By Nina Huang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
With just his 1991 white Honda Accord and a few hundred dollars in his bank account, Brian Surratt headed out west to reinvent himself.
Born in South Korea to a Korean mother and Black father, CEO of Greater Seattle Partners (GSP), Surratt, moved to the United States when he was 5 years old. After his dad retired from the military, the family moved to Oklahoma, where Surratt grew up.
He said that there are actually small Korean and Vietnamese American communities in Tulsa, which may be surprising to folks.
Experiencing dual cultures
“I had the great fortune of growing up in the African American community and having strong connections to the Korean American community. That background of being immersed in two really important family traditions and cultures really shaped me in my daily life and work. I’m constantly feeling like I’m building bridges and sharing ideas,” he shared.
Surratt still has family in both Oklahoma and South Korea. His father’s side of the family goes back four generations and has ties to Black Wall Street in Tulsa—they are very proud of their legacy and history.
He is also going to Korea for a business trip later this year and plans to swing by and visit relatives in his birth town.
“It’s really important for me to keep those family connections. When I think about my daughter, I want her to know she comes from very proud communities and families,” he added.
In addition, Surratt shared his experience growing up biracial in a very conservative state.
“In order to thrive and flourish, I constantly looked at how to connect opportunities, interests, and people. That early learning set a really good mindset for me as I went about how to build out a life and career,” he explained.
Starting anew in the Pacific Northwest
Fast forward to the summer of 1998 when Surratt moved to Seattle after he received his BA in philosophy and political science from the University of Tulsa.
One of the first things he did was volunteer on the “No on I-200” campaign, which sought to prohibit racial and gender preferences by state and local government.
“It was a great way to get to know people in the community and I noticed how Seattle always had this history of multiethnic coalition around issues of justice, cross-racial connections within the Asian American community that I’d never seen,” he said.
The impressive multigenerational and multiethnic group coming together was his introduction to Seattle. What Surratt loved about Seattle when he first arrived was how willing people were to grab coffee and conduct informational meetups with him. This experience was vastly opposite of what he encountered in Washington, D.C.
“People ask you where you went to school or what company you work for, and they peg you in that class like who’s worth talking to or not. I didn’t find that in my experience in Seattle, which made me love this community even more,” he added.
Ultimately, Surratt found a job as a legislative aide for former Washington State Representative Jim McIntyre.
During his two years in Olympia, he met and collaborated with many Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) legislators, including the late Kip Tokuda, Velma Veloria, Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, Hyeok Kim, and others.
Helping to solve community challenges
For Surratt, his interests lie within three threads—how we organize ourselves as people to think about some of our biggest challenges and how to address or solve those challenges. Secondly, he wants to understand the impact on marginalized communities such as the Black or AAPI communities, and what that looks like in the context of American politics. And lastly, economics—he needed to understand the economic empowerment that helps solidify and stabilize communities, as well as how money operates in our society and stabilizes communities.
When he looks back at these topics, his career has touched on all of these and he feels lucky to have been on the ground floor working with communities he cares about and making an impact.
From a professional standpoint, his proudest achievements have been his work as the policy lead on Seattle’s historic effort to establish the $15 per hour minimum wage, his involvement in the anti-displacement work in the Central District at 23rd Avenue and Union Street, as well as the successful negotiation of a memorandum of understanding to redevelop the $1.6 billion project, Climate Pledge Arena.
“I have this ideal vision of what I want to be good at and I want to be able to have credibility in the community and also credibility in corporate boardrooms and at the table with elected leaders. Trying to navigate those various worlds to be credible, to be considered an honest broker and partner is really hard. Too often people want to peg you a certain way—you’re either a corporatist or not really committed to community, or you’re too committed. Being able to maintain that sense of credibility in those various worlds is really hard, but hopefully I’ve been able to navigate that and maintain that level of credibility and respect from folks across those areas,” he explained.
“I don’t want to be pegged or pigeonholed. I’ve always pushed against any kind of labeling. I know who I am, I know who I stand for, and I want to make as many connections across many boundaries and barriers as possible,” he added.
Overcoming personal challenges
Last August, Surratt overcame a personal tragedy when his wife succumbed to cancer.
“In many ways, it continues to shape me and how I want to live. Where do I want to devote my time and energy? Who do I want to be surrounded by? I learned a lot of wonderful lessons around kindness and generosity and finding commitment to people you love through that. That has been a tremendous challenge for me and my family,” he added.
On top of all of his career accomplishments, Surratt is especially proud of his 16-year-old daughter.
“I’m so proud of her and the person she’s becoming. She’s thoughtful, smart, and a very kind person who cares about others. She has a great moral compass and is coming into her own form,” he shared.
Doing what he does best
From volunteering on a political campaign, to working for the City of Seattle, to managing public affairs for the Seattle Seahawks, and working at a publicly traded biotech development company—to now leading GSP, Surratt has certainly reinvented himself.
GSP is a public-private economic development corporation working to ensure that every person in the region has an opportunity to prosper.
Formed under the leadership of Challenge Seattle (which former Governor Christine Gregoire is the CEO of), an alliance of CEOs from 17 of the region’s largest employers, GSP is the culmination of efforts to support broad-based economic growth throughout the region and establish a bold vision for greater Seattle’s future.
GSP incorporates the strengths and expertise of past organizations by leveraging knowledge, experience, and connections in the region to support business and attract investment.
“We still want to open the doors and gates for people all over the world and we have to do a better job of supporting our own talent and nurturing our backyard talent,” he said.
Surratt’s role is to elevate those issues, bring new investments, be a catalyst on job creation training and education items, as well as support the community colleges in the area. He sees his current role as a continuation of what he’s done for decades and the issues he cares about.
Surratt shared that the economic changes have made it so that only those coming from other high income cities or expensive cities can afford to live in Seattle.
In addition, Surratt wants to make sure the region continues to thrive and succeed economically.
“When you lift the hood and peel back the curtains, we all know prosperity hasn’t always been shared across different communities. It hasn’t been shared geographically across the region, that’s the lens that I hope to bring. I want new investments in our community and I want good jobs being created that allow individuals and communities to flourish and I want to be intentional about making sure communities who have not benefited from economic prosperity can tap into our economy,” he explained.
Nina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.