Geography is Destiny…

Geography is destiny – Abraham Verghese in Cutting for Stone

The most interesting, literate, progressive, and beautiful places on earth are not necessarily those that are furthest away. When asked to pick a city with these attributes the list will likely include Paris, London, Rome, Berlin, Copenhagen, Singapore, Hong Kong, Capetown, San Francisco and others but never, until lately, has Seattle cracked my Top Ten. Surviving Seattle has always been my mantra because of the weather, but I’m rethinking that in view of a recent epiphany.

LakefrontI live on Lake Washington with a view of the mountains. There are two great universities nearby, a vibrant theater, art, and dance scene, and a distinctive “Northwest style” of residential architecture that gets great reviews for its use of local materials, environmental consciousness, and an outdoor-oriented, Pacific Rim style. In 2014 the city was voted the second most literate city in America, and while all of these elements are positive that isn’t what’s been catching my attention lately. The distinctive attribute, the one that gives the city Pride of Place, for me, is what you might call its “inherent goodness.” Yes, along with all the other positives there is something about Seattle that promotes goodness, a commodity the world finds in short supply these days.

As home to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest charitable foundation in the world, Seattle is exporting goodness. The foundation’s mission statement is as big as its endowment – now at $43.5 billion. It unabashedly states:

“We are focused on the areas of greatest need, on the ways in which we can do the most good. We see equal value in all lives. And so we are dedicated to improving the quality of life for individuals around the world… we are catalysts of human promise everywhere. From poverty to health, to education, our areas of focus offer the opportunity to dramatically improve the quality of life for billions of people.”

That’s “billions of people” with a B. It’s audacious and astonishing, and more astonishing is the fact that it’s only 15 years old. Until 2000 Bill had it all in his mattress and wasn’t sharing. The world is the beneficiary of the change and so is Seattle.

That’s a lot of goodness, but the goodness that’s grabbed my attention lately is the grass roots kind. It’s not big like the Gates Foundation. It’s a few notches lower.

Dick's Drive-In

I took this picture through the window at Dick’s Drive-In, a local burger chain. It hires local kids and takes care of them. Dick opened his first burger joint in 1953, and the burgers sold for an astonishing 19 cents apiece. It was an instant American Graffiti-style hit, a teen hangout where we ate in our cars and carhopped in the social ritual of the times. Today, the 100% pure beef Dick’s Deluxe, sells for $2.90  and the hand-dipped real ice cream shakes for all of $2.30. Great handout fries and the kids get free healthcare, a 401K with employer match and up to 3 weeks paid vacation. I’ll take two of everything.

Over the years, Dick’s prospered and we grew older. In the process, his family developed a culture of social and community responsibility. He began donating to educational causes and in 2007 the family was awarded the Philanthropist of the Year Award. In 2012 Esquire Magazine called the business out for serving “America’s Most Life Changing Burger.” Well deserved.

But Dick’s is not a Seattle anomaly. Costco is headquartered here, and in spite of hectoring by Wall Street for offering its employees “excessive benefits” and therefore cutting into corporate profits it continues to persevere in its commitment to employees. And, so does Starbucks who just announced a partnership with Arizona State University whereby it would pay full tuition for any employee wishing to complete his or her four-year degree.

And, it’s trending. Last year, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant was elected after running on a platform calling for a $15 minimum wage in the city. She now has the support of the mayor and most of the rest of the council as her campaign and notoriety have propelled her forward as a leader of the national $15/hour movement.

The most remarkable case of Seattle “goodness,” however, is the enlightened and generous Dan Price, founder and CEO of a Seattle startup called Gravity Payments. Gravity is a payment processor (whatever that means) that services small and medium sized businesses. The business was founded in 2004 and is now the largest of it’s kind in Washington with clients nationwide.

Last week Dan startled the business world by announcing that over the next three years he will raise the minimum wage of ALL of Gravity’s employees to $70,000 and finance the raises by cutting his own salary from $1,000,000 to the company base rate of $70,000. This is not the first time Dan has hit the headlines. In 2012 when the Feds let the 2% payroll tax reduction lapse he added 2% to each employee’s paycheck to make up for the decrease in take-home pay, and in 2014 Entrepreneur Magazine named him Entrepreneur of the Year. Not bad for a guy who just cracked the 30-year mark.

Dan Price

Seattle is lucky to have Dan Price, Dick Spady, Jim Sinegal, and even Howard Schultz. These business leaders are bucking Wall Street’s bottom line obsession and building great companies with human values.

Of course the good old boys are still around too; Boeing’s Jim McNerney, with a 2014 compensation package of $29,000,000 and company profits at a record level, saw fit last year to bust the Machinists’ union and freeze pensions under the threat of moving production of the 777X from Seattle to non-union South Carolina. Seattle is mourning the loss of the homespun Boeing culture that nurtured leadership from within and fostered local community involvement. With the merger of McDonnell Douglas in 1997 all that ended. The new leadership moved the corporate headquarters to Chicago and gutted the homegrown leadership. Outsiders moved into the executive suite and in 2006 Alan Mulally, then the President of Boeing Commercial Airplanes, having been passed over for the top job saw the future and moved to take over at Ford where he turned that company into a major success story while McNerney and the interlopers stuffed their own pockets and screwed the loyal Seattle employees. Amazing but true.

I don’t think it’s provincial to feel pride of place when that place is a center of goodness, produces remarkable companies and attracts generous leadership in the for-profit and non-profit sectors. It’s unlikely that McNerney will ever understand that a generous spirit of mutual interest can work miracles among workers. His animus toward unions is legendary. He’s required to retire in 2016. Given the culture he’s created it would be surprising to see much change with new leadership. But we can hope…

We can also hope that Jeff Bezos at Amazon will drink some of Bill Gates Kool-Aid. For now he’s still stuffing his mattress – but 15 years ago Bill was too. With 5,000,000 sq ft of recently acquired property in the gentrified South Lake Union area, it looks like the local boy is here to stay. Now – Jeff – let’s stop saving paper clips like the startup you once were and start acting like the responsible corporate giant that you are. Give it up and give some back like the big boys at Microsoft and the little guy at Dick’s Drive-In.

Remember – Geography is destiny.



  1. Jack, I so enjoy reading your thought-provoking blogs. Let’s hope they spur companies, not only in Seattle but all around the country, to start a revolution by giving back to employees and to the communities in which they reside.

    • Thanks, Carol. I love hearing from old friends. I agree; there are people and companies doing good things. I hope it’s a real trend. Is Len still active on the civic front? I always admired him for his involvement. I just got off the phone with Diana and she told me how glorious the weather is today. Enjoy it. Best, Jack

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