Exclusive Interview with Rachel Etherington, CEO of AltaSea
By James Preston Allen, Publisher and Terelle Jerricks, Managing Editor
Around this time a year ago, outgoing Port of Los Angeles Executive Director Geraldine Knatz presented AltaSea to the Harbor Commission. Her brainchild will take 50 years to realize its full potential.
When she departed, the port she bequeathed a 50-year lease on her dream, pledging a total of $210 million to be matched by a legal minimum of $408 million and a conceptual target of $549 million from AltaSea and its sub-tenants, which will be a mix of government, nonprofit and for-profit ventures.
From the very beginning, AltaSea was seen as a critical piece in the economic development of the Los Angeles Waterfront. The only question that remained was: “Who is fit enough to tackle the task of pulling together tenant research institutions and corporations beneath AltaSea’s umbrella while raising hundreds of millions of dollars while doing it?
Rachael Etherington, who made her debut as keynote speaker at the San Pedro Chamber’s annual Business Awards & Installation Luncheon in March, emerged as the answer, taking over the helm of AltaSea April 1, after transitioning from her duties as managing director of the Blue Marine Foundation in the United Kingdom.
In a recent interview with Random Lengths, Etherington discussed why she took on such a gargantuan job as AltaSea.
“I don’t scare that easily,” said Etherington from her seventh floor office in what is now called the Topaz building. From that vantage point, the future of AltaSea’s 35.6 acres site is visible. “Otherwise I would not have come out here.”
Etherington told Random Lengths that lots of people said she was mad for taking on the job.
“I personally never wanted to live a life inhibited by fear,” Etherington said. “I think AltaSea only comes along once in a lifetime and, for me, it was the most phenomenal opportunity …. I couldn’t say no.”
Etherington explained that she spent the past eight months listening to and learning from the people of the Los Angeles Harbor while building partnerships with education groups and corporations.
“How often is it an opportunity comes to you and enables you to do something for the life of a community or communities who seem, in the main, really excited about this,” Etherington said. “We are in discussion with several universities at the moment about hiring and creating new faculties and new disciplines. How often do you find a job with so many benefits?”
Seeds Planted by a Dream
“I was a member of Greenpeace at the age of 13,” Etherington said. “As a teenager railing against everything… I was really aware of the environment as an issue.”
Her parents were products of post-World War II England. The country was recovering from the devastation of German bombing raids and economic collapse. The collective memory of parents foregoing meals so that their children ate was still fresh in her mind, even after two generations.
“My dad was born in ’39, so he grew up during the war,” she said. “And so his mother used to forego eating to enable my dad and his sister to have her rations .… The reason I’m saying this is because we grew up in a household where we were really aware of food scarcity … my mom and dad had no money when they were growing up…. Those principles were kind of inbred into me.”
AltaSea is not Etherington’s first rodeo when it comes to leading conservation-minded organizations. Before coming to Los Angeles, she was the managing director at Blue Marine Foundation, a subsidiary of the Fauna and Flora International, the oldest and perhaps largest conservation organization in the world.
Etherington joined the nonprofit after a period of deep reflection about the direction of her life, both personal and professional.
“I no longer wanted to feel like I was just selling stuff to people who probably didn’t need it or couldn’t afford it. It didn’t fit with my values terribly,” Etherington explained. “So, I thought, not only is the environment important to me on [an] ethical basis. I think there are huge business opportunities in it.”
No longer the idealistic teenager railing against environmental villains, Etherington became an executive that saw opportunities to partner with those very same environmental bad actors.
“One can say hello Ms. Manager, please out of the kindness of your heart give us a few percentage points of your profits so that we can do this,” Etherington said, facetiously. “Yes, you will get lucky occasionally. But my point is [that we have to] frame it in terms of reputational risk and opportunity, operational risk and opportunity, compliance risk and opportunity.
“I’m talking about building a business case for conservation. I’m building the case for businesses to act as responsible corporate citizens across the board.
“My point about the economics of ecosystems and biodiversity or the business cases of conservation or whatever one wants to call it, bringing the two worlds together and demonstrating to people, as I said before, that economic growth and environmental sustainability doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive.”
