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Innovative leadership from the Pacific Northwest

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On the Scene
Thursday, November 03, 2011
By Emma Hall

11.03.11_GreenCEOsWhat is it about Portland that makes it a hub for a new type of business that focuses just as much on sustainability as on profits? In a room packed with MBA students, small business owners and local politicians, three young, innovative CEOs explained the answer on a recent panel titled "Not Your Grandma's CEO: Innovative Leadership from the Pacific Northwest."

The panel was part of the 19th annual Net Impact Conference, which focuses on the ability of businesses to create social and environmental good, held in late October at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. Moderated by New Seasons co-founder (and Portland mayoral candidate) Eileen Brady, the panel explored the differences between today's game-changing CEOs and those of the past. Panel members included Jensine Larsen, Justin Yuen and James Curleigh.

Jensine Larsen began World Pulse as a 28-year-old international journalist. Inundated with women everywhere from Burma to the Amazon asking her to tell their stories, she realized someone needed to create a way for the women to tell their own stories. Sick of waiting around for someone else to create the channel for this to become reality, she began her print magazine seven years ago. Now, World Pulse has branched out into an interactive web-based media outlet with stories from women in 185 countries around the world. All of this from a young, self-described shy woman who raised her first $400,000 in $50-$100 checks from early investors.

Justin Yuen is the CEO of FMYI, a certified B Corp that provides a way to share information securely with your team. Part social network, part workplace management system, FMYI takes in no outside funding — unusual for a software company. Yuen moved to the Portland area in 1998 to work for Nike in their corporate responsibility division, a great career that early FMYI doubters would call him crazy for leaving. "I have a confession, I actually am my grandmother's CEO," Yuen said. What he meant was that he began FMYI out of a coffee shop with the tools his grandmother left him:  $10,000 and lessons in frugality, such as when he witnessed her taking dinner rolls home in her pockets from restaurants.

James Curleigh became the CEO of Keen Footwear in 2008, after working at larger companies like Salomon North America. He explained that through his experience downsizing in terms of company size, he learned that at smaller companies a higher level of engagement from CEOs is expected. "CEOs need to not just set the culture but lead the culture," he said.

So why exactly is Portland a hub for this new breed of sustainable, engaged CEOs? Brady called it "the Portland Kool-Aid question." Larsen said she liked Portland because it was locally focused and for the amount of women-owned businesses here. "People always ask me why I'm not in LA or New York," she said, "But I love Portland, I'm here to stay." Yuen cited the weather, the only regionally-elected government (Metro) and sheer number of public-private partnerships as why he thought Portland was a great starting point for these new kinds of businesses. Curleigh likened the pioneers in the Oregon Trail days to the pioneers creating Nike more than 40 years ago to the pioneers creating new companies in Oregon today.

Brady had a similar take on the lure of Portland for new sustainable businesses. "Steve Jobs and Bill Gates always said their biggest fear wasn't the other big guy, it was the two guys in the garage. And Portland has a lot of garages."

Emma Hall is web editor for Oregon Business.
 
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