Seattle’s tech industry and the rest of this booming city are at odds like never before, and tech leaders acknowledge that any efforts to mobilize the tech community to solve civic problems will be met with a healthy dose of skepticism.
But that possibility isn’t stopping some of the biggest tech companies in Seattle from launching a new group to connect their employees with civic life.
“We just have to be convicted that this is the right thing to do, and this is going to be good for everybody, and do it regardless of what people say about it, because it doesn’t matter,” says technology investor and civic leader Heather Redman. “We’re being criticized now, so we might as well be criticized doing something good.”
Engaging tech workers on Seattle issues is the mission of the group, called sea.citi, a new effort spearheaded by some of the region’s biggest companies. Redman and Eileen Sullivan, Amazon’s regional government affairs lead, have spent more than a year recruiting companies and board members, researching issues, and getting sea.citi off the ground. They’ve been working behind the scenes to build sea.citi but the group’s launch has not been publicly reported until now.
Sea.citi is launching in September with a board of directors representing many of Seattle’s tech titans. In addition to Amazon’s Sullivan and Redman, of Flying Fish Partners, executives from Madrona, Vulcan, Tableau, Zillow, Facebook, Google, Expedia, AT&T, and Verizon sit on the board.
That board has hired Nicholas Merriam as Chief Engagement Officer to lead day-to-day operations. Before joining sea.citi, Merriam was the director of Global Impact Hub.
Sea.citi will develop strategic initiatives targeted at some of Seattle’s big challenges and coordinate everyday tech workers to volunteer and donate. Up first: K-12 education.
“There’s a number of people that have moved to Seattle to take technology jobs and work for some of these great companies and really what they need is they need a pathway that is of interest to them,” said Merriam. “Yes, they might be heads down but I think if we present them with the right opportunity in a segment that is of personal interest, there’s going to be appetite for that.”
The first program brings resources and mentorship to 10 South Seattle public schools as part of a partnership with the nonprofit Communities in Schools.
“This hasn’t been done before in Seattle,” said Ruel Olanday, executive director of Communities in Schools. “This is the first of its kind in regards to lending and intentionally building a relationship with the private sector, with the public sector, to support schools in Southeast Seattle.”
Sea.citi isn’t the first organization to try engaging tech workers in civic affairs. Seattle Works, for example, brings corporate employees together to volunteer in the community. The Washington Technology Industry Association hosts events and connects tech workers on advocacy campaigns. Just a few weeks ago, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan formed a new Innovation Advisory Council to solicit ideas from the tech industry on issues like homelessness and traffic.
Those are just a few of many civic engagement opportunities for the tech industry. Diane Douglas, executive director of the nonprofit Seattle CityClub, is reserving judgment on whether the city needs another group. Douglas, who isn’t affiliated with sea.citi, said she welcomes any organization that encourages civic participation. But she added that it’s important to collaborate within the existing ecosystem.
“I absolutely think it’s critical, it’s critical not to reinvent wheels that don’t need to be reinvented and to leverage opportunities for collaboration and partnership when we can,” she said, adding that it’s also important to “learn from the successes and failures of what came before.”
Sea.citi does stand out from other civic tech groups in a few ways. For one, the organization was initiated by leaders in the tech industry. As part of her role as chair of the Seattle Metro Chamber of Commerce, Redman visited San Francisco last year. Back in Seattle, she is a managing partner at Flying Fish Ventures, a venture capital firm she co-founded in 2017. Redman had already been searching for ways to bring the tech industry into civic life when she met with sf.citi, a San Francisco organization working to do just that. Sullivan was also looking into the sf.citi model as part of her work on Amazon’s government affairs team.
The two connected back in Seattle and spent the next 15 months working with sf.citi advisor Alex Tourk to replicate the model in Seattle. Though they operate similarly and have the same mission, the two organizations are not affiliated.
“San Francisco was obviously one of the canaries in the coal mine … and things got really confused down there where you start having people really hate each other who used to be neighbors,” Redman said. “You had tech workers becoming demonized. You had people in San Francisco feeling like they were being pushed out and the character of the city was changing. I think we’ve seen some of that in Seattle as well.”
However, she added, “what we haven’t yet seen is the deep engagement by the people that are working at tech companies, and tech companies themselves, in the community in the way that maybe you did 50 years ago.”
Amazon’s involvement in sea.citi is also noteworthy. The e-commerce giant has played an active role in Seattle’s transformation but faced criticism for a lack of civic engagement compared to other companies. That has been shifting in recent years; Amazon has donated millions of dollars to nonprofits like Mary’s Place and FareStart and is building a permanent homeless shelter on its Seattle campus.
“I think that appetite for engagement and for caring for other people and building community is definitely there,” Redman said. “But we’ve also communicated to new people and particularly to new tech people, ‘You’re the problem. We don’t like you.'”
Sea.citi’s board is dominated by Seattle-based tech companies despite calls from the community for cross-sector collaboration and a regional approach to local issues. Sea.citi expects additional companies from around the area to join but the group is intended to represent the tech industry segment. In the San Francisco equivalent organization, for example, Williams Sonoma is a member.
“We’d love to have every tech or Williams Sonoma-equivalent company join,” Redman said.
The sea.citi team knows it won’t be easy to convince every Seattleite of the organization’s merits. The tech industry has been criticized for pushing a political agenda without engaging on solutions to civic problems. The most visible example was Seattle’s short-lived head tax, which would have funded affordable housing construction by taxing big companies in the city. Amazon, Vulcan, and other companies donated thousands of dollars to the campaign to repeal the tax, which was ultimately successful.
More recently, the mayor’s innovation council was met with skepticism from some Seattle progressives who questioned whether it was more about publicity than solutions.
Sea.citi is intentionally avoiding Seattle’s most controversial issues, like homelessness and affordability, at the outset. The group vetted ideas for a wide range of initiatives, settling on education as the area that would be the most beneficial for tech worker volunteers and least polarizing to the broader community.
“What I’m hoping this will do is provide people a safe way to engage without feeling like they’re going to be called out like, ‘You newbie, what are you doing?’ At schools, nobody can complain about helping kids,” Redman said. “It’s not like you’re marching against whatever, you’re helping kids. You’re engaged in the community in a really useful way.”
Sea.citi is starting with education but eventually plans to take on other Seattle challenges, like transportation, homelessness, and neighborhood safety.
The group has raised about $250,000 to get off the ground. Companies that join sea.citi pay membership dues based on their employee count. For example, companies with 1-250 employees pay somewhere in the ballpark of $500-$2,500 annually while companies with 2,500-5,000 employees have dues of $25,000-$50,000.
The education initiative is called Greenlight. On Sept. 6, employees of sea.citi member companies will deliver school supplies for students at Aki Kurose Middle School, serve a catered lunch, and mentor students on their post-school goals. Over the past few months, employees of sea.citi companies have been donating money to the Greenlight discretionary fund, which will be managed by Communities in Schools. The nonprofit will direct funds to programs and individual students with specific needs.
Greenlight is modeled after a similar initiative by sf.citi that has encouraged tech workers to donate time and money to 55 San Francisco schools over the past few years.
“We really want to work with our members to design and deploy campaigns that help their employees build awareness, garner support, and have direct pathways for action,” Merriam said. He wants sea.citi to “then use that momentum and that energy to fuel some of the great work that’s happening here in Seattle.”