Biz Influencer: Port of Portland Commission President Alice Cuprill-Comas is counseling the economy toward health
Among many new appointees in the changeover this year, Governor Kate Brown appointed Alice Cuprill-Comas as the president of the Port of Portland Commission early this year, succeeding Jim Carter's eight-year term.
Cuprill-Comas has already served on the Port of Portland Commission for two and a half years — a volunteer position. At her day job, she's OHSU's senior vice president and general counsel.
While she's been legally counseling OHSU for nearly five years, the senior vice president promotion came two months ago.
Similar to the Port Commission, OHSU is a complex entity with three different focuses: research, education and healthcare.
"I was just promoted to general counsel at OHSU, so at the moment my focus is this job — and I'm really enjoying it," Cuprill-Comas said "OHSU is the only academic medical center in the state: both the capacity and ability to affect health and research in the area is immense and it's a super exciting time to be here."
Her family moved to San Antonio, Texas from Puerto Rico when she was 10 years old.
"My dad was stationed at an Air Force base. The base closed and we moved to Texas," Cuprill-Comas said.
She earned her B.A. in political science and government from the University of Texas, and then her Doctor of Law from Lewis & Clark.
"It's mostly an adventure seeing different parts of the country," Cuprill-Comas said. "My husband had been up here and liked it, and at the time I thought I wanted to do environmental law and justice work, and (Portland) is amazing and interesting for people who love that."
She worked as an associate for Vinson & Elkins, LLP, and then as vice president and general counsel for Prometheus Energy Company before becoming the owner of Ater Wynne from 2008 to 2012.
"I worked at a couple different law firms and a company in Seattle that did alternative energy work, and now I general counsel here (at OHSU)," Cuprill-Comas said. "My day-to-day work is really around figuring out how the strategic focus that is set by the president and board of directors can be accomplished ... just thinking about the big picture and how the law affects it."
Business Tribune: How does your background as a lawyer facilitate your new leadership position at the Port Commission?
Cuprill-Comas: I worked in private practice as a mergers and acquisitions finance lawyer, so my background is thinking about transportation in business in a broad perspective: how to make a deal happen, how to bring two entities together and operationalize a plan. The Port is a super complex business that has three separate budget lines, all of which are managed with slightly different budgets and pots of money that come from different places, each of which has its own strategy, some of which feed into each other and some don't. That's the background I bring.
The Commission at the moment has a group of people all of whom have similar and super different experiences that we bring to the table to make it interesting — Linda Pearce with Tillamook has a different sensibility than Pat McDonald who's at Intel, but all of them have complex business experience they bring.
BT: What are your thoughts about Port priorities?
Cuprill-Comas: Most recently at Terminal 6, the implications there now that the lease with ITCSI has been terminated and how the Port moves forward in providing services and all the things the state needs and requires with that particular major asset to the state, what's doable and what can we sustain there and provide transportation and shipping options to the people of Oregon and Idaho as well, and to the region broadly, given all the changes that have happened in shipping in the last decade: there's been a lot of consolidation as you know, the size of ships has gotten so much bigger, and do we have a navigation channel that allows for those ships to go through?
The cleanup of the Portland harbor is another big issue. Finally, there are parties really interested in moving along with the cleanup. The Port is one of those. It's taken so long since the EPA first declared the Superfund site. The community really expects us to move forward with the cleanup, and the Port has shown from my perspective some leadership in doing that. Obviously, the expense will be tremendous to clean up the Superfund site that the Portland harbor is. We need to figure out how to do that as a community.
The terminal at PDX will have some upgrades and improvements over the next few years — that's exciting. We also have to worry about how do we maintain operations there in a way that doesn't disrupt travel, while at the same time undergoing major renovation, since we expect passenger volumes to continue to increase as more people move to Portland in particular.
Those are three big things, each of which are expensive and time consuming, each of which involve major assets to the state that people really rely on. It's an interesting time for the Port.
BT: You've been on the commission for two and a half years, but tell me about your new position — how is it so far, is it what you expected?
Cuprill-Comas: Well, I've been to one meeting. I'm hoping to come to terms with how to do it and do it well. Jim Carter will be on the commission for a month or so more while the government and legislation position replacements, and he's been great at showing me the ropes and providing support. The Port staff is professional, I think that will make it easy as well. There's a new executive director at the Port (Curtis Robinhold) — he's been there a while so that's helpful.
