Sam Blackman was going to be the mayor of Portland. He might have even been governor of Oregon. And potentially a senator. But I was always convinced that he was going to be the mayor. He never told me that he wanted to be. I just knew that someday, he would be.
Sam had conviction. And passion. And it was infectious. And that enabled him to found and lead a company. But it could have just as easily been used to lead a city, a state, or a country.
I first encountered Sam, in person, when I saw him pitch at Venture Northwest. He was still a young and relatively inexperienced CEO. And I remember quite clearly hearing him deliver a pitch that was laced with acronyms and industry jargon that I could neither truly follow nor understand. But I did understand that he was passionate about it. And that he was convinced his young company, Elemental Technologies, was onto something big.
And they were, clearly. Resulting in one of the most successful exits Portland has ever seen. And one that brought an Amazon office to somewhere other than South Lake Union. A first for Portland.
But that was to be expected. Sam was full of firsts.
Even though many of us considered Sam a peer, he was so far ahead of so many of us. He was among the first founders to take on the challenge of building a great company in Portland. Rather than relocating to a more favorable environment, he remained in the city he loved. He was among the first to raise significant venture capital. He was among the first to begin championing Portland as a great place to build companies.
But more than anything else, I remember Sam as the first to really understand and embrace the power of community and politics. Elemental became the early leader in hosting events. In speaking to politicians. And in helping to connect the world of startups to the world of politics.
And this civic connection translated in other ways of making the community better. Like Elemental’s internship program, which continues to be one of the best programs introducing younger local folks to the world of technology and startups. And was their first introduction to many of the startups and accelerators in Portland. Because Elemental’s internship program wasn’t just an introduction to Elemental. It was an introduction to the Portland startup community.
And that connection to the community was more than internships. It inspired him to serve as a mentor for many of the founders in town, as spokesperson for our community, and as one of the most easily identifiable CEOs of a Portland startup.
And that’s why I thought Sam was always destined for politics. It seemed to be so natural for him. With an almost Jimmy-Stewart-esque “aw shucks” sort of humility.
I remember him graciously — almost bashfully — accepting an invitation to speak at TechfestNW, one year. And since we didn’t provide much by way of guidelines for his talk, I expected him to deliver a talk on tech or Elemental to the audience at OMSI. Instead, he surprised me with a passionate talk about Portland, the city he loved, and why it was the best place for developers to be. It was a talk that rivaled Alan Weber’s call to action for Portland a year earlier.
I remember frequently seeing him whizzing down Everett Street on his bike, cruising through the Pearl from his home to the Elemental office. He’d smile, holler, and wave to folks he knew. And they’d wave back.
I remember Sam receiving the recognition he deserved. Through awards. And speaking engagements. And other avenues.
I remember Sam giving back to the community that had helped him. Through vehicles like the OEN Entrepreneurship Fund. Or through charitable events like the Elemental 4K runs. Or by suggesting that maybe the tech community should be proactive in working to solve the diversity and inclusion issues that were plaguing it by forming a committee of their own.
I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to watch Sam grow up as a CEO. I got to see him come into his own. And see him mature.
Recently, I’d had the luck of being selected to serve on a committee that Sam was also on. And I remember being happy that his voice would be included. And that I wouldn’t be the only one on the committee working to champion the views of the local startup community.
So over the past few months, I’ve seen Sam on a regular basis. In fact, I last saw Sam a few weeks ago. Where he was doing what Sam did in so many roles, asking hard but insightful questions and looking for common ground on which to agree.
After the meeting, I made a point of catching his attention. He smiled. We shook hands.
“We should catch up sometime soon,” I said. “I’d love to hear how things are going.”
“I’d really like that,” Sam said.
I would have really liked that, too.