At the outset, AltaSea’s boosters have touted the private sector as being the primary source of marine science institution funding with little public financing. Etherington, however, suggests that there’s even a role for public financing in the future of AltaSea.
“What I’m not doing is relying on public money to generate phase one,” Etherington explained. “We would be remiss to not look at that and we would be remiss to not start these conversations. But my immediate fundraising targets does not include big amounts of public funding.
“Although I say that, there are conversations that we are having which are going very well, which gives a strong indication that we might get smaller, much smaller chunks of public monies.”
She wouldn’t elaborate further on the source of these funds.
Etherington is prickly at the suggestion that AltaSea does not do enough to take local community into account, whether in its fundraising efforts or its planning efforts for the next 20 to 30 years of its existence.
“This is being built with their support and with their impact,” she said. “Now, all of this stuff that we are doing (and the breakfast on Thursday is one of them), is one of the ways that the community can come talk to us and can say, ‘How can we get involved? What can we do?’
“I would love to get to a point where we got the community engaged in fundraising. But I think, quite frankly…the focus is on us to get some big wins before we start asking people to put hands in their pockets.
Etherington made it clear, her first priority is to raise $133 million by January 2017, a benchmark on the road to the $549 million by 2019.
“We have to get some big wins across the line first and I think we owe it to the community to do so. So money and engagement are wonderful, but I think that will come later.”
The money Etherington is raising will not only pay for the construction of the 35.6 acres on City Dock 1 but also some of the initial operational cost.
“What AltaSea will be doing… we will generate solutions to sustainability issues,” Etherington said. “In my view, the most pressing human issues are health, food security, energy security, etc. and etc.
“How we do that? How we have the biggest impact? I can’t even give you the precise detail about it. Because if you were to say to me, “what are your organizational priorities? I’d say three things: 1. Fundraising. I’ll raise lots of money. I would say the figures we’re dealing with aren’t easy to come by. I’m not going to walk into someone tomorrow who will sign a check for $133 million, but they are realistic and reasonable and I’m determined that we’ll get there. So fundraising is my No. 1 organizational priority.
“The second priority, you would imagine, is getting this built—the permitting, the design, and working with the port processes and making sure that everyone is working according to a tight timeline.
“And the third organizational priority … is strategic partnerships. Now, that means to enable AltaSea to have the biggest impact that it’s going to have. So if you look at a spectrum, AltaSea at one end would just be a landlord. Don’t really care who’s in it. We would just build it. And, as long as you fulfilled some broad, charitable like criteria and you can go in and do your thing. That wouldn’t make any sense to me because that would mean we have very little control over what people do and the impact we have. I don’t want another organization that pats itself on its back, ‘Oh, we’re doing a wonderful job with lots of busy people,’ but we’re not doing anything to stop energy prices from rocketing. We’re not doing anything to make sure that people are getting access to good food and all that kind of stuff.”
Though AltaSea is not fully up and running just yet, the little things they are doing presages how the institution will interact with local education groups in the future.
“We have allowed within this $217 million is not only our operational cost, but we’ve allowed a portion that would enable us to do some non-building dependent programs, just as we did at Cabrillo with the Discover Lecture series,” Etherington said. “There are all sorts of opportunities and partnerships with existing organizations to enable AltaSea to start helping others having an impact and raising our profile.”
She wouldn’t elaborate further on other local education groups AltaSea is financing, either in part or in-whole.
Though AltaSea may not pursue public financing very aggressively, the institution will pursue partnerships with certain government agencies such as the California Department of Fish and Game and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Etherington readily acknowledges her deficit as an outsider in American political circles, but despite that, she says she has had some “really great discussions with a number of people” closing that gap.
Even if you were born and bred in America, it’s a rabbit hole of working out where you need to get to, who you need to know, where the money is. You need a strategist. You need people with political understanding to get there.”
She said she sees innumerable opportunities with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and hopes that by phase 3 of AltaSea’s progression, they will be able to house a kind of NOAA satellite site on its campus, 15 or 20 years into the future.Read More