BT: What do you intend to bring to the Port's leadership?
Cuprill-Comas: Largely, my agenda is to make sure the Port — given how important it is as an asset to the state — can maintain operations and grow operations to meet the needs of the state, and do that in a sustainable way. Economically, it's also important to make sure the Port and its assets meet the needs of the full community. The community probably has not has access or ability to engage with the Port in the same way and to reap the economic benefits as an economic development driver, which frankly is what (the Port) is.
Thirdly, one thing people don't think about a lot, the Port also has industrial land for development. The portfolio of those is starting to get smaller: most of that development has happened in East County, Troutdale and Gresham Vista (Business Park). That's bringing important food and jobs to the area.
Maintaining to the extent that the Port can continue the activity will be really important to the community at large.
BT: What made you want to get involved in the Port and this commission in the first place?
Cuprill-Comas: I was asked if I was interested about three years ago. I did some background research because I'm nerdy. It's a super complex business, which is always interesting. I think it's one of the most important economic drivers of the region as a whole, and so from my perspective it's a good way to get involved — it's a volunteer position, so to the extent that I was going to volunteer in the community, I thought I would have an impact there and that was important to me.
BT: The Port is an economic driver for all Oregonians from the individual vendors inside, to the freight and barge trade, to tourism, like you mentioned earlier. How can we make sure that the positive effects are spread around to all Oregonians instead of contributing to the growing wage gap?
Cuprill-Comas: That's exactly what I meant about the jobs on the industrial development of land of the Port. That's been important from the Port's perspective: when we develop the land, who are going to be the tenants and folks purchasing the land and what kind of jobs will that result in? The Troutdale Reynolds (Industrial Park) is the perfect example of jobs that have been brought into the community with higher wages than have existed. Last month, the commission approved a sale of land in the Gresham Vista real estate area to a high-tech company involved in diamond manufacturing. There are going to be a number of high-tech, engineering jobs, so that's one way of being really focused on how do we bring living wage jobs to the region and how can the Port be involved in that — that's been important.
In terms of the terminals, for folks in rural areas who need a way to get their goods to market bi-modally or by shipping or otherwise, to be able to rely on those ways of getting goods to market, is a way of spreading the Port's footprint — certainly the airport, not just as a passenger terminal but as a place where goods are shipping all over the world. Nike does a lot of shipping out of the airport as well, on the cargo side, has been important in order to maintain those companies in the region and give them access to the markets.
BT: What's your personal mission, professionally? You've done so much in the community — where does that passion come from?
Cuprill-Comas: I am sort of nerdy by nature: I have a picture of my sisters and me on the first day of first grade and everyone's so who they are now, and who they were, even though we're six and seven. I have my folder in one hand, my lunch box in the other, ready to go do the nerdy thing. I love putting my intellectual drive into mission-driven work, so I loved my work for my company in Seattle surrounding alternative energy. How could we do something with respect to the environment? That's why I went to Lewis & Clark, why I went to law school — from a business perspective, how can I do environmental work? Here, it's very mission-driven: how do we improve the economy of the region, provide jobs and make Portland and Oregon a great place to come live and work? (It's) finding something that's really pushing things forward and trying to figure out how I can do a little bit in a legal way.
BT: Do you have advice for young women and people of color coming up in their careers in today's cultural and political environment?
Cuprill-Comas: I feel like I've had people say to me that I am exceptional, and I hate that for a lot of reasons. On one hand, I don't deny I'm smart and hardworking. I feel like what's exceptional is that I had opportunity that other people don't have: I've been lucky to have mentors over my career, people willing to give me the opportunity to show I'm smart and hardworking, and willing to figure it out.
I'd say to young women and people of color, look for folks willing to give you opportunity to show your stuff, because there are a lot of really great people out there who just haven't had a chance to have that first job, or within their first job to have an assignment that lets them shine and move up in an organization.
On the other hand, people who have positions of management and authority need to look down and say who can I help, and how can I help my team or people coming up the ranks to make their way? It's hard to do in our day-to-day, everybody has their head down trying to get work done. I fall into that same trap a lot, I try to pause and think about gosh, when I was 25 it was my secretary knew way more than I did who helped me figure it out and gave me the opportunity to learn and ask what I thought were stupid questions.
By Jules Rogers
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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