Brad Smith: ‘It’s Our Boat Now’

Let me first say thank you to Bill and thank you to Boeing. I think that the partnership in the community between Boeing and Microsoft has really been a lynchpin in terms of some of our efforts to increase investment in the region and promote more good things.

I also just want to say thank you to everybody here. It’s a remarkable group of people in this room. It’s a remarkable group of elected leaders. I think it’s worth pausing and recognizing on a day like today that we live in a state where the government never closes. And regardless of how difficult it may be, the legislature passes a budget each and every year. (Applause.)

But there are so many great people here from great companies, from great nonprofits, from great organizations across the region and the state. I certainly want to say thank you to Maude and to Steve Crown and a special thank you to Phyllis – both because she’s put so much inspiration into what brings us here today, but frankly, also I was so pleased when she said there would be Surfaces rather than iPads here tomorrow. (Laughter.) Just let me say, if I had to go back to Redmond tomorrow and explain that Steve Crown was co-chairing a conference that was using iPads, it might not be altogether pretty.

One of the great things about this particular conference is the almost unique role it has come to play. It gives us an opportunity not just to get away and get the added and broader perspective getting away can bring; it also gives us an annual opportunity to step back and look back, to take stock of what’s going on, and most importantly, focus on some new ideas and help us use those ideas to move forward. I think that was captured very, very well.

When I think of the opportunity it gives us this year to look back, to me, this is a year that’s a little bit special. It’s a little bit special because of a couple of things that have happened that, frankly, give us the ability to get some added insights on our region.

Certainly, one of the exciting moments last December on the 29th was the opening of the new museum for MOHAI. (Applause.)

I remember when my wife and I went to the museum. It was so interesting, but there was one particular exhibit and one particular photograph that really touched me. It was the exhibit that had this photograph. This was the drawing of a day, a day that had an event. It was the Fourth of July in 1854. The community came together and it was an event that was led by this gentleman, Thomas Mercer. Clearly, he was a man who lived in our region before razor blades had made it to the Pacific Northwest. (Laughter.)

But more important than that, it was a day that launched a vision. As Thomas Mercer led the program that day in 1854, he named the lake on which they all looked upon. And he named it Lake Union. And he did so for a very specific reason. He said that there would come a day when this lake would unite Lake Washington with Puget Sound. But he said it would do more than that. It would bring together not just Lake Washington and Puget Sound, it would create the opportunity for our region to create a union of east and west of the United States and North America with the Pacific and with Asia. He was a man, and this was a group, that was well ahead of its time.

They started by digging a ditch. It took six years just to put a ditch between Lake Union and Lake Washington so that some logs could be hauled between them. It actually took two generations of people and 63 years before they could do the job right, before they could dig the Montlake Cut, before they could finish the canal. And it was 63 years later to the day on the Fourth of July in 1917 that our region made the first part of that vision a reality when it opened the Lake Washington Ship Canal.

That is, I think, something that should inspire us today. But it’s actually not, to me personally, the thing that touched me the most. There was something else that came to light this year. It was a new book, a book that, in fact, has been a national bestseller by a local author, Dan Brown. A book called “The Boys in the Boat.”

It’s a book about a different time in our region, the 1930s, when a new generation actually rowed crew in the Montlake Cut and raced in Lake Washington. It was a time when 100,000 people would come to the shores of Lake Washington to watch the University of Washington in its principal races and its racing crew.

But it was a special time because there was a special group of people. There was a group that came together from across the state. And the one thing they had in common, frankly, was they were almost all of humble background. They came from farms and mills and small towns and some from the city. And they became the nine members of the 1936 University of Washington crew team. You see them here.

One can never know what people are thinking when a photograph is taken, but I’ll guarantee one thing: None of these guys could for a moment imagine that they were fashion trendsetters for President Putin. (Laughter.)

But they were an amazing group. They started to set records, and they started to win races. And in 1936 as the Olympics approached, this group of nine men representing the University of Washington went east. And on the 5th of July in 1936, they were in Lake Carnegie, just south of Princeton University, for the Olympic finals, a race that they won.

This was at a time when, frankly, most people in the Ivy League barely knew where Seattle was. They thought it was some far-away place where you could almost see Russia from your house. (Laughter.) This was an upset. And so on the fifth of July, 1936, they earned the right to represent not just our state, but the entire country and to go to the Olympics in Berlin.

