayor Peduto’s pitch, focused on talent:
With more than 30 universities in the Pittsburgh area and a richly educated talent base – much of it seeped in the cutting edge of robotics and engineering – this city will change the ways we understand 21st Century commerce and technology. Recent U.S. Census figures show Pittsburgh is growing its percentage of college-educated residents at a faster pace than the rest of the country, and its percentage growth of residents ages 25-34 is also above national averages.
Our new residents are getting to work on roads with smart signals that communicate with each other to ease traffic flow and cut emissions; on an expanding network of protected bike lanes and riverfront trails; and in walkable communities where residents can buy affordable, historic homes near jobs, stores and schools. Or they can take one of the self-driving cars being pioneered here, building upon decades of pioneering research at Carnegie-Mellon University.