Thursday, February 26, 2009

Businesses Can Serve Community Too

In his speech Tuesday night to Congress, President Obama spoke about the diehard spirit of Americans, and the contributions of many, including contributions of our business people:
The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation. The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach. They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth. Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history we still possess in ample measure. What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more.
I heard the word "entrepreneur" and sat up. Why, that was exactly what I had been wanting to write about, with my "Spirit of Service" stories. In fact, just that day I had been meeting with my friend Mary Ann McCurdy at her consulting office to learn about how she makes her living by working on different projects that make an impact on this community. And here was Obama, highlighting a similar theme.

The synchronicity did not end there. It was the next day that Obama nominated former Washington governor Gary Locke for Commerce Secretary. I first met Mary Ann years ago, when she was Gov. Locke's Eastern Washington director, and I was on an educational board that was trying to get the governor as a speaker at our annual fundraising event. (Mary Ann helped; there were kinks in the plan; the whole thing came together a year later.) I remember being impressed with how efficient and hardworking she was, even in the face of a lot of complications. And when I heard of Locke's nomination, I knew he was an excellent choice. After all, he had the wherewithal to hire Mary Ann back then, didn't he?

It was a few years ago that I actually got to know Mary Ann and her husband Jim (a local lawyer and minor league baseball team owner) through the Interplayers, our professional local theater. They both have been on the Interplayers board; Mary Ann has been its executive director; it is my opinion that they have been more than instrumental in saving Interplayers from near-dissolution. Today it is the only professional theater in Spokane. Both Jim and Mary Ann have been incredibly supportive of my baseball novel, about the 1946 Spokane Indians baseball team that died in a bus crash midway through the season. They even had me do a reading from the novel at the theater. Jim is a minor league baseball guy, so he naturally would be drawn in by the story. But Mary Ann? I think she sees the beauty of the story through the magic of it. They were just great guys, those 1946 men....

One thing I knew about Mary Ann, even before meeting with her Tuesday, is that she is a natural networker. Most recently I ran into her at the Spokane airport as we both waited for flights (she was on her way to DC for the inauguration). She ended up running into two different friends of hers, independent of each other, while we were getting coffee. Within moments, the four of us were sitting and bonding with Mary Ann as the catalyst, gently noting what we each had in common with each other. We now are planning an airport "reunion" (Mary Ann's idea) in the next week or so. She's just a natural at this bridge-building thing. So it makes perfect sense that she should run a consulting business.

When I asked her on Tuesday what she did, exactly, she had to ponder it a little. This is what happens to someone with so many skills. She has been the right hand of a governor, a realtor, a therapist, an educator, a board member (of many boards -still), a theater salvationist (if that is a word)..... Her immediate can-do list was clear: organizational planning and rehabilitation, political communications, and people development. Her projects similarly have been very constructive and broad-based. She has just finished helping Eastern Washington University rebuild its "EWU Friends of the Library program," for instance, which required revamping from the ground up. She has a great knack for matching boards with new, innovative board members. She works one-on-one with clients from topics ranging anywhere from effective political speech to policy reform. Many of the tasks generate income. Some of the tasks - well, she will work on it because the project needs her help. She is the embodiment of this "Spirit of Service," business style.

Mary Ann and I talked a little bit Tuesday about what it means to network. It is not about climbing a ladder; it is about building bridges. And it is about doing so with a sense of joy and service. Sometimes something comes back to the person who did the networking. Sometimes it does not. What matters is the effort. Building a business around that kind of effort takes a true entrepreneur. That is Mary Ann.

Think about it: so often we look at helping our communities solely through the lens of volunteerism. And while that is important, it may be beneficial to view community outreach from more than that one lens. What if we looked at our businesses as a branch of the community? How would that view impact the choices we made in our day-to-day business lives? And what if we took that "spirit of service" directly into the workplace, in every moment? So that even if the task is not directly service oriented, perhaps the attitude can be. Let's not just be Saturday volunteers (or Sunday churchgoers). Let us imagine how to live our lives in service.

It is what Obama says: it is about pulling together, confronting challenges boldly, and taking responsibility for our future. And the answers to our problems lie even closer than within our reach. They lie in the palms of our hands.

Frankly, though I'd love to see us keep Mary Ann in the role of consultant here in Spokane, I would not be at all surprised if she receives a call from the "other Washington" from, say, the Commerce Department, seeking her assistance over the next four years. Our loss, the country's gain. I would not be at all surprised.

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