Seattle magazine’s Most Influential People of 2021
By Seattle Mag
November 30, 2021
These innovators took bold actions and big risks during a trying year. From the arts to civic engagement to business, here's a look at those who made a measurable difference across the state in 2021.
Black Coffee NW: Dan Schlatter; Michael Greer: Michael Slobodian; Pallavi Wahi: Brad Kevelin; Vivian Hua: Alex Rodionov
Confidence and concern.
That’s how Downtown Seattle Association President and Chief Executive Officer Jon Scholes describes the mood of the downtown community when discussing Seattle’s future. He notes that the community isn’t monolithic: It consists of large businesses (think Nordstrom), numerous small proprietors and almost 100,000 residents.
Scholes has emerged as the voice of that community as it seeks to regain the enormous economic momentum it enjoyed prior to the pandemic. Chronic homelessness, in particular, is a major crisis.
“Addressing homelessness will require a more urgent, focused, accountable and results-oriented plan than what has been deployed in the six years since the city and county declared a state of emergency on homelessness,” he says. “Our inability to effectively address this issue is costing too many lives and dollars and will slow our recovery in downtown Seattle. Small-business owners, residents, employers, and arts and cultural leaders are demanding local government act to address these issues with urgency.”
Scholes, though, is upbeat about the future given the “assets” coursing through the heart of the city, including arts, culture, sports, the food scene, natural beauty and the new waterfront, scheduled to be complete by late 2024. Community safety and improving the pedestrian experience are top priorities.
“We must redouble our efforts to make (our) urban core more walkable and our public spaces more welcoming, cared for, interesting and delightful,” he says.
DSA defines downtown as about a dozen neighborhoods between Uptown and South Lake Union to the north to Pioneer Square and Chinatown-International District to the south. — Rob Smith
Covid-19 changed everything at Rainier Valley Food Bank. Executive Director Gloria Hatcher-Mays realized what needed to happen.
In-person shopping was discontinued. Home deliveries increased fivefold, to 1,000 per week. To-go food bag distribution doubled to 600 per week. Demand skyrocketed for the food bank’s popular backpack program, which delivers bags of food to more than 1,600 at-risk students who attend 14 different schools in South Seattle.
“The impact of Covid-19 has been devastating,” says Hatcher-Mays, who joined the food bank in 2019. “As a result, our service area expanded and our demographic became more diverse.”
Hatcher-Mays already knew the food bank’s existing 1,200-square-foot building was inadequate. Covid-19 forced the organization – the Seattle area’s busiest food bank – to move quickly. In June, she spearheaded the acquisition of funeral home Bonney Watson’s former Southwest Mortuary Property on Rainier Avenue South. The new 8,000-square foot building allows the food bank to meet heightened demand.
“Our humble facility – the same we’ve been in for the past 25 years – limited our ability to fully serve those in need,” she says. “As we raise funds to renovate our new facility, we plan to honor the history and future of this building through thoughtful design and increased programming that addresses social justice and food insecurity throughout the greater Seattle area.”
The food bank, which opened 30 years ago, serves more than 11,000 people and 1 million meals annually. — Rob Smith
It’s a late july friday night in busy Ballard and Linda Derschang is working the door checking for proof of Covid-19 vaccination at her lumber chic bar King’s Hardware. The labor shortage has demanded that Derschang, who is usually in bed by 10 p.m., work a shift at her neighborhood-defining establishment.
It’s also emblematic of the entrepreneurial and visionary Derschang, who is constantly evolving and redefining her businesses. She was among the first restaurateurs to require proof of vaccination to dine at her restaurants – Oddfellows Café + Bar and Linda’s Tavern are her others – long before the King County mandate began on Oct. 25. She built outdoor covered seating, which she refers to as streeteries, at her restaurants and bars before many of her neighbors during the pandemic. She hopes streetside dining sticks around.
“We still don’t know what to expect,” Derschang says. “With cases spiking and having to go back to wearing masks indoors we are trying to figure all of that out. Will there be another variant? Will vaccination rates go up? We have to constantly evaluate.”
