By Carolyn Bick
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Growing up in South Korea in the post-Korean War era, current Director of Economic Development Bobby Lee saw firsthand how different economic strategies can help pull people out of poverty and transition a country to prosperity. He said this experience had a formative effect on his career choices.
“After experiencing a country going through such extreme poverty to prosperity––being part of that transition, growing up in Korea, has given me a sense of … how economic development can be a positive force in society,” Lee said. “And it’s not just me. It’s my friends, my family. You get to see how they dealt with a country that was still … trying to survive after the war.”
But Lee’s career hasn’t always directly involved economics. After high school, he attended the University of Oregon for music, specifically jazz percussion. But, after realizing he couldn’t make a living as a musician, he changed majors to public administration. He also got into student activism along the way, becoming the first Asian American to be elected as student body president at the university, later repeating this at the city council level in Eugene, Ore.
After school, Lee worked in both the private and public sectors, starting with the former first.
Following five years in the workforce development field at Worksystems, Inc., he worked in the semiconductor business at Hynix Semiconductor, Inc., where he served as the head of corporate strategic planning, environmental services, and communications. In both roles, Lee found himself responsible for managing large groups of people, as well as multi-million dollar budgets. In the latter role, he also got his first taste of lobbying officials, negotiating contracts, and remaining environmentally compliant.
Lee hopped out of the private sector to join the Oregon Governor’s Regional Solutions team in 2011, managing three state multi-agency Regional Solutions Teams focused on regional development solutions––which, naturally, included economic planning. The position also meant he worked directly with legislators, fielding private industry and community interests from the other side of the table. This role helped to prepare him for his next role as Portland’s Director of Economic Development, a post he held for two years, before joining the City of Seattle in April.
Lee said he is glad he had a chance to work in both the private and public sectors, because the experiences have given him the opportunity to see things from both sides, giving him a better understanding of how to best go about getting things done.
As the Director of Economic Development, Lee said he works with all sorts of businesses and industries, and finds himself “going to lots of meetings on a variety of topic areas.” But the economy isn’t a fixed concept, Lee said. It’s a constantly-moving target, which means he’s faced with a new problem every day.
One of the biggest problems Lee and his office face is how to ensure Seattleites aren’t pushed out in an economy that’s moving from knowledge-based to network-based. This is what happened in Seattle the last time the economy shifted, then from a service-based economy, in which physical skills in the production and manufacturing sectors were valued, to the knowledge-based economy of today, in which science and math are seen and valued as hard skills, he said.
“Many Seattleites were not ready for the knowledge economy, so the industry had to import talent from elsewhere. So, that is what drove up … the growth cost here in Seattle—the housing cost, the pressure on the transportation infrastructure, and our social service programs, because we weren’t ready. We had to import talent from outside, and that helped and contributed to these inequities in our society,” Lee said.
Currently, Lee said, creativity is seen as a soft skill. But in the network economy, creativity will be seen as a hard skill, as people will have to work and find new ways to evolve within a tech-based job market. This is the most challenging part of his job, Lee said, because it means he and his office need to find ways to help Seattleites think in terms of the next five to 10 years, rather than just the next five minutes. But most Seattleites are just trying to stay here, as the cost of living rises with the influx of new talent and higher-wage workers, and homeownership slips further and further out of reach.
Fortunately, Lee said, growing diversity in the workplace is an asset to this effort.
“There’s no way we can build a middle class that’s based on exclusionary practices. So, to me, people of color … API members getting involved is to ensure that the next generation will have a place, and, in doing so, helping to build a resilient economy of the future,” Lee said.
Though Lee’s personal life isn’t entirely about numbers, his de-stress method happens to be heavily tied to specific number targets: he has run 19 marathons, each of which is 26.2 miles long, and plans to run his 20th and final marathon this December in Seattle.
“Running has been my way of exploring my inner thoughts, and being more centered. … It’s kind of nice to end my running career here in Seattle. I hope I make it. Admittedly, I am so busy, it is hard to keep up with training, so I normally come pretty much in last place every time–– just to be clear,” he said with a laugh.
Carolyn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.