The new leader of the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce has few ties to Seattle itself.
It’s the “metropolitan” part that Marilyn Strickland has nailed down. And that’s exactly the point.
Strickland is well known — at least outside Seattle — for her recently completed eight-year tenure as Tacoma’s mayor, where she built a local and national reputation for putting Seattle’s neighbor to the southwest more on the map. Not just as some “smaller sister” to the Emerald City, but as a city unto itself with its own attractive brand that could — and did — lure new investment, too.
Now she's stepping into a position heading the highest-profile business organization in Seattle, one that wields significant influence with Seattle City Hall and other governments.
Although raising Tacoma’s profile was Strickland’s primary focus in public office, she didn't do it in a vacuum that ignored Seattle's success. She saw Seattle's boom as something for Tacoma to leverage, not reject or despise by virtue of old rivalries that still linger between the two cities.
“I think the rivalry is always going to exist because Seattle is like the bigger sister and Tacoma is like the smaller sister, but at the same time, we’re part of the same region. And I remind folks, when you land at the airport, you land at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport,” Strickland said recently.
And it's that inextricable connection and broader regional view that Strickland continues to emphasize as she starts work as the Seattle Metropolitan Chamber's next president and CEO. Through her political savvy and breadth of business and government experience in the central and south Puget Sound, she has the potential to further bridge the gap in the region's competitive business climate. And her presence seems to reflect, at least metaphorically, how growth has essentially created a single metropolitan area around Puget Sound.
"When I am around the country, or when I was internationally presenting Tacoma, there’s [often] a picture of the Space Needle in the background and Mount Rainier," she said, referring to events like a PBS News Hour broadcast where downtown Seattle was shown on the screen behind her. "Even though we may think of ourselves as separate cities and separate entities, when everyone else looks at us, they see a region. They’re not parsing borders between Bellevue, Seattle, Everett and Tacoma — they’re just looking at this big, amazing, beautiful region that is really experiencing a lot of growth and prosperity."
That regional perspective caught the attention of board members overseeing the Seattle chamber when they embarked on a search last fall for their next chief. Strickland stood out, board chair Heather Redman said, not just for her chops in the private sector and public office, but because of what Strickland would inherently symbolize as a Tacoma figurehead leading a Seattle-based chamber.
"For several years now, we have had a commitment to being a regional chamber and a force for pulling the region together, not only for problems but for solutions for the region," Redman said. "The fact that [Strickland] had spent all of this time in a different part of the region, rather than smack dab in the middle of downtown Bellevue or Seattle was really intriguing."
People who know Strickland say that, in the chamber position she is starting this week, her personality, experience and clear thinking will make her an asset for the whole region.
Growing up in Tacoma
Strickland, now 55, was born in Seoul, South Korea, to a Korean mother and an African-American father who served in the U.S. Army, including when it was still segregated. The family moved to Tacoma not long after, so Strickland says she has no memory of her earliest years in Korea.
Tacoma, for her, is home. She called it "a great place to grow up" and, in true fashion for a politician, voluntarily and proudly declared she is "a product of Tacoma public schools." She got her bachelor's degree from the University of Washington, then went to Georgia to earn her master's in business administration from Clark Atlanta University, which is among the country's historically Black colleges and universities.
Strickland thought about whether to return to Puget Sound after graduate school, but a desire to be close to her mother became a factor.
"I returned to this area and I just saw something changing. You could just tell this area was going to evolve in a lot of ways," Strickland added. "I remind folks, back in the '80s, Seattle was not nearly as fancy as it was now. People forget what Seattle used to look like — and even the panic when Boeing moved their headquarters to Chicago and there was this existential crisis about economic development here."
Strickland began her professional career in the private sector with jobs in marketing communications, including stints at a Tacoma-based communications firm, JayRay, and Starbucks before it became a global brand. At Starbucks, she was a manager involved with mail-ordering their catalogue “when they started creeping into online things for the first time. . .when everyone had AOL,” she recalled. “We were just entering the Chicago and D.C. markets when I was at Starbucks, and it was a really new, scary thing.”
Eventually, Strickland got more involved in her hometown by serving on various local and regional boards in Tacoma. In 2007, she won a race for a seat on the Tacoma City Council. And two years later, Strickland ran for mayor and won that, too. She was re-elected four years later, leaving office at the end of last year because of the same term limits that forced out her predecessor.
Strickland says she didn't initially seek out public office; she "was recruited."
"It wasn’t as though it was a burning aspiration," Strickland said. "But I think for me, because of my background, there is a sense of responsibility that I feel. Because I’m African American, I’m Asian, and you realize that for a long time in this country, it would have been inconceivable for someone with my background to serve as an elected official, let alone mayor. So in many ways, if you have the ability, you have the responsibility to represent because so many people sacrificed a lot for you to have that opportunity."
During her time as Tacoma's mayor, she prioritized economic development and courted international investment. She spearheaded trade missions to China and Vietnam and even had a hand in securing a visit to a Tacoma high school from the Chinese president himself — all in an effort to raise the city’s profile, inspire job creation and draw an influx of financial growth.