Derschang moved from Denver to Seattle in 1987 and opened Basic, a fashion boutique with a punk rock aesthetic on Broadway. After closing the boutique, she opened her first bar, Linda’s Tavern, along with Sub Pop cofounders Jonathan Poneman and Bruce Pavitt.
“(Design) is my favorite thing, I am not a chef. I love fashion and I love interior design. So, I’ve been more focused on design than the food, quite honestly,” she says. “I care about the food, but my restaurants are not chef-driven places. The three places I have left are considered institutions in their neighborhoods and in Seattle. I don’t win awards for best places. I am not going to get a Beard Award.”
— Chris S. Nishiwaki
The business model for performing arts organizations dates back centuries: sitting around a campfire and telling stories. The pandemic forced those organizations to switch that overnight.
“It’s taken Netflix and Disney well over a decade, if not several decades, to really home in on what the digital model is in terms of revenue, developing content and a subscriber base,” says Michael Greer, president and chief executive officer of ArtsFund, a Seattle nonprofit consisting of members from the region’s arts community. “The expectations are that we just flip a switch and move from a model hundreds of years old into a new model overnight. That’s almost impossible.”
Greer and his organization have tirelessly advocated for the arts community during the pandemic, offering advice, support and best practices at a time when earned income among arts organizations has plummeted 65%.
Greer applauds the creative pandemic pivots organizations have adopted the past 18 months, but says the arts ultimately need in-person performances to physically connect people. He notes that arts organizations struggle to turn a profit even in packed theaters.
ArtsFund is conducting a Covid Cultural Impact Study to measure the economic and social impacts of venue closures to arts, cultural, heritage and science nonprofit organizations across Washington state. It will be released this winter.
Greer knows it won’t be pretty. Like in other professions, arts organizations are struggling to replace former workers who’ve moved away or moved on to entirely new types of work.
“The bottom line is this will continue to be very challenging for everybody,” he says. — Rob Smith
When she was named news director at Tacoma public radio station KNKX more than two years ago, Florangela Davila set out to expand and diversify the coverage area.
It didn’t take long for her efforts to pay off: KNKX was recognized with the prestigious 2021 regional Edward R. Murrow Award for “Overall Excellence” in the large market radio category. KNKX also earned Edward R. Murrow Awards for Excellence in Innovation, Podcast, News Documentary and Investigative Reporting.
“Newsrooms have to reflect the communities they serve. It’s common sense. It’s the right thing to do,” Davila says. “It is also smart. If you want to find interesting stories, you have to find different angles. One way to do that is to make sure you have different voices around the table. If you don’t have people from different backgrounds, you are not accurately reflecting the region that you are covering.”
Davila, a former Seattle Times and Crosscut staffer, has spent her entire career in local news.
“It is extremely important to tell stories in the communities where we live and where we work. As evidenced by the (2016 presidential) election, there’s a great misunderstanding, that chasm, between people,” she says. “We think we know each other but we don’t.” — Chris S. Nishiwaki
Chronus ceo seena mortazavi is a business executive and civic leader. He’s also a warrior for social justice.
Seattle-based Chronus last summer raised $78 million to support its mission around building a business to create more inclusive workplaces and fine-tune its mentoring programs.
“The pandemic has totally changed the landscape in the workplace and in our day-to-day lives, and we’ve seen a huge spike in demand for mentoring software and platforms we offer,” says Mortazavi, who has held the CEO spot since 2015. “We can help people shape their lives through the power of mentoring.”
Chronus helps organizations launch, manage, scale and measure mentorship programs at a time when companies are struggling mightily to hang on to workers. According to the 2021 Microsoft Work Trend Index, at least 40% of the global workforce is considering leaving their jobs this year. Another study, by Prudential Financial, finds that 80% of employees who plan to quit complain about the lack of career advancement opportunities.
Besides bringing those issues to the forefront, Mortazavi says the pandemic accelerated the shift to a hybrid workforce. Customers had been demanding products to help them respond to those challenges, especially around diversity, equity and inclusion, prior to 2020.
