Entrepreneurship - It's about Community
Carl J. Behnke, Founder, R.E.B. Enterprises
Carl Behnke operates from the premise that strengthening entrepreneurship strengthens the entire community. And for him, entrepreneurship isn't just about big business. Or small business. Or startups. Or people with good ideas who dream about starting businesses. Nor is it just about grown-ups, or making a profit or providing a service.
For Behnke, entrepreneurship is about the big picture – the whole community – including its youngest members.
When Behnke, a Seattle native, joined the board of directors of Junior Achievement (JA) of Washington in 1981 at age 36, the organization was providing after-school programs about America's free enterprise system to approximately 4,000 high school students.
"Carl was passionate about the mission from the start and has been an inspiration to our staff ever since," says JA President David Moore, who's been with the organization nearly as long as Behnke. Behnke chaired the JA board in 1984. Moore credits him for much of JA's creative growth, calling him one of a handful of board members who've transformed the organization.
"Carl inspired us to create in-school programming, so that today we have more than 3,000 volunteers working directly with classroom teachers in 70 school districts," says Moore.
Behnke was also instrumental in helping JA build a solid financial base.
"He helped us launch and still attends Dare to Dream, which features an auction to raise funds for JA," says Moore. "He also chaired one of our earliest annual Gold Cup Campaigns to solicit the support of local businesses and major corporations. He has approached countless CEOs and executives to encourage them to get involved and teach our kids about business."
Behnke also understands the obligation of nonprofit board members to raise funds and that they themselves must give generously in order to do that effectively. Behnke became a charter member five years ago of JA's Free Enterprise Society, comprised of the top two percent of individual JA donors nationwide.
JA reaches more than 6 million elementary through high school students worldwide with programs that inspire them to value free enterprise, business and economics. Behnke's dedication to the organization comes from knowing that many of the seeds of entrepreneurship he plants today become the catalysts for the creation of businesses that sustain the people, families and communities of tomorrow.
"He just believes that every child should have a chance to succeed," says Moore. "That it's just a matter of reaching out to as many as we can and giving them the tools."
Behnke reaches out in similar ways in the realm of cancer research – providing the tools scientists need to develop breakthrough technologies.
Recognized for his leadership at JA and on other respected nonprofit boards in Seattle – the University of Puget Sound, the Pacific Northwest Ballet, the Seattle Chamber of Commerce, and more than a dozen others – he was recruited in 1994 by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center to chair Phase II of its capital campaign.
"What Carl understands is that a research center like ours with 183 faculty members is almost like having 183 entrepreneurs running 183 separate businesses," says Hutchinson CEO Myra Tanita.
With one big difference. All entrepreneurs take risks. Most of the time, they take these risks with a clearly defined end product or service in mind. But for the "scientist entrepreneurs" at Hutchinson, the end product or application is often unknown.
Thus, as Tanita explains, the center may take risks not well understood by those unfamiliar with the world of basic science. Take the recruitment of Nobel Prize winner Linda Buck.
"Our strategic plan focuses on specific research initiatives. Even though her work may not fit into those priorities, we thought she had incredible talent and potential," says Tanita. "People in the community don't necessarily understand this culture. Carl is able to bridge the gap for us."
That ability has proven especially valuable to Hutchinson in developing relationships with industry. Under Behnke's chairmanship of the board of trustees from 2003 to 2005, new emphasis on bringing technology developed by Hutchinson scientists to the marketplace has yielded promising commercial opportunities. Asked to cite an example, he marvels at the life-saving promise of animal hibernation research recently spun out into privately-funded company.
Behnke connects his passion for business and philanthropy to the example set by his family. The family, which purchased Alaska Pacific Salmon Co. before Behnke was born, launched the first steamship lines to transport salmon from Alaska to Seattle, pioneered the commercial use of radar navigation and shipping containers and, eventually, sold the company's assets to purchase what became the second largest independent Pepsi bottling company in the country. Behnke ran the company from 1974 until its sale in 1993, continuing the family tradition of donating two percent of earnings back to the communities in which the company operated.
After the sale, Behnke used part of his assets to start the Behnke Foundation. In addition to the arts, the foundation chooses a different need each year for its focus. Behnke anticipates a focus on entrepreneurship in the near future.
Following the sale, he also started R.E.B. Enterprises. In 1995, the firm invested in a Seattle kitchen wares business, Sur La Table. Under Behnke's chairmanship, Sur La Table had expanded to 54 stores nationwide as of January 2006.
Behnke also keeps his eyes and ears open for angel investment opportunities. Oftentimes, the best leads come from people he meets and gets to know through his work as a volunteer. Like the lead about Aubeta.
"One of our directors served on the Hutchinson board with Carl," says Norm Hernandez, CEO of Aubeta, a wide area network provider founded in 2000. "As an Aubeta board member, Behnke brought money. But, more importantly," says Hernandez, "he brought knowledge of the retail market and experience in dealing with private and publicly held companies."
"A company grows linearly with investment money and geometrically with talent," says Hernandez. "A small company simply can't hire people like Carl."
A Unique Difference
Behnke was a member of the Harvard Business School Class of 1973. In commenting on his contribution to the class's 25th reunion gift to the school's Initiative on Social Enterprise, Behnke spoke of the obligation to give back:
"Our class has lived and worked in a prolonged period of unprecedented economic growth," he said, "resulting in great wealth for our nation and opportunities for individual prosperity. Our gift affords us a modest yet critical role in providing stewardship skills and an understanding of philanthropy to future Harvard Business School and community leaders."
Through the organizations with which he shares his time, talent and treasure and the companies through which he strengthens communities, Behnke exemplifies the uniquely powerful role entrepreneurs can play to change the world for the better.
© 2006 Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. All rights reserved.