But there was a catch. That evening, a fellow named Henry Burke, the chairman of the Olympic Rowing Committee, took the coach of the Husky rowing team aside. And he explained that although they had won the race, it was a tough time. It was the Depression. And unless they could raise the money to pay for the trip themselves, they wouldn’t be able to go.

Henry Burke also happened to be the chairman of the Philadelphia Athletic Club. He happened to live down the street from the University of Pennsylvania. And so he mentioned to the coach and the group from the University of Washington that they shouldn’t worry, he understood how hard it was going to be to raise the $5,000 that would be required. And he said, “I want to put your mind to rest, because if you cannot make the trip, the team that came in second from the University of Pennsylvania already has the money.”

Now, that was Sunday evening. And of course the folks at UW asked the obvious question: How much time do we have? And he said, “You have until Friday.”

They had barely raised the money to make it from Seattle to Princeton. To raise the money to go from New York to Berlin seemed beyond their reach. And yet, an amazing thing happened. They called home. And as they phoned home, like many other college students afterwards, they asked for money. (Laughter.)

But their call was heard. People came together. Our region and our state united. The Seattle Times ran a front-page story and put its money where its mouth was by stepping up and donating $500, the largest single donation, to make it happen.

But it was more than that. Within a day, undergraduates from the university were walking the streets of downtown selling tags for 50 cents. Students were going door to door throughout the neighborhoods, ringing doorbells and asking for money. Across the state, chambers of commerce met the next day, passed the hat, and wired money to Seattle.

As a result, our community raised the money and they did it in 48 hours. And they sent the team that had the opportunity to take to Berlin the hopes not just of a city and a state, but of our entire country.

Of course, once they got to Berlin, the team faced its next set of challenges. Everyone in Germany naturally expected the formidable German crew team to win the race. And of course the German team wasn’t saluting the American flag; it was saluting the man in the stands who was watching the race, the führer, Adolph Hitler.

The night before the finals, the head of the German Olympic Rowing Committee again had a little visit with the coach from the University of Washington. And he explained that although the United States team had had the fastest time trial, there were some new rules. And as a result, under the new rules, the University of Washington team, the U.S. team, was not going to get the best lane in the race. It was going to get the worst lane in the race. The best lane was going to go to the Germans. And the second-best lane was going to go to the friends of the Germans, the team from Italy.

And if that wasn’t bad enough, the morning of the race arrived and the Huskies’ star rower, a fellow named Don Hume, the tallest one in the group, the man who sat right in front of the coxswain, woke up so sick he could not get out of bed.

Eventually, as the day progressed, the team went to the coach and they said, “We don’t care how sick he is, we’d rather lose with him than win without him.” And they got him out of bed and they went down for the final. And this is what happened.

(Olympic finals video segment.)

Nine young men from our state with the worst lane had the best time. They not only excited a state, they impressed a nation. But in many ways, I think they actually did something more than that. They inspired a generation of young people and older people across our state. And it was an amazing generation – a generation that not only went on to win the Second World War, but a generation that built our region.

It was a generation with some amazing people. There was another young man, a man who had graduated – or not quite, I should say – graduated from the University of Washington. He was born in Tacoma in 1911. And he was forced to drop out in 1930 as the depression hit home. His name was Eddie Carlson.

By the 1950s, he was in Seattle. He was the executive vice president of the hotel company that we know as the Westin. And he was asked by the governor to help play a role for the Seattle World’s Fair. He, too, was a man with a vision. He sat down one day with a napkin. And on that napkin, he sketched what would become the Space Needle. He had been inspired by another site in Germany, a tower in Stuttgart. And he said, “Let’s build this.”

The state had no money to pay for it. They raised the money locally. They bought the land and contributed it for public use. They persuaded what is now Howard Wright and Wright Runstad to build the Space Needle.

It was incredibly ambitious for its time. The last elevator was finished and put in place the day before the World’s Fair opened in 1962. And what a fair it was. They created an icon for our region that endures to this day.

But it was a time when many great things were being done. It was a time when the state and the community and the city and the county came together and they built the longest floating bridge in the world. And when they were done, they did something that should inspire us, they connected the bridge to the highway on both sides of the lake. (Laughter, applause.) They were a remarkable generation, weren’t they? (Laughter.) So ahead of their time. (Laughter.)