“We all believe that mentoring is one of the few ways that the world can really improve,” Mortazavi says. “Workplaces specifically, but just the whole world can become a little bit more empathetic. It’s one thing to kind of read about DEI and do training. It’s quite another to speak with someone who can share their stories and walk you through the challenges they’re facing every day.”
The demand is real. The global mentoring software market is expected to exceed $1 billion by 2026, more than double what it is now.
Prior to Chronus, Mortazavi focused his career on social impact, working with CEOs and small-business owners designing, launching and growing microfinance products and services. He connected rural farmers with mobile banking services, designed financial products for microhousing customers and helped marginalized women access small-business loans.
“Really, our measure of success isn’t financial. I know my investors probably won’t be happy with me saying that,” he says. “We really are mission-driven. We’re very passionate. This is about changing lives.” — Rob Smith
Despite significant pandemic-related financing shortfalls, Matt Griffin never lost faith that the Washington State Convention Center expansion would move forward.
Griffin is the longtime principal and managing partner at Seattle real estate developer and property management company Pine Street Group L.L.C., the project developer of the $1.9 billion Summit addition. The 11-story, 1.6 million square-foot expansion faced a $300 million funding shortfall as investors backed off during the pandemic because of the collapse of the tourism sector and the loss of revenue from lodging taxes. The project was in danger of completely shutting down.
“Construction on this project will come to a halt if we don’t secure federal financing assistance for the project,” Griffin said in May 2020. “This project has the potential to be one of our region’s most important economic recovery tools. Delaying it would be a huge loss for our community.”
Griffin held countless meetings with local, state and federal officials to move the project forward. His efforts paid off in March, when the sale of $342 million in municipal bonds closed the financing gap.
The expansion will add about 248,000-square-feet of exhibit space, 59 meeting rooms and a 58,000 square -foot ballroom. It’s estimated the facility will generate $260 million annually in visitor spending and up to 3,900 direct and indirect jobs. The project also calls for $93 million in community benefits, including $40 million for affordable housing.
Completion is expected next year. — Rob Smith
Under the leadership of chief Executive Officer Renée Hopkins, the Seattle-based Alliance for Gun Responsibility racked up several impressive legislative victories.
Public safety bills passed by the state Legislature last session included banning open carry of weapons at demonstrations or at the state capitol; allowing formerly incarcerated individuals to vote; prohibiting police chokeholds and no-knock warrants; requiring the collection of data on deadly force incidents; and the establishment of a new agency inside the governor’s office to investigate the use of deadly force.
“Going into this session, our communities and our lawmakers faced immense challenges from the pandemic and economic fallout to the crisis of police violence and epidemic of gun violence,” Hopkins says. “Lawmakers took decisive action to respond to the moment by rejecting armed intimidation and passing several measures to strengthen police oversight and accountability.”
Hopkins, a lifelong resident of Washington state, has a long career in social justice, previously serving as executive director of the Seattle Police Foundation and working on juvenile justice reform in King County. Her work is highly personal: Her brother, Arnie, died in a school shooting in 1996. — Rob Smith
After a career spent advocating for environmental causes, it’s a natural fit that Martha Kongsgaard is heading the fundraising campaign for the Seattle Aquarium’s ambitious new Ocean Pavilion. As the Seattle Foundation blog put it, “Kongsgaard and her husband, Peter Goldman, have been leaders in stewarding our natural world for more than 30 years.”
Kongsgaard, a longtime community activist who has served on several conservation-related boards, including Friends of the Waterfront, Washington Environmental Council and the Bullitt Foundation, ran the Kongsgaard-Goldman Foundation for almost three decades until the couple sold the business. Their philanthropy is now under the umbrella of the Seattle Foundation.
Kongsgaard is currently chairperson of the Seattle Aquarium One Ocean, One Future campaign, which seeks to raise money for the Ocean Pavilion, a 50,000-square-foot addition to the existing aquarium on Piers 59 and 60. Aquarium officials estimate the expansion could accommodate 50% more guests by the time of its scheduled completion in 2024.
Aquarium supporters estimate the Ocean Pavilion and revamped waterfront will help draw 1.2 million visitors a year to the aquarium, up from 850,000 prior to the pandemic.
