It's no surprise that the Portland Business Alliance President and CEO Sandra McDonough is stepping down this August, but she won't stop contributing to Portland's community and problem-solving its crises.
Sandra McDonough spoke exclusively with the Business Tribune about transportation, homelessness, intolerance, #metoo, equity and inclusionary housing, leaving the city with pearls of wisdom from her 13-year career at the PBA, and why these are all important issues the business development community should be concerned about.
"Doing this job is unexpected, and it's not been easy every day, but it has been an incredible thrill and I am really proud and very appreciative of the many people I've had the opportunity to work with — my board, elected officials, (mayors) Vera (Katz), Tom (Potter), Sam (Adams), Charlie (Hales) and I've worked with several governors and many City Council members and mayors of other cities," McDonough told the Tribune. "It's been a phenomenal experience. I think those elected officials have a really hard job and we need to really support them."
BT: Congratulations on your retirement! How do you know it's time?
SD: I picked this date four years ago. I had rolling contracts with my board, and when I did the last contract four years ago, I said you know guys, I'm getting to the point where it's probably going to be smart for the organization and for me to have a transition, so this will be my last contract. They said OK, but instead of a three-year agreement, we want a four-year agreement. Nobody was surprised ... we started to talk about how we would do that transition a couple of years ago to get everybody ready and figure out how to make this a smooth transition. The organization is in great shape, we have a phenomenal team and it's a good time to do it.
BT: Thinking back on your legacy at the PBA, what moment are you most proud of?
SD: Early in my tenure here, we were working with then-Mayor (Tom) Potter and we had a big school funding crisis here in Portland. They were looking at having to close school early, and I remember the Mayor at that point was working on a plan that we were pretty sure would have a really rough time. It wasn't our first choice, we went over to him and we said Mr. Mayor, we agree with you, education is important, and we actually offered him a solution for putting together funding for solving a problem that was a shared responsibility model, where the business community agreed to a tax that helped provide a big chunk of the funding. The City and County also came in with some funding, which is really important. We did it with Mayor Potter to avoid basically the schools having to close down — that was a really important collaborative moment we put together, and we've built on that many times since.
People always ask me, why does the business community care about education? Well, we're Portlanders, our kids are going to schools here. We care about it for that reason. Obviously, the education system is creating workers of tomorrow. Also, we live in the community, care about the community and care about making sure there are safe places for people living on our streets.
What I am most proud of is that we — the board and team and everybody — have built a really strong organization that is a partner to our public leaders and other organizations that we work with, and have built a reputation for being collaborative and for being problem-solvers and that's exactly where we want to be.
I believe you always enter every discussion, every relationship, with respect and understand everybody comes from a valid place. It's how you sit down and work through differences, objectives and come up with a result that is good for the community as a whole. That doesn't mean you get what you want every time, but it's how you think about the community as a whole.
More recently, I'm extremely proud of the partnership that we have built with homeless service providers — the entities that are really the front-line people serving the most vulnerable people in our community. So, talking about transportation projects, new housing for youth, Central City Concern, where we have the experts who really know what it takes to move people from potentially dangerous positions on the street to stability in housing. We have worked with them to identify shelter locations, outreach services and a lot of other places we have really developed very strong partnerships. There's a real mutual understanding of the fact that we have to be together to really solve this crisis we have in our community. I really
value those partnership and think it's made better our advocacy as a city and county on this issue.
We don't believe people should be sleeping outside in our community. We need to find places for them to sleep and we're part of that solution. I see my members step up — Tim Boyle's gift last week (of $1.5 million for a new homless shelter) was phenomenal — and I see other members step up time and again with money, buildings, supplies. We're excited when we can be intermediary and help make those connections. We're not experts on providing front-line services for the homeless, but we're a support network that can help our partners who are those experts.
BT: What are your concerns for Portland's business development and community issues in the future?