But I think for many of us, we’ve had to endure some trying times as well. I think for a lot of us who’ve lived here the last couple of decades, one of the enduring, even searing images is not of a Space Needle or a new bridge, but of a trade meeting that took place in 1999. It was not a happy moment. And I actually think in a way that we don’t necessarily reflect upon, it affected our consciousness, it affected our ambition.

In the decade that followed, Vancouver built a new convention center. It brought the Olympics in the winter to Vancouver. And I think, to be honest, most of us said, “Whatever we do, let’s not bring another meeting here.”

And yet, I think it’s time to reflect upon the fact that that chapter was written 14 years ago. And as it was put so well, we are starting to move forward again. We’re starting to do some things that we should all be proud of. And yet, I also think we should ask ourselves whether there’s more we should try to do as well.

As a generation, I think we can aspire to do more than to replace a four-lane bridge with a six-lane bridge. And if there is a moment in time when we can come together and focus on raising our ambition, I think that moment is now. I think that place is here. I think this is the opportunity that we have to come together and look at our future vision this week.

I think there are a few things we need to do. The first thing I think we need to do is pick some priorities – focus on those bold opportunities and decide which are the ones in which we want to invest.

I certainly don’t claim to have all of the answers. But there are a few questions that I think are worth considering.

Think about Thomas Mercer’s vision, a vision of this region as a place that would unite North America and the Pacific and Asia. Think about the opportunities we have to create a gateway to the Pacific. There will be a region on the West Coast of North America that becomes the most desirable location for the next generation of companies founded in China or Korea or across Asia to place their North American headquarters. Why not Puget Sound?

After all, we’ve played this role before. It was in 1980 that Nintendo could have gone anywhere. They chose Redmond as the headquarters for Nintendo of America. And who could have possibly imagined at the time that that decision by Nintendo 15 years later would save Major League Baseball for our region? It just goes to show what you can start to accomplish when you attract new people to put their businesses in your home.

And there are so many opportunities to learn from other cities and the economic development strategies that they are pursuing to attract that kind of investment.

We also have an opportunity to create Seattle as even more of a place where the world does want to come together and meet. There will be a city on the West Coast where people from Asia and North America come together for more conferences than any other place. Right now, it is not Seattle. Last year, in 2012, Vancouver hosted 49 major conventions. Seattle hosted 16. When I look at that, I look at it the way I do the market for Windows Phones. That is a growth opportunity. (Laughter.) (Applause.)

But think about the investments and the policies that would make Seattle the go-to place for more of these kinds of events.

If there’s an opportunity to build ourselves up as a bigger gateway, I think there’s an even bigger opportunity to build our kids up, to take advantage of the opportunities that we are offering them – whether it be the jobs that are not yet here or the jobs that are here today that are going unfilled.

I think it starts by recognizing one fundamental economic fact of life: 96 percent of the world’s population lives outside the United States. The region that can best connect with the rest of the world is likely to lead the way when it comes to economic development here in North America.

And consider this: According to the 2010 census, in the preceding decade, the population of our state grew by 9.7 percent. But the population of Asians in our state grew by 34 percent. The population of Latinos grew by 58 percent. This is an incredible asset because diversity is our strength.

It also means we need to think about education in some new ways. As my wife and I found through the United Way campaign, it really does require a new focus on early learning through programs like the Parent-Child Home Program. It requires that we broaden the access to universities, through programs like the Washington Opportunity Scholarship Program that my wife and I are supporting, and for which I have the benefit and privilege of chairing the board. These are the kinds of things that can propel our region and our state forward.

We have some other opportunities as well. Right now, we are an average state when it comes to computer science in schools. And by “average,” I mean pathetic. (Laughter.) Because as a country, we’re actually quite pathetic. Only 5 percent of high schools in the entire country currently offer the AP course in computer science. In Washington State, we have 771 high schools. And last year, the number that offered the AP course in computer science was 35.

There will be a state in this country that becomes the first state to get computer science into every high school. And I ask, “Why not Washington?” We are a leader in this field. We recognize – we understand – that it is a field that is foundational not just for creating software, but frankly, for creating almost everything. Why can’t we become the first state to get computer science into every high school?

And why can’t we build on that to do more in higher education? Almost every study that has been produced in this state over the last decade has shown the same thing. As a state, we produce about 6,500 fewer four-year degrees than the state needs.

Now, let’s put that in perspective. Every year, the University of Washington graduates about 6,500 seniors. So we’re roughly a University of Washington short of what we need.