Cost is north of $100 million.
Exhibits will focus on the Coral Triangle, an endangered area of the Pacific Ocean near Indonesia known for sea-life diversity. The Ocean Pavilion will show the link between the local waters of the Salish Sea and the wider Pacific, both of which are contending with pollution and acidification from rising carbon dioxide emissions. Just as orca whales are suffering in the Pacific Northwest, sharks are struggling in the Coral Triangle.
“This very valuable piece of real estate could have gone to the highest bidder. It’s really the crown jewel of the waterfront,” Kongsgaard says.
Kongsgaard has also served as a quiet adviser on environmental issues to the likes of Gov. Jay Inslee, U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and King County Executive Dow Constantine. — Rob Smith
Vin Gupta is an emergency care doctor, a pulmonologist and an epidemiologist.
He is not related to Sanjay Gupta. More on that later.
All of his clinical qualifications have coalesced to put him in the right place at such a wrong time. As the affiliate assistant professor at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) at the University of Washington, he has become the voice of reason for anxious Americans looking for guidance during the pandemic, including the current and previous White House administrations. It is telling that the pragmatic, agnostic and data-driven results of the IHME have earned trust across the political spectrum, despite its divisions.
“You can never plan on a respiratory pandemic,” says Gupta, an NBC News medical analyst. “You want to be prepared for it. When this happened, I felt extremely well-prepared for this pandemic.”
Gupta, whose mother was a neonatologist, is a senior health principal at Amazon. He has also consulted for the Seattle Seahawks, who were the only team during the 2020 NFL season to not have a Covid-19 case.
“IHME’s work has played a critical role in helping our community, nation and world better understand the course of the pandemic,” says University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce. “Their projections have enhanced our health care system’s ability to respond, and they have helped inform policy decisions by providing important metrics about how health measures like masking can make us safer.”
Gupta anticipates another difficult winter, with more people congregating indoors and increased respiratory viruses. He predicts the country will return to “normal” by spring 2022.
Aside from looking into his crystal ball, the question he receives most often is if he is related to Dr. Sanjay Gupta, his counterpart at CNN. No, he is not, he replies with a chuckle. But he refers to him as a mentor. — Chris S. Nishiwaki
Black Coffee Northwest is as much about community as coffee. Husband-and-wife owners Erwin and Darnesha Weary wouldn’t have it any other way.
The Wearys, who actually met over coffee more than two decades ago, opened the shop in Shoreline a little more than a year ago with a goal to provide a safe space for all, particularly Black and BIPOC youth. They have hosted voter registration drives and support a host of outreach and youth programs.
“Black Coffee Northwest is more of a community hub where we intentionally bring people together around really good coffee and really good drinks,” Darnesha says. “Our main goal is really bringing people together and building community.”
The business has not been universally welcomed. Black Coffee Northwest has been beset by arson. On another occasion, a swastika was spray painted on its exterior.
The Wearys, however, continue to thrive, and have added a nonprofit, afterschool program next to the café, actively fundraising to operate it. They plan to open a second Black Coffee Northwest in the heart of Ballard in early 2022.
Black Coffee Northwest employs 14, mostly women of color, often engaging them in business decisions. Staff retention since opening is more than 80%.
“A lot of the best ideas come from our staff,” Erwin says. “We don’t want to make them feel like they are just working here. We want them to feel like they are part of this whole thing. So, they take pride in this place.”
The coffee shop remains open after hours and on weekends as a community meeting and entertainment space. The Wearys host movie nights, live music, car shows and town hall-style meetings.
“You can see the work happening when you are here,” Erwin adds. “Pretty much every weekday in the evenings and weekends, there’s something happening.” — Chris S. Nishiwaki
Vulcan Real Estate Inc. isn’t the developer for every new project in the Puget Sound region. It just seems that way. As its chief real estate officer, Ada Healey is in the middle of it all.
The Seattle company most recently bought a site for a 249-unit apartment complex in the white-hot Bel-Red Corridor. The semi-industrial neighborhood in northeast Bellevue is undergoing a wave of development in anticipation of Sound Transit’s East Link light rail line opening in 2023.
