In normal times, Derrick Seaver would have his work cut out for him as he prepares to take the helm of the region’s largest chamber of commerce, the Silicon Valley Organization, but few would call these ‘normal times.’
Seaver’s new job as President and CEO of the embattled chamber will be an especially monumental charge as both the region and the organization work to rebuild following a tumultuous year, but he says he’s prepared. The Ohio native has lived in San Jose since 2013, when he joined the Silicon Valley Organization as executive vice president. He later moved to the San Jose Downtown Association to be the influential nonprofit’s policy director. Today, Seaver is the chief of staff for Santa Clara County Supervisor Susan Ellenberg.
Despite the hurdles ahead, Seaver says he’s excited to rejoin an organization that advocates for both businesses and the region at-large. His new job description includes advocating for businesses as they evolve following a year of oscillating lockdowns during the pandemic. But implied in his tasklist is also earning back trust from the community after the SVO’s racist ad last summer that led to the organization’s former CEO, Matt Mahood, stepping down.
Seaver’s first day in the top job at the SVO will be May 17, but he sat down early with San Jose Inside to talk about his priorities, goals, the economy and even Google in San Jose.
This interview has been slightly edited for length and clarity.
What made you want to throw your name in the ring?
I love this area and love what it represents. The entrepreneurial, innovative spirit of San Jose and the Bay Area was something I always was attracted to and passionate about.
I’ve always really deeply believed in entrepreneurship as a path to equity. I think we will have these conversations that are going to be so critical in the next couple of months, and certainly in the next few years, about how you make the SVO an organization that truly puts—as a central value—diversity, equity and inclusion in not just what you do, but who you are. Those were conversations I was particularly interested in having and being a part of as the organization grows and changes out of what happened last year.
It's one thing to get a new job and have big shoes to fill, but it's another to take the lead after controversy. How are you preparing yourself for what's to come?
To some extent, I think people view a leadership role in the organization as a spokesman role, but I think the unique situation here at the SVO right now is that the person coming into this role has to do a lot of listening—not just to the members of the SVO, but listening to the business community at-large.
Secondly, … you can’t just talk about diversity, equity and inclusion, but it’s something that you do and has to be what you are. The SVO has been around 135 years, and so it touches a lot of different things and engages in a lot of different activities. You have to be very intentional about looking at every single thing the SVO’s engaged in and touching and really ask ‘Is that activity or engagement being representative of the entire business community?’
I personally plan on putting my focus, particularly early on in this job, on having those conversations. The truth is, those things can get missed very easily if you’re not intentional about that.
What happened last year happened, and I think the organization has to acknowledge, accept and apologize for that and move forward. But I also think that in order to do that, they have to understand that the responsibility coming out of that is to be very intentional about every single thing they're touching.
What would you say to someone who wonders if hiring a white man to the top job is in line with those diversity, equity and inclusion efforts?
Honestly, my answer to that is you’re going to rebuild that trust, not through the words that I'm going to say to you, … but I think the only way as an organization we’re going to rebuild that trust is through consistent positive action, and really showing that commitment over and over again.
How do you view the Silicon Valley economy today?
The economy of Silicon Valley is facing many of the same challenges that every other spot in the country, and probably the world, is facing right now; Covid has changed the game. But the flip side of that coin is it also provided an opportunity for ingenuity and innovation, which is the spirit of this area, and that provides our business community with the opportunity to shape-shift and change.
Silicon Valley has a long standing tradition of reimagining traditional processes: how you order food in a restaurant, how you do your retail shopping, how we reimagine adaptive reuse in a downtown through green technology. Where would the world of 2020 have been if not for the business ideas that really originated here?
So, in many ways, we were uniquely positioned for that, but also we have to accept that not every business here was in that position. As a support system for local business, the SVO has to grapple with both of those things.
When it comes to advocating for businesses, what public policies are top of mind right now?
It’s early in that conversation. The world we’re in basically took 10 years of development and squashed it all into one. We have to find a way to be an effective advocate and effective support system for all those conversations that are to come.
If you were talking traditionally about, for example, development fees or housing, what does that look like in a world where the tenants in the first floor level tenants are operating their businesses differently than what they were doing a year ago? What does that look like in a remote work space where some pressure valves are being taken off about where people are living to commute to their offices, which obviously impacts the conversations around traffic?
These are conversations that the members of the SVO leadership and the community at-large can really engage in right now, in a way that provides for some forward thinking and innovation that was not there a year ago.
What will your time at the county bring to your role?
Santa Clara County leads with its primary value system of equity as an inherent value in the organization, and they really bring that through in their hiring practices and promotion, how they train their employees and in the programs and supports they engage in. I will definitely take that away from the county—how you embed that value system in everything you do as an organization.
How will you do that starting in May?
That first phase is we get myself and the team of the SVO out into the community, in all parts of the city to businesses of all shapes and sizes—not as salespeople, but as folks that are willing to listen, to engage with the community and meet the businesses in this area where they’re at. We’ll learn the ‘why’ of how they got into business in the first place and what challenges they’re facing today.
What first comes to mind when you hear the words “Google” and “San Jose” together?
It’s a game-changer, in terms of Google’s potential investment in the city. In saying that, I think that’s a broader conversation: How does Google interface with the existing downtown and the integrity of those businesses and what they’re doing? How do we get everyone on the same page there? Also, how does it work for a city-building standpoint?
We’ve seen this in other cities that have had major tech campuses in their downtowns, and that has to integrate in a seamless way that works for the community. I’m confident that we’ll be able to do that, but that type of investment is game-changing for a city.