Instead of her usual monthly column, OBI Chair Karen Vineyard sat down with Angela Wilhelms, OBI’s president & CEO as of Sept. 1. Karen asks Angela about her vision for the organization, her background, and so much more.
We’re so thrilled to welcome you to OBI, and eager to hear more about your vision for the organization and for the state of Oregon. But first: tell us about how you got here. What’s your career been like so far, and what motivated you to pursue the OBI CEO position?
In getting to this point, my career has certainly wended, but it’s generally done so through various public sector or public affairs jobs. I intended to work in finance, but it wasn’t long before I found myself working in politics. Like many who work in politics in their early 20s, I tried a few different things and was lucky enough to work for candidates and elected officials from across the state. The variety of experiences gained and my passion for serving all of Oregon—I think—played a big role in my being hired by then House Minority Leader Bruce Hanna, from Roseburg to serve as chief of staff for the caucus office. Again, this role meant that I got to work with elected officials representing communities from all parts of the state. It also meant that I was exposed to and knee-deep in a wide variety of policy issues, but always under the guidance of a minority leader, and eventually co-speaker, focused on the health and well-being of Oregon’s business sector. During this time, I decided to go back to school to help prepare me for the next chapter. I didn’t know what that chapter would be exactly, but I knew I wanted to learn more. My intention was an MBA, but the dean at Willamette encouraged me to pursue the joint JD/MBA. I’m grateful to her for pushing me and for the legal training I got alongside my MBA. (I do still love lawyer jokes, though…) It then seemed like a natural fit to practice business law, and a certain OBI member firm took a chance on me. They were great, but it wasn’t long before I felt a pull back to public service and was given the opportunity to start something new at the University of Oregon, where I’ve been for the last seven years. That role focused on supporting the brand new institutional governing board, and I’m proud of (and Oregonians should be proud of!) what the UO has accomplished since that board was established.
But then I get a call that OBI was going to need a new president and CEO, and I knew it was time for me to pivot. The idea of bringing together everything I’ve done—policy, politics, administration and management, communications, board relations, etc.—into one role was immediately intriguing. The idea that this role was one where I would get to advocate every day for a robust, healthy and growing economy across the entire state of Oregon…well that was just too good to be true.
Working with a talented team, advocating for a healthy business sector, representing members in all parts of the state and in myriad sectors, collaborating with industry and community partners, and doing so at such a pivotal time for our economy? “Sign me up,” was a pretty immediate reaction.
I’ve been around and worked with OBI or its predecessor organizations for a long time, and am humbled and excited to be at the helm for its next chapter. Sandi, the staff, and the board have done tremendous work, and there is so much more OBI can, should, and must do on behalf of business and industry.
I understand you’re a native Oregonian, currently living in Eugene. Tell us about growing up here.
I am indeed. I was born in Klamath Falls but mostly grew up in Beaverton. Most of my own time in Oregon living and working has been in the Portland area or the Willamette Valley (Salem, Eugene), but I’ve had the privilege to work for people who’ve represented most of the state’s geography and, thanks to my very civically-minded parents, grew up with a healthy dose of appreciation for the importance of Oregon’s diverse geography, politics, landscape and economy. Admittedly I did leave for a bit – college and a little bit of work in California, and then a couple of years in DC. It didn’t stick and instead made me all the more grateful for what I will always consider “home.” Like a lot of native Oregonians, I’m unabashedly proud of what we have to offer and love the variety. It was a great place to grow up… I want it to be that way for generations to come.
What’s your favorite spot in Oregon?
Can’t do it—cannot pick any one favorite. I suppose if I must narrow it down, I’d have to go with either any spot on the coast where you can watch waves crashing in a storm, with a bonus for the areas like Depoe Bay with the best whale-watching activity, or one of the many, many places in Eastern Oregon where you can pull off of the road and see more stars than imaginable while lying on the hood of your car. The infield of Hayward Field during a big track meet is also pretty special.
So it’s the weekend, you’ve wound down from work. How would we find Angela Wilhelms spending her time?
It’s good to hear that the board chair expects there to be times when I’ve wound down from work…this is getting filed away! Depending on the season, you’d probably find me working at a track meet or otherwise enjoying any number of sporting events; maybe hiking or enjoying the view on the coast somewhere; or perhaps reading, having dinner with friends or nerding out on the New York Times crossword. Oh…or binge-watching something…I won’t even try to deny that I indulge in that guilty pleasure.
What excites you the most about taking on this leadership role? What are some goals you have for your first 100 days?
I absolutely cannot wait to get out and about to meet with members around the state. Learning about the work our members do, the jobs they create, and the impact they have on Oregon’s communities is going to be informative and, frankly, fun. The first 100 days will no doubt be a bit of a blur and I appreciate everyone’s support and patience as I really get up to speed. As I transition into the role, my first priority is to connect with our members so that I can understand what is top of mind for them, but I also want to connect with our partners and the many other stakeholders who help shape the environment for business and industry in the state. I have a lot of listening to do, and I look forward to taking what I bring to the role and what I learn in the role and working with the board to create a long-term vision for OBI.
Also during those first 100 days (and beyond), the OBI team will continue to provide relevant, useful information about the ever-changing landscape faced by businesses in every sector. We’ll also prepare for the 2022 legislative session and election cycle, and think proactively about how we can even further bolster our voice as an effective advocate for businesses.
What, in your view, will be the most interesting aspect of leading OBI and advocating for Oregon’s business community?
OBI is one of the most prominent business organizations in the state, but it is not an island. OBI operates within a complex ecosystem that includes very diverse members, partner organizations, and stakeholders who individually may have different opinions or approaches but who collectively share a vision for a healthy, prosperous and competitive Oregon that improves lives today and into the future. This diversity—both internally and among a large network of association and chamber partners—is part of what makes OBI such a strong organization with so much potential. It can also, no doubt, be frustrating to some when positions don’t align. I respect that. It’s how we harness our collective energy, wisdom, and passion to move forward that matters most.
This last one is a two-part question: 1) What do you want OBI members to know as you transition into the president & CEO role? And 2) What message do you want to send to OBI’s partners across the state, including our state and local elected leaders?
OBI is strong, and Sandi has done an exceptional job leading the organization in these first post-merger years. I am excited to take the reins and to work with the board to leverage OBI’s strengths on behalf of our members and the entire state. Being able to advocate for owners, operators, employers, and workers is really exciting. Oregon’s economy is diverse, and its communities are varied. This means, as I noted before, that all of our members won’t always agree with each position or approach we take. But I hope everyone understands that the OBI team is 100% committed to creating an environment that sustains a robust and thriving economy. After all, the quality of life Oregonians enjoy is a direct result of the economic activity generated by business and industry across the state. Our members should be proud of this, and our partners across the state—especially elected leaders and other policymakers—need to really understand this.