Vulcan is also developing several high-rise towers totaling 2 million square feet of office space in Bellevue’s central business district. Amazon has signed leases to occupy the office space in both projects. The company previously developed several buildings for Amazon in the South Lake Union neighborhood.
The projects are Vulcan’s first foray on the Eastside.
“With 10 million square feet of office space slated for delivery on the Eastside by 2025, much of which is preleased, we anticipate the creation of over 50,000 new jobs, driving strong apartment rental demand and rent growth in the years ahead,” says Healey, who has been with Vulcan for exactly 20 years. “We are excited about expanding into the Bel-Red Corridor. The development opportunity aligns with our values and goals around sustainable, transit-oriented development.”
Vulcan also recently secured a space for a woman- and minority-owned business to rent one of its three micro-retail spaces at the Jackson Apartments in the Central Area. — Rob Smith
Vivian Hua was determined to support filmmakers during the pandemic.
Hua, executive director of the acclaimed Northwest Film Forum (NWFF), is a filmmaker and writer herself. Through Hua’s leadership, NWFF developed several important virtual programs and webinars during the past 18 months, offering venues and staffing while also financially supporting a range of small, diverse cultural organizations.
The nonprofit organization, which presents hundreds of films, festivals, performances, educational workshops and panel discussions annually, streamed about two dozen online film festivals during the past year and hosted numerous reopening panels, with a focus on the BIPOC and LBGTQ communities. Last January, Hua brought the national spotlight on NWFF and the local film scene through a partnership with the Sundance Film Festival.
For her efforts, Hua was the 2021 recipient of the 15th annual Mayor’s Award for Outstanding Achievement in Film.
“Vivian brings to her role a passion for preserving cultural space, centering work in equity and inclusivity, and finding ways to disrupt oppressive structures,” Mayor Jenny Durkan says. ”Covid has significantly disrupted our film industry. However, despite an extremely difficult year, the drive, creativity and innovation of the industry have not been stopped.”
Hua understands the responsibility she carries as both a creator and one who supports those who create.
“I know first-hand the importance that everyone who wants to create is empowered to create,” she says, “and wherever possible, I want to use my relative privilege to support other artists.”
Hua last month announced she would step down from her post at the Northwest Film Forum, which recently launched a capital campaign as it searches for new space. She says she wants to focus on her own artistic endeavors. NWFF is hoping to name a replacement by February.
— Xavier Lopez Jr.
Dr. John Tomkowiak
It took six long years, but the state of Washington finally has its second public medical school: The Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine received full accreditation this past summer.
Founding Dean Dr. John Tomkowiak has been there almost from the beginning. Dr. Tomkowiak was recruited from the University of Chicago at the beginning of 2016 for the sole purpose of launching the venture. The only other public medical school in the state is at the University of Washington.
Dr. Tomkowiak steered the accreditation through an arduous four-step process, including provisional accreditation two years ago. The process for full accreditation included the submission of more than 2,500 pages of required documentation. The school welcomed its inaugural class in 2017.
“Achieving full accreditation marks the culmination of a journey that began the day we started the Elson S. Floyd College of Medicine and pursued relentlessly for the past six years to fulfill our mission to the people and communities of Washington,” Dr. Tomkowiak says.
Backers say the school was necessary both because of a doctor shortage in the state – especially in rural areas – and because capacity issues at the University of Washington sent potential students to out-of-state schools. The school is named after former WSU President Elson Floyd, who championed the idea before his death in 2015.
Dr. Tomkowiak was also recently named one of Spokane’s Power Fifty Influencers by Spokane Coeur d’Alene Living Magazine. — Rob Smith
Pam MacEwan is on a mission to get as many Washington residents as possible the health care they need.
MacEwan is chief executive officer of Washington Healthplanfinder, the state’s insurance marketplace. She led the effort last February to designate a special enrollment period in response to the Covid-19 public health emergency. More than 57,000 residents signed up for health care coverage between Feb. 15 and Aug. 15.
