Billy Penn: Why 150 Philly leaders are spending the weekend in Seattle

This weekend, several dozen leaders from various Philadelphia companies, nonprofits, agencies and institutions will come together to discuss ways to move the city forward. Like other local “convenings” — the trendy term for this kind of confab — the gathering is designed encourage collaboration and jumpstart progress.


One thing makes it obviously different: The gathering isn’t taking place in Philly.


It’s going down in Seattle.


For the past decade, the 109-year-old institution known as the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia has been taking a group of local stakeholders on an annual retreat called the Greater Philadelphia Leadership Exchange. In odd years, the event, known as GPLEX, takes place in Philadelphia. In even years, it happens in some other city.


This is the event’s 13th year, and it will see 145 participants from diverse backgrounds — CEOs, academics, elected officials, lawyers, nonprofit organizers and journalists (including this writer) — pick up and travel 3,000 miles across the country to, well, meet one another there.


Of course, internal networking isn’t the only thing that’ll happen. Over three days of intensely planned out workshops, panels and excursions, GPLEX participants will meet some of Seattle’s most interesting people and explore the landscape, from cultural gems to struggling neighborhoods. The idea is to survey the issues facing the West Coast city, and the solutions that’ve alternately succeeded or failed when implemented, and then translate those lessons into tools for Philly.


Sound like a wonky snoozefest? Not according to people who’ve done it. Depending who you ask, GPLEX is like sleepaway camp for grownups — or even spring break.


Comcast VP Bret Perkins, who traveled with the cohort to Atlanta a couple years ago, came up with that first comparison. “It’s like summer camp,” he said at a preview happy hour hosted at his company’s headquarters in June. “Well, hopefully not too much like summer camp,” he added as the crowd laughed.


“Not like camp,” offered Nancy Dunleavy, founder and CEO of charitable funding firm Dunleavy & Associates, eyes twinkling, when it was her turn to talk. GPLEX, she said, “is more like spring break.”


Um, so maybe Dunleavy’s spring break was different than most. But here’s her point: Even if you’re only interacting with people you could already see every day, being in a new environment can be invigorating.


“It’s a particularly interesting time for this,” said Reading Terminal Market manager Anuj Gupta, one of those who’ll be descending on the Emerald City from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3. In Philly right now, he said, “we are thinking and acting big.”


Why Seattle?


Gupta was loosely referring to Philadelphia’s recent push toward being a “global city” — defined broadly as a city that’s “a primary node in the global economic network” (thanks, Wikipedia).


But that isn’t the only reason the timing is interesting. There’s also the Amazon factor.


As part of Philly’s bid to host the ecommerce giant’s second headquarters, known as HQ2, Seattle has been on many local leaders’ minds recently. City-affiliated agencies spent more than half a million dollars on various campaigns to woo Amazon and its much-ballyhooed 50,000 new jobs and promised economic boost. Efforts included a Visit Philly ad campaign on Seattle buses and a mayor-hosted tour for Amazon execs of various sites around town.


That wasn’t the sole reason the city was selected, according to Jennifer Egmont, GPLEX director. “We chose it in spite of the HQ2 offer,” she said. “Who knows how all that is going to turn out.”


The Economy League did take advantage of some of the relationships developed during the bid process, Egmont admitted, but said Seattle was on the shortlist for this year’s trip even before that process started, along with Denver and Minneapolis.


“Our board had the perspective that Seattle offered the comparisons most relevant to Philadelphia right now,” she explained.


Which comparisons? Transportation is a major one. As SEPTA slogs through a piecemeal modernization of fare payment and grapples with upgrading a large stock of older equipment and infrastructure, congestion is growing ever worse in Philly’s downtown. Seattle faced some of the same issues — but managed to take a big leap forward.


“Seattle taxed themselves to a $3 billion transit system,” Jim Markham, a local engineer consultant, said with incredulous awe at the preview event. “Our system is at risk. We need to look at how they got everyone on board.”


Gentrification and affordable housing is another tack the urban areas are both trying to tackle. Obviously, the two municipalities are different sizes — Seattle is a city of 700,000 in a metro statistical area of 3.8 million, while Philly’s population is 1.6 million out of a regional 6 million — and also have different distributions of wealth (Philly has a much larger percentage of people living below the poverty line).


So methods that worked in one city won’t necessarily translate directly. But there are also many similarities, and past GPLEX trips have shown that exploration of how others are doing things can in fact lead to innovations back home.


So who gets to go?


The Economy League — a century-old think tank with a name that conjures visions of gray-haired men in starched shirts and striped ties — doesn’t necessarily seem like a go-to place for sparking new ideas.


But over leadership exchange’s lifespan, it has played an innovator’s role.


A past GPLEX in Toronto allowed Peter Gonzales from the Welcoming Center to create a new vision for the Philly immigration hub, Egmont said. A new program within adult education nonprofit Graduate Philadelphia, led by Barbara Mattelman, was partly inspired by the Los Angeles excursion, per Egmont. And Michael Nutter attended as a city councilperson, gathering fodder that no doubt contributed to his global agenda for Philadelphia during his time as mayor.


Key to the cross-pollination of ideas that leads to breakthroughs like these, according to Economy League executive director Jeff Hornstein, is drawing the most varied group of people as possible into the discussion. It’s like a corollary to “strength in diversity,” applied to innovation instead.


Hornstein, who took over the Economy League helm last January, feels so strongly about the concept that he made efforts to ensure the group of people participating in this year’s GPLEX was the most diverse ever.

That applies across all factors: background, ethnicity, age, gender, industry, experience, education.

CEOs from the city’s major corporations are taking part — but so are directors of the region’s most vulnerable nonprofits. Participating in the three-day gathering next week are academics and healthcare execs. Elected officials and economists. Realtors and journalists. Lawyers, scientists, artists, bankers.


There’s a registration fee to participate (it varies from $2,000-$3,000), but Hornstein has this year been able to convince rich companies to act as sponsors for community leaders whose organizations might not be able to afford the entry fee on their own.


That’s critical, Hornstein stressed, to achieve the main goal. Speaking at the June preview on Comcast’s 45th floor, he stated the intention of the program in one clear, concise phrase.


GPLEX’s overarching goal, Hornstein said, is “figuring out how to use the equity we are literally standing on top of to raise up all neighborhoods in Philadelphia.”