The premise of Business for a Better Portland is, as its name suggests, to make the city a more prosperous place, with thriving, mission-driven businesses and connected communities. Launched in 2016 as the Portland Independent Chamber of Commerce, members initially focused on the city’s software and technology community.
Six months ago, the group rebranded and opened its umbrella to include any business that believes there’s more to its operation than boosting the bottom line. BBPDX aims to work with government and nonprofits on some of the region's most pressing issues, such as housing affordability and workplace diversity.
To gauge the success of BBPDX’s efforts so far and discuss the group's future endeavors as well, Crain’s checked in with Mara Zepeda, BBPDX co-founder, board member and CEO of Switchboard.
Crain’s: Tell me about your first iteration and your evolution into Business for a Better Portland.
Zepeda: As with many grassroots efforts, we started as a group of six friends: investors, business owners and entrepreneurs. At that time, most of us were leading tech companies, so we experimented with creatively using technology and our social networks to inspire civic participation.
We realized pretty early that we could make the opaque, bureaucratic systems in the public sector a bit more transparent and accessible to people who wanted to participate in our community, but lacked the means to do it easily and effectively. We believe that we cannot ignore the impact that technology has on local communities, and also that traditionally, startups have not participated in conversations and decisions that affect their local communities.
To counter this, our goal was not to “disrupt” existing structures and systems but rather to partner with, learn from, and support the work already being done by community organizations and leaders.
Crains: What compelled you to start such an organization?
Zepeda: We saw an opportunity to create a new type of business organization that represents progressive businesses in growing industries that value collaboration and solutions over stalling and cynicism. Traditionally, businesses have come together to ensure that policies benefit businesses only. What if we advocate for policies that make our city better and more inclusive?
Portland has the opportunity to do something different, and an abundance of talent eager to make change. These entrepreneurs can offer powerful solutions to entrenched challenges at a local level by listening to what the community needs and offering ideas, innovation, and solutions. We saw these new sectors wanted to be at the table instead of being sidelined, but that seat did not exist.
After a year as a volunteer board, we were fortunate enough to partner with Ashley Henry, our chief collaboration officer. Ashley brings two decades of experience and insight working both in politics, business and the nonprofit community. It was a perfect match. We now have over 120 members in just five short months.
Crain's: What is the goal of the organization?
Zepeda: Business for a Better Portland makes a positive difference in the city we love by combining the strength of business advocacy with the power of technology and grassroots social change. Our goal is to ensure Portland is an equitable city where prosperity can be shared by all. We believe that better businesses will be built by investing in a better Portland.
Crain's: Who are some of your more notable members/influencers?
Zepeda: We’ve been deeply inspired by the work of Congressman Earl Blumenauer, who joined us on our launch day in February and stressed the urgency of business leaders becoming more involved at the local level. He reminded us that the many reasons we love Portland – like our vibrant downtown and world-class public transportation – exist because of visionary public and private collaborations.
We’ve also been influenced by many community leaders who have devoted years to making Portland better, like Israel Bayer of Street Roots who is dedicated to empowering our city’s most vulnerable residents; Stephen Green of Townsquared, who is committed to amplifying the impact of small businesses; and Beth Burns, Pippa Arend, and Joy Cartier of p:ear, who work tirelessly to mentor homeless youth.
As for our members, we are most inspired by the diversity of businesses they represent, from venture-backed software companies like Cloudability, well-known retailers like New Seasons Market, and women-owned neighborhood businesses like Gladys Bikes. I remember one day we brought on both a 60-year old financial industry member and The Beauty Shop, a visionary studio promoting social justice through design. We are endlessly inspired by this diversity of businesses that embody their values.
Crain's: What, if any role, do you believe business has in some of the region’s most compelling issues, i.e. state budget shortfall, or the affordable housing crunch?
Zepeda: Business not only has a role, but a moral imperative. We must step up and meaningfully contribute to civic conversations and to creating equitable solutions. This isn’t just feel-good work. It is also good for and essential to our businesses.
Take tenant protections for example. If one of your employees gets a no-cause eviction, that creates enormous upheaval in their lives, especially in this housing market. Some of our members report that they’ve seen a direct correlation between housing instability and low morale, absenteeism and a lack of productivity. That’s why ending no-cause evictions is a business issue.
Of course, we’ve all seen how companies that don’t embody their values can suffer financial and public relations consequences that are bad for business. Our priorities are good for communities and good for the bottom line. We need an educated workforce, which means investing in education. Diverse teams perform better, so we must advance equity and inclusion.
Our employees need affordable housing, safe streets and clean air, which means promoting policies that protect tenants and create sustainable transportation options. And all businesses deserve the opportunity to start, grow, and succeed which requires new strategies for shared prosperity.
Crain's: What actions have you taken to date?
Zepeda: Each month since January 2016, we have issued a “call to action” that galvanizes communication and collaboration between businesses, policymakers, and community organizations. Some actions have financial goals, like helping a community-focused African American-owned business raise $10,000 to renovate their food cart site or contributing to PitchBlack, which supports the next generation of entrepreneurs of color. Others involve hosting events that highlight important and complex issues such as affordable housing.
We also collaborated with one of our members, Scout Books, on an event during Design Week Portland where they launched “We the People Are Powerful!,” a pocket guide to understanding your rights. We also focus on advancing good public policy by collecting testimony from our members around issues like eliminating parking minimums to make housing development more affordable or demanding safe streets and supporting Vision Zero.
Crain's: What victories can you claim so far?
Zepeda: Our fast-growing membership, for one. Another is the response to our organization from elected officials, advocates, other business leaders and public-sector leaders, which has been overwhelmingly positive. It’s been remarkably gratifying to help business leaders connect with elected officials so that their concerns can be heard.
Policymaking is a confounding process to those of us busy running our companies. And as important as the policy issues are, we historically haven’t had the time to figure it out. Although we’re just getting started, I’d say that our early days of having face-to-face and voice-to-voice conversations with elected officials gives me hope. So often what they hear from “the business community” is really just the voice of a tiny segment of the overall business community.
I’m heartened that we can contribute to creating a more inclusive conversation so that we get better outcomes for not only our companies, but the entire community.
Crain's: What do you want people to know about BBPDX?
Zepeda: We’re still a young organization, and the opportunity for businesses to join and help us set our priorities and amplify our impacts is huge. There’s so much good work we can do together, and we’re excited to harness the creativity and entrepreneurial spirit of our members to bring a solutions-oriented approach to some of the big challenges ahead.