“These new premium subsidies are available to people across all income brackets in a way we’ve never seen before,” says MacEwan, who credits the enrollment increase to the federal American Rescue Plan Act, which slashed costs and expanded eligibility. “It’s not a surprise that record numbers of Washingtonians signed up to take advantage.”
More than 34,000 customers now receive health coverage for $1 per month or less. Nearly half of all customers pay less than $100 per month and 23,000 families previously ineligible for federal savings experienced on average a $200 drop in their monthly premiums.
Those savings are again available during the current annual open enrollment period, which began Nov. 1. — Rob Smith
The past year has been quite eventful for Kristi Brown.
Brown and her son, Damon Bomar, opened their “Seattle soul food” restaurant Communion Restaurant & Bar on East Union Street in the Liberty Bank Building, an apartment complex whose namesake pays home to the first Black-owned bank in the Pacific Northwest.
Brown’s catering company, That Brown Girl Cooks!, also joined the Seattle Community Collective Kitchen, an effort among several restaurateurs to provide food for those in need during the pandemic.
Then, last spring, Condé Nast Traveler named Communion one of the 12 best new restaurants in the world. And, just last month, The New York Times recognized Communion on “The Restaurant List 2021: The 50 places in America we’re most excited about right now.”
“The vibes at Communion are warm and welcoming, and it’s not unusual to strike up a conversation with the table next to yours,” wrote Times reporter Tejal Rao, who called the food delicious. “Kristi Brown…doesn’t miss.”
That’s exactly the vibe Brown envisioned.
“When you walk in our door, one of our things is ‘I am home,’” Brown says. “And the point of ‘I am home’ is to make sure that Black folks feel welcome, thereby allowing everyone else to feel welcome as well.”
The Times also named Seattle restaurants Paju and Archipelago to the list. — Rob Smith
Instagram sensation Susanna Ryan has become a tourist in her own backyard.
Ryan, who has 22,000 followers, just released her second book, “Secret Seattle (Seattle Walk Report), An Illustrated Guide to the City’s Offbeat and Overlooked History.” Ryan, a self-taught cartoonist, illustrator and designer, anonymously started the Instagram comic series Seattle Walk Report back in 2017.
The book is a wonderful, comic-strip mixture of the hidden histories of several of Seattle’s most unexplored locations, facts and trivia which, according to publisher Penguin Random House, “explores the weird and wonderful history behind some of the city’s most overlooked places, architecture and infrastructure, from coal chutes in Capitol Hill to the last remainder of Seattle’s original Chinatown in Pioneer Square.”
Ryan, who has never owned a car, began walking for fun in 2017. She was amazed at the city’s treasure trove of discoveries hidden in plain view.
“It was a total whim. One day, I left my Capitol Hill apartment on foot without a destination or any time restraints and it felt like a different side of Seattle revealed itself almost instantly,” she recalls. “Within minutes, I was seeing so many weird, wonderful, interesting things, and all these streets and places I never even knew existed. From that day on, walking was all I wanted to do.”
At its core, Ryan’s work foments a relationship between residents and the city. She makes even the most minute details seem new and exciting. She estimates she’s walked more than 10,000 miles around the city and has no plans to stop.
“Walking was the first time I truly gave myself over to the journey and not the destination,” she says. “That mindset has trickled over to every part of my life.” — Xavier Lopez Jr.
Terra Plata owner Tamara Murphy jumped into action during the pandemic, serving as a mentor to others in the restaurant industry and launching a program to feed schoolchildren.
“I made myself available as an elder chef in the community,” Murphy says. “I felt I did have something to say and I did have a lot to feel. I wanted to just naturally create a safe space and that it is totally OK to be terrified. It is OK to be angry and afraid and uncertain. We need to be able to talk about it and be there for each other.”
Murphy and her business and life partner, Linda DiLello, developed the program “Food is Love,” feeding schoolchildren who previously depended on school lunches and others suffering from hunger. Murphy and DiLello teamed up with Marina Gray of the Lowell School and Egan Orion of Finding Common Ground and led the effort to feed more than 75,000 children and adults.
