By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
A CEO has immense power to create change. But few have a good track record on diversity, especially white men. Tabor 100, a group of Black leaders, recognized former Goodwill CEO Ken Colling at the Rainier Club last year. He is special among hundreds of white CEOs because of his focus on diversity in his personal and professional world.
Even though Colling was new in town from California when he started as Goodwill’s head, one of the first things he did was to join Tabor 100 as an active member.
As Colling headed to his first Saturday morning meeting, he recalled his late wife Jeannie asking, “What meeting are you going to again?”
“Tabor 100,” he replied. “It’s a great organization of Black small business owners.”
“You do know that you are not Black, nor a small business owner, right?” she said.
Colling said it is important to support nonprofit ethnic organizations, and not by paying lip service.
Ship Rowland, former president of Tabor 100, said he tried to introduce Colling to many prominent Blacks when Colling first came on board. To his surprise, Colling said, “I already met them.”
Under his leadership, Goodwill sponsored many people of color events, including the Northwest Asian Weekly’s 30th anniversary banquet. In fact, he approached us to be a sponsor before we even asked.
Colling attended so many of the ethnic community events in one election year, three nights in a row, that Seattle City Council President Bruce Harrell noticed. Running for City Council seat at the time, Harrell asked Colling, “What office are you running for?”
“We all have a lot to learn about diversity, however, this is not a reason for doing nothing,” said Colling in his remarks. “I think it’s important to have an environment where people feel comfortable discussing and asking questions. If a person says something considered wrong or biased and gets attacked, will that person say anything more? No, and he/she will not have learned anything, and will continue to think the same.”
Once Colling set the tone, his people started bringing diversity up in conversations and also began telling him about their successes and disappointments.
In 2007, the late Bob Santos, a community activist, and some Little Saigon members organized a protest at Goodwill over its multi-million-dollar development project that included a mall and housing. Colling could have been angry and felt betrayed, especially after his support of ethnic organizations. But no, Colling harbored no ill feelings towards those protesters and he didn’t take it personally. Santos and Colling remained friends. For years, Colling even called Santos on his birthdays to wish him well.
The development was scaled down to a $14-million building for job training and service center. During its construction, Colling and his team selected a diverse team of contractors.
To foster diversity at Goodwill, Colling began at the top — with its board of directors. “I never took the approach of “You are Asian, want to join our board?” he said. He researched to find people who had the expertise Goodwill needed, and who also added to their diversity. When he started, the board had two people of color out of 24. When he retired about two years ago, it had seven out of 19, more representative of the community and the people it served.
At first, Colling said he hesitated to accept Tabor’s honor because there were other people more deserving. Quoting a Northwest Asian Weekly editorial, he said, “When you deflect or deny praise, you’re basically contradicting them. You are saying, they don’t have good judgment … we need to simply say “Thank you.”
No, Ken, we thank you. Not just for being a long-time reader and subscriber. Our appreciation extends beyond that. His speech at the Tabor’s luncheon inspired the Asian Weekly to do this week’s special diversity issue.
Are there any other white CEOs in Seattle who have done successful diversity work? Let me know so we can recognize them, too.
Assunta can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.