When Howard Behar, the former president of Starbucks, was a
boy growing up in Seattle, his father, a Bulgarian immigrant, owned a neighborhood
grocery. If a customer was in financial trouble, his father would tell Howard
to throw in some free bananas. “It wasn’t about being liberal or conservative.
It was about people helping people,” recalls Behar. Today, he says, many newly
minted MBAs think that business is only about maximizing profit. “They don’t
understand that businesses operate in communities.”
By the same
token, Behar adds, many community activists don’t understand the critical role
that businesses play in supporting communities, generating the jobs and the
money required to support the many causes they back.
What Washington state needs, says Behar, is a common
language to talk about common issues. “The rancher in eastern Washington is
interested in the same quality education as the software engineer in Redmond,”
he says. If entrepreneurs can tackle those challenges with the kind of focus
they apply to their businesses, they can find solutions, he suggests.
Behar is backing the establishment of the Washington
Business Alliance, a fledgling organization that will tackle issues of broad
concern to the business sector such as education, health care and good
David Giuliani, CEO of Pacific Bioscience Laboratories and
chair of the organization, thinks the group can accomplish a great deal if it
can identify the right goals and fresh approaches to problem solving. He points
out how the promise of money from President Obama’s Race to the Top program
helped break down long-standing resistance in the educational community to such
common sense proposals as merit-based pay for teachers.
With so many other strong business organizations already in
place, it’s unclear how warmly the business community will welcome this new
effort. The Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, led by Phil Bussey, and
Greater Spokane Inc., led by Rich Hadley, both play critical roles in nurturing
the economies of their respective regions. The Association of Washington
Businesses is a strong voice in Olympia, while the Washington Roundtable, which
includes the state’s largest businesses, tackles broader issues. And it’s far
from clear whether the new organization can effectively unite behind common
goals acceptable to a broad range of businesses. What is clear is that the
state needs to move beyond the standoff between liberal and conservative forces
to focus on real solutions to the many problems we face.
“We don’t have all the answers,” Behar admits about the new
alliance. “But we’re going to figure this out. I’m not going to leave these
[problems] for my grandkids to figure out.”
That’s a good place to start.
Leslie D. Helm