Murphy has been nourishing, nurturing and mentoring restaurant professionals for decades and has also become somewhat of a political powerhouse. Chelsea Clinton and former Massachusetts Gov. Duval Patrick have dined at Terra Plata. U.S. Senators Patty Murray and Maria Cantwell and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan also regularly dine there. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal celebrates her birthdays at Terra Plata. — Chris S. Nishiwaki
Add film star to Melissa Miranda’s impressive list of achievements.
The owner and chef of nationally recognized Filipino restaurant Musang is featured in an upcoming documentary about the growing Filipino restaurant scene here, called “Filipinx Food Seattle.” The movie isn’t expected to be complete until next year.
Last year, Santos also was the driving force behind the Seattle Community Collective Kitchen, an effort to provide food in need and to raise money for those affected by the pandemic. Seattle Community Kitchen still operates two days a week as the pandemic continues. Seattle Community Kitchen grew out of Miranda’s Musang Kitchen, which was preparing up to 200 meals per day.
Miranda has said that she hopes to continue feeding those in need after the pandemic fades. — Rob Smith
Pallavi Mehta Wahi
Pallavi Mehta Wahi says diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) have always been “near and dear” to her heart, but not because she’s a person of color.
Wahi, who was born in New Delhi, India, is comanaging partner of law firm K&L Gates’ 23 U.S. offices and also serves as managing partner of the firm’s Seattle office. She leads the firm-wide diversity committee, where she led efforts to create “Conversations About Race,” an online speaker series that convenes voice around diversity.
She was also instrumental in creating “K&L Gates for Equal Justice,” a push to harness the firm’s legal skills to promote unity. The effort focuses on voting rights, criminal justice reform and equal justice for indigenous people.
“At a base level, DEI is good for everyone. It’s good for society. It’s good for business. It’s good for the way we look at issues,” she says. “It’s just the right thing to do on so many levels for all of us as individuals.”
Wahi is just as busy outside the firm. She serves as first vice board chairperson at the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and will take over as chairperson late next year. She serves on the board of directors at the Woodland Park Zoo, is a member of the Industry Advisory Board, Global Law Institute at the University of Washington School of Law and is on the board of trustees at the King County Bar Association (among several law-related professional and civic activities).
Wahi says leadership has nothing to do with job titles or even careers.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about bringing a sense of engagement back to the city,” she says. “It’s all about making sure people of your community feel like they have a home and a family and a place where they belong. Anybody can provide leadership in the way they’re part of the community. It’s about creating connection.” — Rob Smith
Tim Burgess just can’t stay away from public service.
Burgess retired from City Hall in 2017 after spending 10 years on the Seattle City Council and 51 days as Seattle mayor. But he remains as busy as ever, advocating for early learning, police reform and ending homelessness, all signature issues during his time in public office.
“My wife keeps reminding me that I am retired,” Burgess says. “Public policy is in my blood. I love it. I was always reading and writing about public policy. When I left the mayor’s office, I started thinking, ‘What am I going to do? How am I going to continue being aware of and potentially influencing public policy?’”
Burgess most recently dedicated his time and energy to Compassion Seattle, the organization that promoted an amendment to the Seattle Charter that would have mandated provisions of emergency and permanent housing and mental health and substance-use disorder services for the chronically homeless. The courts rejected the campaign to bring it to the November ballot.
“The fundamental most significant driver of homelessness is simply lack of housing,” Burgess says. “You add mental health or drug addiction and that certainly complicates it. We have to deal with that. That’s why the Compassion Seattle measure was so focused on behavioral health.”
Burgess continues to advocate for an end to homelessness, instead now choosing to back candidates for mayor and city council who would be sympathetic to his goal for a more compassionate Seattle.
“Tim sets a high bar for himself and others around him,” says Bruce Harrell, Burgess’ former colleague on the Seattle City Council and mayoral candidate (this article went to press prior to the election). “He reads voraciously and expects actions consistent with best practices, common sense and compassion. He epitomizes good public service.”
