Q&A with Latisha Hill: Driving economic development
-July 14th, 2016
Avista Corp., of Spokane, recently named Latisha Hill as senior vice president of Avista Development, the latest in a series of positions that the self-described volunteer junkie has filled for the company.
A Rogers High School graduate and former Lilac Princess, Hill, 37, has spent the bulk of her adult life in Spokane. During that time, she has served on a number of boards while building her career.
We sat down with Hill recently—12 days into her new position—to talk about career, community, and her role as a black woman in business.
Journal: Talk to me about your new role with Avista Development.
Hill: We take our retained earnings and reinvest them in the community. That is separate from what we do through the (Avista Foundation) and from what we donate through other charity work. Avista Development’s work is specific to economic development and investing in rising stars, whether that’s a business or some sort of cause the community has intentionalized itself toward.
As senior vice president of Avista, I get the great pleasure of taking that strategy and support regional partnerships. I get to help celebrate the great businesses that we want to see grow in our region, and do it under the umbrella of Avista.
Journal: What were you doing before this role with Avista Development, most immediately?
Hill: Most immediately, I was managing our HR consulting analytics, which was doing several things. Basically, I was looking at data and helping folks make informed business decisions on it. There’s so much data out there. HR, under the direction of Karen Feltes, felt like we needed to look at that data and be more strategic with it. I got tasked to go in, look at the data, share it with the officers, and help them make action-oriented decisions from it.
Journal: Can you give me an example of one of those decisions?
Hill: Data isn’t the story. Data is data. We’d look at it and say, here’s what wellness looks like for our employees, for example. Here are trends we see. How can the company help to keep our employees healthy? What are our weak spots, and what are our strengths? How do we build strategies around those? That’s an example.
Journal: Give me some of your interpretation of the history of Avista Development. What are some of the bigger wins?
Hill: Most recently, Avista Development has been supportive of Ignite Northwest. All of the business accelerator work that has been happening (with Ignite Northwest), we’ve invested in.
We’ve been highly involved in the University District. We recently invested in development of the University District Development Association. We commissioned them to hire a consultant to evaluate what that south side of the University District should be—not because we want it to be anything in particular, but we wanted to know, how does the University District develop on that side of the bridge, and how does that lead into the gateway strategy?
They have been evaluating, what is the business of health. That’s different from extending the universities. Now we’re asking, what about a Johnson & Johnson? What about a subsidiary of a cancer researcher? How do we put things in that space that aren’t just about making our people smarter, but actually commercializing research that helps people get better?
And Steam Plant. We just celebrated 100 years at the Steam Plant, and redevelopment of that was (handled by) Avista Development. We reactivated that side of downtown.
Journal: Let’s talk about your career. Have you always worked for a utility?
Hill: Oh goodness, no. I went to Rogers and left for Pacific University, near Portland. But my mom had a heart attack, and I came to Spokane. I earned my AA at Spokane Falls Community College, and earned my undergraduate degree from Washington State University.
I knew I wanted to get an MBA, but I knew I didn’t know enough about business. I took a job with Toys R Us, which was fascinating. You want to learn business, try retail. That’s where I learned the value of the bottom line.
Journal: What were you doing for them?
Hill: I was managing the store. At Toys R Us, the business model is that you have to manage stores before you can go on to do PR or communications or anything else at corporate. That was my vision. I thought, I’m going to do PR in the corporate office on the East Coast. But you have to work in the retail space first, so I did that.
In the middle of that, I really wanted to have more of a connection to the community. Toys R Us is fantastic, but it’s very much like any other company where it’s very black and white. Either you’re making money or you’re not. At the end of the day, I’d go home and it was great because we were in the black, but I just felt like we should be doing something that was more connected to the people that we served.
I ended up getting a job with an organization called AHANA doing business development. That stands for African, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American, and it was involved in economic development and business formation.
I loved that work. They were working on connecting that community to small business. How do you grow businesses? How do you strengthen existing businesses? How do you connect people to each other? Because in business, a lot of it is about networking and helping people leverage assets.