SD: Not just business development issues: we are part of the Portland metro region, so I think we work on so many issues it's part development, business advocacy, education, homelessness, transportation. When I think about the big thing in Portland right now we obviously have to address our housing supply issue. We published a report in January, the annual economic check. Job growth is doing well. Everybody knows the story about how fast population growth has been in the metro region — not just the city, but the whole region — and then shows housing stock, and the growth in housing stock lags the growth in population, and that's where we're having this rub that is creating this affordability issue we have. We need more supply to accommodate all the people moving here, families growing, that impacts workers. It impacts quality of life. There are so many issues, I'd say in the near term we've got to address the housing supply issue, we have to get thoughtful and creative about transportation overall — I mean all sorts of transportation. We have to get better at mass transit, we can't have people just in their cars, we have real congestion here.
TriMet is a really important partner of ours and we really appreciate that partnership. We've worked with them to generate more money to pay for transit. The biggest ten of TriMet's budget is payroll, paid by all the employers in the region. We worked with them to increase that tax too, to improve on transit — we've got to improve bike safety, pedestrian safety, auto safety, but we've got to think about our transportation system overall and try to get smart about it. We've really got to figure out how to manage that issue, and I believe the big answer is getting more people into transit.
BT: What do you really think of the City Council, and Portland's policies that affect business?
SD: I think City Council is very aware that housing is an issue. I know we have spoken
to the mayor and other members of Council about it a lot. We have to take another look
at some city policies that may be making it harder to develop housing. We actually, at a state level, support the concept of inclusionary zoning, which is that a certain number of
units in a new complex have to be set aside
for low-income. We said OK, let's try that out.
What we're seeing at a city level, the rules adopted aren't quite working and we think they're hindering interest, making it more difficult for developers because of costs. I'm not saying throw it out, but we really have to look at those rules and make sure everything they have — costs they add, zoning, everything we've got — we need to stop and say, do these rules and regulations help us get more housing, or create a roadblock?
When there are roadblocks, we have to move them on. I hear at City Council a real understanding of that — we have to be thinking at all levels. I think there's a real awareness at the city that housing supply is an issue, and I think you're going to see them being thoughtful about that.
We were very supportive of the low-income housing bond that passed a couple of years ago. The city is just now getting out there and really deploying. We think that especially for those very low-income people, that is how you're going to get housing — public programs created with public funding. I also think we need to be looking for all kinds of housing.
On transportation, I'm excited that Mayor Wheeler wants to think big about transportation. That's exactly what we need to have happen: someone take a pause, be a leader from a regional perspective. How do we look at our transportation system and make sure it's serving everybody and that we're avoiding huge problems other metros have?
One big issue Portland has, we're in a lot of ways an overgrown small town, but we're growing out of that into a really major city space. We've got to get our
infrastructure in place to support that. I hope there's a holistic look that examines how all the pieces fit together, and the mayor is talking about that. I'm really excited he wants to take this big-thinking approach to how we manage transportation in this city — the big vision in the region.
BT: Have you seen any positive changes over the course of your career in terms of the #MeToo movement and equity in the workplace?
SD: I'm a 63-year-old woman, I started as a newspaper reporter. When I was young and starting, there weren't really a lot of female role models for being a leader. It was what we were talking about in the '70s — it was still the women's movement. In my career, I spent many years in industries that were largely dominated by men. Even in the industry I'm in now, there are a lot of women chamber leaders, but if you get to the major city chambers, it's still pretty male-dominated when they're really big jobs. It's changed a bit since I've been in this job.
I've seen women move into roles that were historically male-dominated. I've had phenomenal role models myself, women whom I met as a reporter, met in my community activities, ahead of me. I was very lucky I knew some of the trailblazers here in Oregon — Vera Katz, I thought the world of her, and Gretchen Kafoury — phenomenal women who really were the trailblazers in our state to move women forward.