Burgess’ list of accomplishments includes taking a leading role in the successful Families and Education levy in 2011 that provided school health clinics in every middle and high school, and the Seattle preschool program that expanded access to early education. He wants to expand the program statewide and will be publishing a position paper with the University of Michigan on how Washington state should offer universal preschool. — Chris S. Nishiwaki
When Manny Ramos was in the first grade, he came home from school with a flyer promoting the local Boys Scouts chapter in Dallas where he grew up a fifth generation Tejano (Texan of Mexican descent). Days later he would enroll in the youth scouting program and has been engaged since.
Today, more than 40 years later, he is the executive director of the Boys Scouts Chief Seattle Council, leading the 10,000-plus member organization serving King, Kitsap, Jefferson and Clallam counties through seismic changes.
Ramos has been integral in transforming the historically homogeneous organization into a more diverse nonprofit. He has also contributed to developing the sexual assault prevention program, which has become a model that other nonprofits seek to emulate.
“There’s certainly been, in the past, abuse in the organization,” Ramos concedes. “We accept that and we support those victims. We have one of the strictest youth protection programs. We make sure they are safe. There’s no wiggle room. It was not just a problem for us. It was a societal problem. We are an organization that can change that. When we added girls to our program, we ramped that up to make sure boys and girls can be safe together.”
The Chief Seattle Council has added nearly 30 girls to its rolls in 2021, a feat more remarkable considering the restrictions that Covid-19 has imposed on social activity.
“I don’t care who you are or where you are from,” Ramos says. “Scouting is a worldwide organization. What we try to tell youth is scouting is for everyone.” — Chris S. Nishiwaki
Many restaurants closed during the pandemic. A report earlier this year found that a staggering 10% across the country have gone out of business.
Seattle celebrity chef Ethan Stowell did the opposite.
Stowell expanded his empire, extending to Spokane, where he opened a third Tavolata (a fourth Tavolata opening is pending at 2+U, the new commercial development on Second Avenue and University Street in downtown Seattle).
He also opened a second How to Cook a Wolf in Madison Park, turned the former Wallingford Mexican restaurant Super Bueno into another Tavolata and reimagined Ballard’s Brambling Cross into ESR (his company’s corporate name) pop-ups.
More pointedly, he took over Tom Douglas’ permanently closed Tanakasan at the Via6 building in South Lake Union and turned it into a sports bar, The Victor Tavern, a sign that, perhaps, he has eclipsed Douglas as the dominant local restaurateur.
All told, Stowell owns and operates 19 restaurants. He also runs two pizza stands at T-Mobile Park, two at Lumen Field and three at Climate Pledge Arena, and consults on the food menu for all Flatstick Pub locations. ESR recently invested in Pike Place Brewing Co. along with Howard Wright, III, who owns and operates the Space Needle.
Stowell also cochairs the United Way of King County campaign, along with ESR President Steve Hooper Jr. It’s the second time he has led the drive.
“We are not done growing. We are looking at places on the Eastside. We are looking to other cities,” Stowell says, citing Boise as a possibility and other locations in Spokane for a Ballard Pizza Co. — Chris S. Nishiwaki
Diversity, equity and inclusion have recently become a cornerstone of culture. Dr. Ben Danielson has been practicing it for decades.
It came to a head at the end of 2020 when Danielson, who is Black, resigned in protest as medical director of the Odessa Brown Children’s Clinic, citing racism at Children’s Hospital. He had become fed up and was considering job opportunities around the country from organizations that recognized his clinical expertise and uncanny bedside manner.
“I think to this day, people in leadership (at the clinic) see diversity, equity and inclusion as a public relations issue more than a real issue,” Danielson says. “That is so insulting for the folks like me that care for Children’s Hospital like I do. It is so insulting to the families who deserve to be treated with dignity, to the community that feels that trust comes with accountability.”
Citing his support for equitable health access and his tireless nonprofit work, Seattle-King County Realtors honored Danielson with its First Citizen Award in August.
He was recently appointed to the UW School of Medicine Department of Pediatrics, where he continues to care for local youth. He is also the new director of Allies in Healthier Systems for Health & Abundance, a program funded by the Bezos Family Foundation and the Barton Distinguished Endowed Professorship for Youth Justice and Health Equity that strives to end youth incarceration by 2025. — Chris S. Nishiwaki