On the UW Futures Committee, on which I have the pleasure of serving, we had an opportunity to bring together people from the business community and across the local community and ask, “What can we do?” Because the truth is, we need more. We need more from the University of Washington and we need more from our higher educational institutions across the state. We need to grow them.

And we not only need to grow them, we need to focus on the fields of the future – perhaps especially in science and math and engineering and technology, including computer science.

But as we grow, I think we also have the opportunity to blaze some new trails. There is an opportunity for one state, for one region, for one city to redefine the future of higher education. And everybody knows that part of it will involve online education, but there’s another part as well. At a time when American universities are opening campuses across Asia and in China, let’s ask, how do we create an international center of learning in our own back yard? How do we bring together researchers and faculty and students from around the world so we can learn with them, we can learn together, we can broaden the horizons of our own young people?

Someplace, somewhere, in some city, someone is going to figure this out and crack the code. Why not us? Why not here? Why not now?

As we do these things or similar things, there are a couple of other things we need to focus on as well. One is we need to get out and promote ourselves. If there is a state that spends less on tourism than Washington State, then it must be an amazing place – because they have figured out how to spend less than zero. (Laughter.)

We need to recognize that our tourism budget was a casualty of the recession, but it cannot remain a permanent casualty. (Applause.)

We need to build up our identity. We need to brand ourselves. When I go to Utah, I hear about the Silicon Slopes. In Des Moines, they’re talking about the Silicon Prairie. In New York, they’re talking about Silicon Alley. In London, they’re talking about the Silicon Roundabout. We have the Silicon Sound, but we don’t have a name or we haven’t settled on a name and we’re just keeping it a secret. That will not be good enough.

We need a new public-private partnership that builds on the best practices in places like Chicago and New York and tells our story to the world so we can bring people here to our city and our region.

We also need to recognize that if we’re going to move our boat forward, we need to make sure it’s big enough for everybody. And we need to find a way to row the boat together.

We need to make sure that the business community and organized labor and civic society and nonprofits and people who work in government can find a way to work together. At the end of the day, one’s station in life is defined not so much by the things you defeat, but by the things you pass and get done. And we need to find those things that we can get done together.

And, yes, that will require that we have a conversation about how to pay for new things.

But if there’s one thing that I learned when we had the chance to co-chair the United Way campaign, a campaign that increased contributions by 17 percent, it was this: You need to start by defining what you want to do. You need to build confidence that the money will be well spent. And then you can persuade people to open their wallets and their bank accounts.

And we need to do all of this, I believe, with a sense of urgency. It is simply too easy in the world today to take our current station for granted. We cannot afford to do that.

Bill McSherry hit an important nail on the head. For the last 30 years, as a region, when it comes to aerospace competition and commercial aircraft, we have had the luxury of competing with Western Europe. As somebody who spent three years living in Paris, I can tell you that when it comes to cost management, there is nothing better than competing with a company that’s headquartered in France. (Laughter.)

But that’s not our future. The future will involve competition from Brazil and China and lots of other places as well. We need to act with the urgency that gives us the opportunity to take advantage of the strengths we have today so we can build on them for the future.

Finally, I hope we can find some inspiration. I hope we can find some inspiration in the steps that were taken by the people and the generations that came before us.

I’m struck by this picture at the University of Washington. It’s the Conibear Shellhouse. It bears the name of the coach of that 1936 Olympic team.

But what’s especially inspiring to me is what’s inside this building. When you go inside, you see this. You reflect on the fact that those nine men, flesh and blood, have all passed from the scene, but their boat of wood and metal, the Husky Clipper, remains. It stands and stays at the University of Washington.

It’s a reminder of what nine young men from humble background could achieve when they reached beyond themselves and worked as a team.

It’s an inspiration, obviously, for the next generation of people who row crew at the University of Washington.

But I say this. It’s more than that. It’s a symbol. It’s a symbol not only of things that have been done, but a symbol of the things we have the opportunity to do. It’s a symbol of a success not only for a team and a university, but a success that was made possible by the people of a city and a region and an entire state coming together.

As a symbol, it’s a symbol to our generation just as much as to the generations that came before us. And in that sense, I would say this: It’s our boat now.

It’s up to us to move it forward. It’s our turn now.

We’ll need to decide where to take it. It’s our choice now.

Let’s use our creativity. Let’s work together. Let’s consider the options, but let’s do this: Let’s decide now that we will choose to do something that’s great.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)


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