Bellevue Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Betty Nokes Capestany has spent more than 25 years helping local businesses succeed
When Betty Nokes Capestany was finishing high school, her grandmother offered some casual advice that proved somewhat prescient.
“She told me that I should work for a chamber of commerce because my grandfather belonged to a chamber of commerce in Eastern Washington,” Capestany recalled.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in business administration & human resources from Washington State University, Capestany — who was born in Yakima and whose family spent most of her early years living in Washington, California, Wyoming, and New Mexico while her father worked at Boeing — moved to the Puget Sound region, earned associate degrees in applied arts and business administration from Green River College, and worked as a bookkeeper for a small accounting firm.
One day, Harry Williams, then the director of the Kent Chamber of Commerce, was visiting her office and asked whether Capestany would be interested in working at the Chamber. She was, and Williams referred her to Suzette Cooke — then the Kent Chamber executive director (now the mayor of Kent). Capestany soon changed jobs and worked her way up from a clerical position to assistant director of the Kent Chamber of Commerce, which began a long series of professional relationships with other local chambers. She also went on to work at the Renton Chamber of Commerce and in the City of Renton’s economic development department.
In total, she has been a chamber executive for more than 25 years. Capestany was president of the Board of Washington Chamber of Commerce Executives in 2004, named executive of the year by the Western Association of Chamber Executives, and joined the U.S. Chamber Committee of 100 in 2008. In 2014, she received the Russell E. Pettit Excellence in Leadership Award from the Western Associates of Chamber Executives.
Capestany has held her position at the Bellevue Chamber since 2001. It’s a dream job of sorts, considering she kept her eye on Bellevue while working at chambers in Kent and Renton. “Bellevue was the big city,” she said. “Bellevue serves as the regional city for all the Eastside communities. Bellevue was always the center of things.”
The Bellevue Chamber of Commerce was created in 1947 (it’s actually older than the city of Bellevue, which was incorporated in 1953) and has between 600 and 700 members. Capestany leads six full-time staffers who work out of the organization’s ground-floor office near Interstate 405.
During a recent interview at the Chamber, Capestany could hardly suppress her enthusiasm for the city and her organization’s role in helping local businesses. “I get to see chambers from all across the country,” she said. “Every community’s chamber is different. The cool thing about our community, which is really a reflection of our leaders, is that they are so entrepreneurial. We look at things differently. That part, I think, is really fun, versus some other communities that are maybe structured a little differently.”
Capestany discussed her career at the Bellevue Chamber, offered her thoughts on the city’s business climate, and shared some of the goals she has for the Chamber.
Q: What was the Bellevue business climate like when you started at the Chamber 16 years ago? How would you compare it to today?
A: It was a lot different. We kind of chuckled that at 5 o’clock at night, you could roll a bowling ball down (the streets). It wasn’t exactly tumbleweeds. There wasn’t a lot of nightlife. It was not nearly as cool and diverse as it is now. That’s changed a lot. We are seeing global companies come in. There are tons of these buildings that just didn’t exist. You are just in awe because for a community our size to see all that happen, we are just really lucky. I think the cool thing about Bellevue is that most of it has been done by the private sector, and everyone is so successful independently. That’s pretty rare. A lot of communities need extra infrastructure support from government. Here, it’s just kind of happened organically. Once you get some of those key companies, then everybody else wants to be in that spot. We are just seeing the beginning.
Q: What are you hearing from Chamber members as far as the biggest challenges and opportunities for doing business in Bellevue?
A: Transportation infrastructure is always at the top of the list. Also, there are so many jobs that we need more talent for. Trying to make sure we can capture that talent. We are in a global war for that. On the plus side, the Bellevue School District is absolutely amazing, and it’s because business leaders and the community have funded levies, and they value education. The last few superintendents listened to what business needs were, and they heard what each of these companies needed, especially in the trends of technology. I always say (it’s like) you get a private education at a public school. Our great school system is a big attractor for the talent and companies that are willing to come here. Education is at the top of their list. We had the superintendent (visit recently, and) he showed a map of the world (and noted) we have kids from 117 countries throughout the world. We have 90-some-odd languages spoken as a first language. It’s amazing. Our schools are 60 percent diverse. We are truly minority-majority, which is really cool.
Q: The Chamber supported Sound Transit’s ballot measure in 2008, but did not support the ballot measure in 2016. What are you hearing from your members about East Link light rail coming to the Eastside?
A: It wasn’t that we didn’t support (the ballot measure). At that period of time, (we) felt like there were a bunch of projects with unknown amounts on it and a lot of contingency. We’re about business. What are the numbers? I think everybody wants more transportation infrastructure and mobility. On the East Link piece, we want to make sure that it can stay a vibrant Eastside marketplace, employees can get to work, and customers can get in. How do we keep businesses open for business? There will be some businesses impacted by the construction. How do we help them make sure they can still exist? We’re still brainstorming some of those ideas and how we work on that.
Q: What is one goal you hope the Chamber accomplishes this year?
A: Our goal is always to accelerate businesses. I want to make sure that we can touch and accelerate companies no matter what their size is or whatever stage they’re at. If you’re a startup, we help you get to the next stage. If you’ve been in business for a longer period of time, maybe you need help in advocacy. Every company needs different things. We try to give them ideas, information, and resources to help them get to the next level of whatever they need for their company.
Q: What do you enjoy doing outside of work?
A: I run marathons. I’ve done races in San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Boston, London, Berlin, and hopefully Paris in April. I love it. It’s stress release. I get great ideas. When you go out, you just see things from different perspectives, so it helps you figure out solutions. I have four boys, and doing all of their activities is my other interest outside of work. Also, reading about everything going on in the world that I love. And I love to entertain.
Q: What are your secrets to success?
A: Have fun, love what you are doing, and to not sleep. I am so lucky because I have had a bazillion mentors. Really, when you have 40 people on your board, every one of them serves as a mentor. My whole goal has been to figure out the two or three things from everyone that I think are really cool. I feel like I get lifelong learning. But I’ve had amazing people in my world. It probably started out when I went to Green River Community College. The man that was president at Green River College — he is still alive, Dr. Mel Lindbloom — taught me to know everybody, even if they were flipping hamburgers in a kitchen or they were the janitor, because they all had important roles and to have conversations with them because then you would learn lots of information. So I have just taken that into the back of my mind.