I see more women who are at the table, who are moving into leadership positions. What I worry about is that we think that we're all the way there, because we're not. There's a huge pay equity issue. One thing I coach younger women who work with me, I tell them you've got to learn how to ask for money. Women don't negotiate money well. We have to assert our value better than we have. I was talking to a dear friend of mine, a man, whom 25 years ago we worked together. I used to call him out on stuff and say you men don't understand that you are doing these unconscious actions that impact the development of women. And he told me 25 years later, looking back and remembering what you said, I know now how right you were. There's more awareness of it.
I love the #MeToo movement. I think women are empowered to say no, this kind of behavior is not OK. I don't know very many women, myself included, who didn't experience some level of inappropriate comments or behavior in the workplace. It happens, it's historical, it always has happened. I think women are given permission to say that will not be tolerated. I love this new part of it, we're also saying we want to be valued for what we bring to the party when we're at work, and we have to address things like pay equity. It is really time that those issues be addressed. We have to start calling people on it when there is unconscious bias that creates inequities. In this organization, we try really hard to be thoughtful about equity, or gender, and we work really hard at that.
BT: Whom would you name as a next up-and-coming mover and shaker in Portland?
SD: I'm lucky because I get to work with the best of the best. I meet all of these great young men and women. Vanessa Sturgeon, in line to be our board chair, is phenomenal and the president of TMT development. I am a huge fan of Rukaiyah Adams (CIO of Meyer Memorial Trust) and Carmen Rubio (executive director) of the Latino Network. She's somebody I just really think the world of, and she's done an incredible job. Carmen Rubio has built this incredible organization. Maria Pope, she's the new CEO of Portland General Electric, she's awesome. There are so many.
BT: What are your plans for your next chapter?
SD: I'm not the kind of person who is going to feel good spending the whole day looking at my Facebook feed — that would drive me nuts. I think that I'm going to do something. Right now, I am making myself be comfortable with having a little uncertainty about what happens after August 1. That's really hard for me, I like to know what's coming at me and plan, and honestly, I've always admitted I like to be a bit in control, so I am going to do something. I will continue to do some sort of work, but I haven't yet defined what that is. I'd like to continue to be engaged in the community, I'd like to continue to work on the homelessness issue, I have a lot of passion and I care about that. I'll do something, but I'm going to Central Oregon with some friends the first week after I leave.
I was a newspaper reporter for 10 years ... then I was in the energy business, I had jobs that had me in airplanes all over the country, I was constantly gone, I had a little kid at the time and that was hard, and then I hit a point where I wanted to do something a little more focused on my own community and that's when this job came along. It's a little bit of a watch-what-you-wish-for. I love it, it's been so nice to do something that really impacts the city I grew up in and I love it very much.
BT: Do you have any parting pearls of wisdom for Portland's business community?
SD: For the community as a whole, I think what I have seen is a growing level of intolerance for people who maybe have a different point of view. We need to be more open to hearing and accepting that everybody has validity in their point of view, that it's real to them, and we'd be much better off if we could pause and listen, and then see where we come together to solve problems rather than frankly, some of the discourse. We need to be more open and understanding of everybody regardless of whether we agree with them or not. I hope we can continue to work on a discourse inclusive in this community.
Another really big issue in this community, we have grown and we see a growing affluence in Portland, but we have not been sharing the new prosperity evenly across our community. When we look at household income growth, we break it down by ethnic group. We're consistently seeing African-American and Latino households with incomes that really lag Caucasian, and we're pushing our lower-income people farther and farther from the Center of the City because of affordability. We've got to say as a community, how do we share this prosperity? We'll be a lot healthier if we figure out how to make
sure everybody has more opportunity to share in the new economic growth here. I still go into some companies, including some hot new companies, and go oh my goodness, I don't feel a lot of diversity in these places. We've got to address that, we've got to figure out how we can be authentically diverse, and again I say that as a woman who entered the workforce when there were not that many moving into top levels. I know how hard women had to work and we're not done: we have to bring women and the community of color along, and we have a long way to go yet.
By Jules Rogers
Reporter, The Business Tribune
Follow Jules on Twitter
Visit the Business Tribune on Facebook and Instagram
Subscribe to our E-News