An entrepreneur who knows what it’s like to need help is leading Seattle’s Pacific Science Center to serve the entire community, and do it better.
The Pacific Science Center is old enough to be a venerable landmark, but it is also becoming something else, a more nimble and entrepreneurial operation in an effort to serve more people and to give them more of what they want.
A new CEO, Will Daugherty, took over in January, bringing a long business résumé that includes leadership positions at Amazon, Expedia and the management consulting firm McKinsey & Company. When I looked at the list, I thought I had him pegged. But there’s more to him than I expected.
Daugherty gets excited about finances and data points, but also about science and service. He wanted to talk about some new things the Science Center is trying, and I wanted to know what motivates him, so we talked about both.
He came to Seattle about 13 years ago to work for AT&T and was with another tech company when he decided last year to take the leap into public service by becoming an entrepreneur-in-residence at the University of Washington CoMotion program, helping innovators have real-world impact.
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The Science Center board wanted someone to lead the institution to a better future, and when recruiters for the Center contacted Daugherty, he was ready for the challenge. “I felt like this (the Center job) was what I had been preparing for my whole life,” he said.
Daugherty brought together leaders in government, philanthropy and business, community representatives, and families to talk about what the community wants from the Science Center.
The community sees the Center as a place for kids to ignite their curiosity and for people of all ages to build on their curiosity.
The attendees also saw a need to serve people who face economic, physical and other challenges.
Scientists at the meeting wanted a place to share their work with the public.
In response, the Science Center adopted a new mission statement: “Pacific Science Center ignites curiosity in every child and fuels a passion for discovery, experimentation, and critical thinking in all of us.” And it started addressing the community needs.
Like a startup, or an experimental scientist, Daugherty decided to just dive in, starting with access. A family membership costs $119 for a year, and Daugherty wanted to make membership free for poor families. But nonprofits and government workers who knew more said it would be better to charge something — so that it would feel like participation, not charity. So in April the Center spread the word that families who receive public assistance can purchase a membership for $19. As of Tuesday, he said, 1,695 of these families, with 4,758 children, had signed up. And since April, 70 percent of them have visited the Center at least once and 33 percent at least twice.
Last week, it launched a program to provide free membership to foster children, and it’s working to do the same for homeless children.
And the Center is making itself more accessible to people who have physical or mental disabilities. The center is hosting a competition Friday in which kids from the Special Olympics will participate as equal partners on robotics teams.
Daugherty, who grew up in Atlanta, said his family prepared him for this work. His mother and grandmother were both teachers, and his grandfathers were both engineers. His father had a gift for hospitality, he embraced everyone and made people feel good, even though some people had mocked him because of his disabilities.
Daugherty said his father was born with epilepsy, and he had scarlet fever when he was very young, which limited his IQ.
His father worked in the shipping room of a department store, at a nursery moving dirt, at a hospital, and finally at an inn, where he was responsible for serving breakfast and everyone knew him as “Mr. Bill the breakfast host.”
His father died 15 months ago, and Daugherty said he realized that, “It was the process of learning to appreciate him that helped me grow into a man.”
Daugherty also learned from his family and from his own experiences the value of helping others. He said that when he was young his family briefly relied on food stamps, and that it was the help of other people that allowed him to go to a good high school and on to Princeton and Columbia University.
“I’ve always aimed at some form of public service,” he said, and now, “I get to be a public servant with a staff of energized people and with kids running around getting excited, jumping up and down about robots and rubber duckies.”
He has a quotation on his office wall by astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. It reads, “No one is dumb who is curious. The people who don’t ask questions remain clueless throughout their lives.”
Now he has a chance to plant seeds of curiosity in children and rescue adults from cluelessness, by reigniting their inner child.