When I first went in to interview for that job, they said, we want to hire you, but you should know that the grant is only for a year. I said, that’s great, because I’m going to go back to school in a year.
Four years later, I’m sitting in my office, and my boss says, “You’re going to take over this organization,” and I said, “Whoa. No. Goodness. I have so many other things I have to do.” So I ended up quitting.
I decided to go back and get my master’s degree, and I got that in urban and regional planning at Eastern.
Here’s what you should know. I’m kind of a volunteer junkie. I’ve always been a volunteer junkie. I sat on my first board when I was 12. I built a lot of networks through that.
When I went back to school, I was showing up to University District committee meetings at night, just because I was curious. I’d be taking notes, and finally the organizers said, “Who are you? Are you a reporter?” I said, “Oh, no, no. I just want to know how all of this is going to go together.” They asked if I needed a job, and I said no.
I’ll never forget. (former Avista employee) Kim Pearman-Gilman said, “Come work for Avista.” I said, “No, I really want to change the world. I want to make a big impact. I don’t know if Avista would afford me that opportunity.” She said, “Come work for me for five hours a week, and you’ll change your mind.”
I did. I came in as an intern. I thought, “I don’t know if the community realizes how much this company gives and how much they care.” It was then that I realized that this was a company I could be with for a lot longer than I thought I could.
It had the balance of having to meet goals and do the important quantitative things that businesses need to do, while realizing that communities are very qualitative in nature, and they’re not black and white. There’s lots of gray. I’m fortunate to work for a company that sees both sides—the hard infrastructure and the soft infrastructure, and it supports both.
Journal: We do a story every year about top-paid executives. Between a quarter and a third of the people on that list last year were women, and I don’t think any of those women are black. Do you see your role, as a black woman, as broader than the scope of the work that you do at Avista?
Hill: Regardless of how I see it, the community will see it that way.
For me, the title is just a title. But I went to my grandmother’s house after I saw the article in the Spokesman about the new job. I thought she might like that. I bring it to her home and she cries and holds it like a teddy bear and says, “I never would have thought in my life, ever in my life.” When your grandmother has tears in her eyes and is holding that newspaper like it’s a teddy bear, it is humbling. I said that it’s not that big of a deal, and she said, “You’re in the paper.” That was important to her.
I could sit here and say, “Absolutely not,” but it matters. There are so few people of color that have been afforded an opportunity to sit in a space I sit in. I sense a great deal of responsibility in that space. I would be foolish to say that it doesn’t mean more to communities that may have felt underrepresented in the field.
Journal: Do you think that’s more true in a community like Spokane than if you were in a San Francisco or a Portland?
Hill: I was just reading an article in the Harvard Business Review about this, and I think it would be true regardless of the city. It’s pretty consistent about women in leadership. I don’t know that Spokane is unique in that. You have less people of color in this space, but you have a San Francisco and it’s a similar percentage of people of color in leadership positions. It’s kind of a wash.
Journal: You mentioned being community oriented. Tell me about some of the work you do in the community beyond your work with Avista Development.
Hill: When I transitioned to HR, I was on more than 10 boards, which is just crazy. At that point, it’s just me not being able to say no and be thoughtful about where I should spend my time.
Now, I serve on Empire Health Foundation’s board, which is fantastic. I really love that work. I serve with Accelerate Success, which is doing tangible work. And then I sit on the WSU Advisory Council for the University District, with Lisa Brown. That’s been great, because it’s a good place for me to learn all of the great stuff the university is doing, particularly in research and their reinvestment into Spokane and the region. They’re making great progress and doing great work.
Journal: At one time, you served on the Washington Transportation Commission board.
Hill: Yes, I served for a little over two years. That was great, to be a commissioner. That was good learning about looking at a state in its entirety and learning about the impacts of investments both on the West Side and on the East Side. And how transportation is a system that can’t be looked at as a silo.
That experience really factors into everything else that we do. We have to look at how we connect to something that’s bigger than us.