These days, you could call former Washington state Governor Christine Gregoire one of Seattle’s biggest boosters. That’s due to her role as chief executive of Challenge Seattle, a new, private, CEO-driven initiative aimed at boosting Seattle’s international profile and raising some self-awareness.
Why? It turns out that we’re a little too slow to brag.
When she was governor, Gregoire says, she came back from overseas trade trips excited about Seattle’s international reputation. But she also found clear evidence that we could do more—much more. “We’re known for innovation and creating companies like Microsoft and Boeing,” she says. But Gregoire also found, “When we surveyed Chinese people about Seattle, they thought Boeing had left, Starbucks was from New York, and Amazon.com was in Silicon Valley.”
At Challenge Seattle, Gregoire is joined by a coalition of 17 company CEOs—including Microsoft president Brad Smith, who led her to this organization by encouraging her to follow her passion, to make Seattle a globally competitive city, when she left the governor’s office. Other company CEOs involved include those from Amazon, Costco, Nordstrom, Starbucks, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
Gregoire recently spoke with Seattle magazine about her new responsibility.
What was it about Challenge Seattle that pulled you in?
I’d only been out of office for a few months when Brad Smith invited me to lunch and said, “You need to decide what you are going to do, where your passion lies.”
At the time, Phyllis Campbell [chair of Pacific Northwest for JPMorgan Chase & Co.] was working with the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and the Boston Consulting Group on the question of how to make Seattle a global city. Brad asked me to help. I traveled with a group of people to San Francisco, Boston, Austin and New York to look at what they were doing. We looked back on the history of Seattle and early days of dramatic civic leadership. We realized that if we wanted to remain a globally competitive international city, we would have to step up to the challenge.
So Challenge Seattle is the result. How does it work?
It’s totally CEO driven. Everyone commits to five years of support and contributes what they want to. We are focused on four things: education, jobs, transportation and marketing the region.
I discovered that we have a group of international CEOs who don’t know their colleagues here. They can’t take advantage of opportunities for collaboration. Perfect example: Last summer [Boeing Commercial Airplanes CEO] Ray Conner called me to ask what we could do about the terrible forest fires in Eastern Washington. I made some calls. Within 48 hours, we had full participation of all 17 CEOs to the tune of $750,000 to contribute to the Red Cross. That gave us a sense of what we could do.
Can you describe some tangible things that Challenge Seattle is doing to market the region?
This campaign is about attracting companies and talent. We will soon launch a domestic campaign that shows portraits of important personalities like Tom Douglas and ends with the slogan “Incredible Works Here.”
Internationally, people know about Bill Gates. But there are others here who also have international recognition [but the global community doesn’t connect them to Seattle]. We want to play up the fact that people like Jeff Bezos, Gates, Paul Allen and Howard Schultz are all from here.
What are Challenge Seattle’s plans regarding education?
We support the University of Washington in the creation of the Global Innovation Exchange (GIX). It’s an 18-month master’s program with a multidisciplinary approach to learning. The Challenge Seattle CEOs might do some teaching and mentoring. In turn, they get a first look at students they might snatch up and hire. There is a development group in China that wants to co-locate an incubator next to GIX [in a new facility that will be located in Bellevue’s “Spring District”] to house startups from China. This collaborative approach between students and business is unique.
We are also partnering with the local Road Map Project, which encourages students to seek college educations and certifications. We’ll have CEOs talk to students in person or through videos. They can show students what they have to do to get into college and get those $80,000 Boeing or Amazon jobs. These CEOs genuinely want to hire locally, but we aren’t generating the talent that they need.
What kinds of plans do you have for transportation?
The people in this community will embrace growth if they believe someone is paying attention to transportation. Earlier this year, we convened a group of transportation experts to provide information, research and insights that would help us shape our approach to transportation.
Our approach includes immediate actions—the creation of a Mobility Innovation Center for transportation, and taking steps to reduce the number of people commuting in single-occupancy vehicles—and long-term strategies for improving our overall system. These long-term strategies focus on areas for collaboration with transportation agencies and elected officials to support new solutions for the I-5 corridor, transportation funding and maintenance planning.
We also want to create a think tank of leading experts at the University of Washington that can look at the cutting edge of transportation technology. The Good To Go! pass works for Highway 520 tolls, but it’s useless on the ferry or bus. Seriously? I ought to have a single app for everything. There ought to be a real-time system managing traffic like in London, so that if there is one accident, we can divert everybody and traffic doesn’t come to a grinding halt. We want to show how we will take the driverless car and introduce it into the community. We have unique challenges; we need solutions that adapt to our uniqueness.
How can we also protect Seattle’s uniqueness?
One of our mission statements is that we want all these things to happen as long as we maintain our core values and culture here. We know we have something unique and we don’t want to promote it to the point that, like people say about San Francisco, it isn’t the old San Francisco anymore. We’ve been asking, what lessons can we learn from what they did there?
That’s why the slogan “Incredible Works Here” doesn’t mean that everybody else sucks and we’re great. It’s to say, “There’s something special here. Incredible things happen here. Whether you are in food or technology or sports.”
Challenge Seattle isn’t the only thing that’s been occupying former Governor Gregoire. Since ending her term as governor in 2013, she’s been chairing the 2015 advisory committee of the Export-Import Bank of the United States, and serves on the boards of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the William D. Ruckelshaus Center. She also enjoys spending time with her two grandchildren.
This interview has been edited and condensed.