"We attracted over $350 million in foreign and direct investment to build a convention center/hotel and some mixed-use projects with apartments and retail," Strickland noted when asked about what she viewed as her biggest accomplishments as mayor. She cited specifically the revitalization of Point Ruston on Tacoma's waterfront as a success for the city.
Tacoma's most painful loss of private investment came with Russell Investments' decision in 2009, the year before she became mayor, to leave for a new home — in Seattle.
"Tacoma is one of those cities that has historically had a lot of public investment, but getting private investment has been really challenging," Strickland said. But she added, "I think as you see more people living in Tacoma now because housing is more affordable and you get better value, you see there’s a demand there."
Taking on a regional role
Strickland is the first person of color and just the second woman to hold the Seattle Metro Chamber's top post.
She acknowledges the significance of the milestones, calling it "humbling" and "an honor," but she's reluctant to dwell on the topic. "At the same time, you do this work because you’re the most qualified and you have a vision. So I think that’s incredibly important to emphasize," she added quickly.
As mayor, Strickland inspired the respect of other city leaders, such as current Deputy Mayor Anders Ibsen and City Councilmember Ryan Mello — both of whom were first elected in 2011, early in Strickland's tenure in the city's highest office.
"She’s very confident. She’s got a very strong sense of principles and values. She's incredibly committed to equity, and she’s very smart," Mello said. "She’s not petty. She doesn’t let minor disagreements get in the way of relationships. She knows the long game."
Both Mello and Ibsen said Strickland's emphasis on national and international relationships will serve her well as she transitions into becoming a regional representative for private business interests.
"Something that Mayor Strickland — and myself and the council — understand is, in a growingly global economy and world, we don’t have the luxury of having small-minded, city-versus-city attitudes," Ibsen said. "It's no longer about sticking it to Seattle; we have to collaborate as a region."
He added that the Seattle Metro Chamber's decision to hire Strickland "really speaks to the rise and prevalence of that attitude."
Maud Daudon, the chamber's outgoing president and CEO who held the post for almost six years, said a regional approach isn't new for the organization. The group — whose website domain emphasizes only Seattle — actually advocates on behalf of 2,200 business employing about 700,000 people across a four-county area in western Washington, with Seattle at its anchor.
But Daudon acknowledged her successor's arrival will put a greater emphasis on the organization's broader intent. "She is the perfect fit for this point and time in our region where we need to think much more regionally than we have in the past," Daudon said. "I do think it's an emphasis on the importance of regional cooperation and alignment in order to compete globally."
As she begins her new job, Strickland vows "the core mission of the chamber is not going to waver" but that she wants to see the organization be an active partner in the solutions to regional challenges, like affordable housing, transportation and workforce training.
"We will always be here to advocate for businesses and to do what we can to make sure businesses are successful," Strickland said, "But at the same time, people look to businesses in different ways than they did before. So how can we have a specific role in addressing some of our most pressing challenges?"
That won't be without some bumps in the road, though.
Advocating for business
While the Seattle Metro Chamber is more progressive than many chambers of commerce, it can still find itself at odds with progressive local elected officials. A test of that is on the horizon, as the City of Seattle continues to contemplate a "employee hours tax" on business, the revenue from which would be used to combat homelessness. (A City Council-created taskforce is exploring the concept after city leaders failed to come to an agreement during budget talks last fall.)
When Crosscut broached the topic in a recent interview at the Chamber's downtown Seattle offices, Strickland exhibited what observers and supporters of hers describe as one of her signature traits: A sharp ability to quickly digest new information, acknowledge what she doesn't know, and otherwise offer an educated, deliberative response.
Strickland appeared not to be entirely up to speed on the potential for the "head tax," as it's also called by employers who feel it would charge them for providing the city with what ought to be welcomed jobs. As a Chamber spokeswoman offered details for her and filled in some gaps to prompt her memory, Strickland asked a couple follow-up questions while jotting down notes on a piece of paper.
When asked by Crosscut how she would approach the Chamber's debate with the city, Strickland replied: "Well, the first question I would ask is, 'What exactly is this tax and how do they want to use the money?' . . . Let's just assume they want to use it for homelessness. So the next question I would ask is, 'What are we spending now on homelessness and how effective is it and are we using that money in the best possible way?'"
"I think there’s a sentiment among business in Seattle that every time they turn around they feel like there’s a new fee or a new tax being imposed upon them," she continued. "I don’t think the business community says 'we want nothing to do with addressing the homeless situation,' but I think the bigger question is: How do we best use our ideas and contacts and innovation to try and come up with something that has impact, as opposed to just presuming another tax is going to address the problem?"
Redman, the Chamber's board chair, said that kind of confidence and transparency from Strickland helped her stand out from other applicants during candidate interviews. "She came in with a lot of confidence but not with a lot of preconceived ideas about what the answer was."
"She’s just got a real talent, I think, for clarity — cutting through a lot of the complexity to what is the core issue that we’re all talking about," Redman added. "A real ability to listen and then synthesize something that’s very clear and actionable. I think she did that in Tacoma and in past positions. Seeing that in action here, I think, will be a lot of fun."