BUTTE – A crowd of 3,500 business and community leaders heard ideas from some of the nation’s top corporate executives Monday on how to create jobs and grow the Montana economy.
The speakers included CEOs or other top executives from Delta, FedEx, Facebook, Google, and SpaceX and Tesla Motors. Their presentations came at the sixth Montana Economic Development Summit organized by U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont.
On the first day of the two-day event at Montana Tech, Baucus shared the announcement of some new jobs in Montana. Health Care Service Corp. and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Montana intend to open a new call center in Great Falls that will create 100 to 150 new jobs. HCSC, based in Chicago, bought Blue Cross this spring.
“One of the goals of our jobs summits is making sure our best and brightest don’t have to leave the state to find good-paying jobs,” Baucus said. “This new call center is going to be a big win for Montana jobs that will be a game changer for Great Falls.”
The speaker who drew the biggest response from the audience was Sheryl Sandberg, chief operating officer of Facebook and author of the best-selling book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.”
She said women are underpaid and under-represented in leadership in private businesses, nonprofits and educational institutions throughout the world.
In the United States, women are paid 23 percent less than men, although one woman stood up in the audience and said the disparity was more than that in Montana.
Women get 58 percent of the college degrees nationally, she said, but hold less than one-third of the college presidents’ jobs.
In every industry and at every table, Sandberg said, men still outnumber women.
“To achieve economic gains, we need everyone at the table,” Sandberg said, calling for an active dialogue nationwide on gender.
Unlike with men, when women become more successful and powerful, they become less liked, she said, and that is the case around the world.
Some little girls are called “bossy,” Sandberg said, but that’s never a label applied to little boys.
Sandberg talked about her book, which she wrote to help spur needed conversation about the issue of gender equality. She called for an active dialogue on the topic of gender at homes, at workplaces and across the world.
“I was told it would end my business career, but I decided the problem was going on too long,” she said. “Gender issues aren’t easy to talk about, but they need to happen.”
Social networks like Facebook can help drive important conversations, Sandberg said, because they allow billions of people to have a voice.
“It’s how the ‘Lean In’ community has grown,” Sandberg said. “I think giving every single human being a voice is a huge part of equality.”
Elon Musk, co-founder and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla Motors, told how he started his own Internet company because he couldn’t get a job at a high-tech company.
He later started PayPal, which created a system to pay for items purchased over the Internet. Selling PayPal to eBay gave him the money do what he really wanted – to take on private space exploration and tackle energy conservation through electric cars.
Musk talked about the ups and downs of these businesses, telling how Tesla almost went under in late 2008.
He said he had to piece together his own money and that from investors to keep the company alive on Christmas Eve 2008. He had to borrow money from friends to pay his rent.
“It made a huge difference to investors,” Musk said. “You have to show you have skin in the game.”
General Motors and Chrysler were going bankrupt at the same time.
He now heads a private space exploration company hoping to send a rocket to the moon and an electric car company.
Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google and a Montana property owner, praised Montana’s potential.
“Growth comes from small, fast-growing companies,” he said at a press conference. “A lot of those could easily be in Montana.”
Asked what Montana can do for Google, Schmidt said: “We’re always happy to have customers. Google is doing just fine, thank you. The simple way to understand what Google needs is we need the infrastructure, in particular broadband wireless, as ubiquitous, as inexpensive and as free as possible. That then enables the creativity to build our platforms.”
Fred Smith, chairman and CEO of FedEx, founded the company in 1971 based on a paper he wrote at Yale that garnered only a grade of C, Baucus said in introducing him. FedEx now has 330,000 employees, including 600 in Montana, with annual revenues of $44 billion and a $4 billion capital budget.
Smith said he’s very concerned about the status of the U.S economy. He cited the significant trade deficit, including the transfer of U.S. wealth to the Middle East. He also voiced concern about the unemployment rate, calling it the lowest level of people working since 1978, and said the investment in public infrastructure was the lowest since World War II.
The FedEx founder said he supports raising the federal fuel tax, so long as the money is dedicated to highways.
Smith also criticized the U.S. tax structure as a disincentive, with one of the two highest rates in the world, which discourages investment.
He voiced his support for Baucus’ pledge to reform federal taxes before he retires in 2014.