Zappos CEO seeks ‘Return on Community’

While Las Vegas has long been branded with the cliché “what happens here, stays here,” Tony Hsieh is out to spread the word about a surge of revitalization efforts transforming its downtown.

“What we want people to say about downtown Vegas is that downtown Vegas will make you smarter, which is probably the last thing anyone would expect,” Hsieh said.

Hsieh, chief executive officer of the online shoe and clothing company, keynoted a brunch Sunday at the Hilton Hotel in downtown Milwaukee as a finale to the city’s Young Professionals Week, organized by the social networking group Newaukee.

Hsieh’s address explored the crossroads of corporate culture and community, illuminating Milwaukee minds with the powerful approach he and his company are taking in Las Vegas to enliven a space where residents can “live, work and play (all) within walking distance.”

“One of our goals from the Zappos perspective is to really be the most community-focused large company in the world,” Hsieh said. “That’s pretty exciting.”

Hsieh has largely been the catalyst behind a community initiative known as the Downtown Project in the Fremont East District of Las Vegas. Pouring $350 million into the redevelopment of the district, the project aims to inspire collision and co-learning among residents with different backgrounds and skillsets and, in doing so, cultivate community.

One of the project’s very specific goals is to foster a residential density of greater than 100 people per acre.

“Putting people in the same physical space results in a lot of really interesting innovations and collaborations,” Hsieh said.

The project includes a $200 million investment in real estate, $50 million in support for small businesses, a $50 million fund for education and another $50 million fund to benefit tech startups through the VegasTech Fund.

From creating a shipping container park where new businesses will launch in temporary, repurposed shipping container structures to renovating an existing building into a public speaker’s theater, the Downtown Project emphasizes what Hsieh calls “ROC.”

“For us, we wanted to think long term,” Hsieh said. “So rather than focus on maximizing the short-term ROI (return on investment), we have this concept of maximizing ROC – return on community.”

To bolster the district’s ROC, plans to move its headquarters this fall to Las Vegas’ former city hall, located downtown, so that the company can better expand its focus beyond its own walls to the surrounding ecosystem and community, Hsieh said.

Many of the dollars fueling the Downtown Project have come from’s 2009 acquisition of

While officially belongs to, has retained its independence, continuing to grow its brand and company culture as it has from its inception in 1999, Hsieh said.

“Our No. 1 priority is company culture, and our whole belief is that if you get the culture right that most of the other stuff like delivering great customer service or building a long-term enduring brand or business will just be a natural byproduct of that,” Hsieh said.

Relationships are a key part of’s success and culture, much like they are here in Milwaukee.

“If you think about Milwaukee, we’re a good-sized city, but at the same time we’re a small city where relationships are important,” said Mayor Tom Barrett during his opening remarks at the brunch.

And much of the same kind of energy circulating both in and out of Las Vegas’ Downtown Project fuels the drive of Milwaukee change makers such as the Newaukee leaders, who want to unite their passion for change with the resources of Milwaukee’s business community.

“How do we get Milwaukee’s Fortune 500 companies that are all in the area, that are really big companies, to work together, talk to each other and start investing in the city to see the benefit?” said Jeremy Fojut, chief idea officer at Newaukee.

After spending just a day in Milwaukee, Hsieh said he already sees that collision in action.

“I think it’s already happening,” he said. “I didn’t know about anything about Newaukee till I got here. I think the first step is just getting people that care about community together (and) start doing events like this.”

Erica Breunlin is a reporter for BizTimes Milwaukee.

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