In the quarter century since national accounting firm Ernst & Young (now rebranded as EY) brought its Entrepreneur of the Year event to Seattle and the Northwest, the annual black tie gala has represented a community celebration of entrepreneurship. And with that has come a growing awareness of the importance of recognition for those struggling to build businesses and create jobs.
That increased awareness of the role visibility plays has brought with it an array of events, created by firms, organizations and media entities who want to own a piece of visibility value of their own for creating visibility for and thus developing relationships with young companies and the entrepreneurs who guide them.
Indeed all of those other recognition events have brought value to the startup and entrepreneurial ecosystem by allowing individual firms to attract the attention of potential investors and potential new talent.
But the EY event has remained the most prestigious gathering for entrepreneurs, as this year's select group of honorees preparing for the June 17 event at the Sheraton Hotel are coming to learn. Among other things, Northwest winner get to move forward to compete for recognition at the EoY national and world events later in the year with winning entrepreneurs from the 145 cities and 60 countries in which the EoY event is held.
As Dan Smith, managing partner of the Seattle EY office, put it:"We've recognized many remarkable leaders who have disrupted industries, created new product categories, and successfully brought new innovation and technology to traditional industries."
In fact three winners in the local event have gone on to win at the national level. They are David Giuliani, who as founder and CEO of Optiva, won in the manufacturing category in 1997; Zillow Group CEO Spencer Rascoff, who won in the "services" category in 2013, and Zulily CEO Darrell Cavens, who won in the "emerging" category in 2014.
Smith notes that this year's finalists include 21 entrepreneurs from the life sciences, retail and technology industries, adding "we've definitely seen a lot of growth in these sectors compared to 30 years ago when the program started."
This annual Entrepreneur of the Year event has held a special attraction for me because of personal involvement, both before and since the event came to Seattle five years after Ernst & Young launched it in 1986 in Milwaukee.
Part of my regard for the event is having close connection to entrepreneurial honorees for this special recognition. The first was Kathryn Kelly, the president of a young Seattle firm called Environmental Toxicology, who was among those honored as finalists at the second event in Seattle in 1992.
Then came Pete Chase, CEO of Spokane-based Purcell Systems, who won in the communications category in 2006 and became a judge in the following three years, before guiding the sale or his company and launching a new company, Columbia International Finance, for whom I am doing some consulting.
And Leen Kawas, Ph.D., president and CEO of the promising young life science company M3 Biotechnology Inc., is a 30-year-old Jordanian woman who is among this year's honorees and whom I tout as changing the face of life sciences in this state. I have had the satisfaction of being an investor and providing introductions and visibility since she arrived at the helm of the fast-growing company in January of 2014.
The impact of the honor on the entrepreneurs nominated was evidenced by Kelly's reaction back then when I expressed my regret, having nominated her, for the fact she had been one of three finalists but had not won in her category.
"You have to be kidding! Just being here (including the video vignettes of each finalist shown before the envelope is opened and the winner disclosed) was the satisfaction of a lifetime," she said.
There is also a bit of amusement for me when I think of the Entrepreneur of the Year event in that as publisher of the Business Journal I was involved in two entrepreneur of the year events before Ernst & Young brought its event to Seattle.
That came about because Woody Howse, then a partner in the venture capital firm Cable & Howse Ventures, approached me about partnering in an event we named Entrepreneur of the Year, which we promoted and held in the mid-'80s to honor a single entrepreneur each year. It would be hard to top either of our honorees.
The first was W. Hunter Simpson, who had taken over defibrillator-manufacturer Physio-Control 20 years earlier and guided it into a global-leadership role in its industry. The next year we honored Microsoft founder and CEO Bill Gates, whose company was just then gathering momentum, having gone public a year earlier.
Cable & Howse, then the area's premier vemture capital, had a vested interest in creating visibility for entrepreneurs, as did the Business Journal. We were among many organizations then casting about to determine how best to serve those individuals who held the keys to our future.
In fact, some edginess on the part of the Ernst & Young Seattle leadership would have been appropriate at our having pre-empted Simpson and Gates as the two most impressive names in the local entrepreneur community at the time.
PSBJ and Cable & Howse partnered for several years thereafter with another accounting firm to stage a High Tech Entrepreneur of the Year event, before Ernst & Young Managing Partner Karl Guelich called me to let me know our party was over because the real thing was coming to Seattle.
Guelich had allowed us to go ahead without comment with a Seattle event using the E&Y copyrighted name, partly out of friendship and partly because he likely figured, as it turned out accurately, that our event might even lay visibility groundwork for the arrival of the official awards event of that name.
For perhaps a decade, the Business Journal was part of a process that represented a win for the firm, for the newspaper, and for the entrepreneurs as well. Ermst & Young always scheduled its event for a Thursday evening and provided all the advance detail needed for PSBJ to produce a special supplement with stories on the event and all the honorees, passed out to all attendees as a keepsake as they left the event and then it was inserted in the PSBJ copies that arrived in subscribers' mail the following day.
Since then some of the biggest names among regional entrepreneurs have been in the winners' limelight at the Northwest EoY. They included Mark Britton of Avvo, Jim Weber of Brooks Sports, Inc., Dara Khosrowshahi of Expedia, Inc., Gertrude and Timothy P. Boyle of Columbia Sportswear Company, Jeffrey P. Bezos of Amazon.com, Inc. and Howard Schultz of Starbucks Coffee Company.
So perhaps I'm prejudiced, but it seems clear that EY Managing partner Smith is accurate in suggesting that "the award has acquired a great deal of prestige, and is recognized around the world as an emblem of entrepreneurial success."
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