“Can anything good come from Tulsa?”

"And Nathanael said unto him, “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”

Philip saieth unto him, “Come and see.”

-- John 1:46

A friend of mine recently posted a news story about a former Tulsa Public Schools Assistant Superintendent and his great successes in another state, with accolades and recognition on a national scale. He was well-regarded here, but not sufficiently to retain him. A new Super was brought in from elsewhere, and all’s well. But reading about his accomplishments since leaving Tulsa years ago made me think: does Tulsa have the “a prophet has no honor in his own house” problem?

Tulsa’s vaunted history as the Oil Capitol was long ago, but much like the Confederacy in the South, it still hangs heavy in the air. In the post-WWII period, we led innovation in the oil sector. Local engineers got patents, wrote books, and advanced their understanding of the issues in their fields. By the mid-1980s oil bust, many firms closed up shop or moved to Houston or Denver, chasing the next strikes in offshore production or deeper, harder-to-drill deposits elsewhere. Many small companies who operated in the outer ripples of that ecosystem folded or shrunk. I wonder if in the minds of long-time Tulsans this has created a bit of an inferiority complex, being tied so tightly to an economy that has periodic ebbs and flows.

When we were discussing moving back from Seattle in late 2000, we scoured the news for signs of revitalization. There were newspaper articles showing the growth of companies at CityPlex Towers, the continued expansion of mainline companies downtown, etc. Once back on the ground, it eventually became clear that the hype of the Chamber of Commerce was not reality, or the momentary blips were just that. Companies caught up in the periodic ebbs and flows.

The large statewide HMO I worked for was perhaps my first overt exposure to this way of thinking, which I heard as “If you’re so great, then why are you here?” This could be unpacked in many different ways: (1) everyone working here is not good or expert at their professions, or (2) the talented folks have left for elsewhere, and you’re still here, and (3) if you’re here, you must be from the 2nd or 3rd string teams.

In hindsight, I didn’t do my due diligence and wound up in a very wounded organization — too many anecdotes to relate in which they lost sight of goals to grow their employees. One story told to illustrate: if you put in a request for a new PC, the previous CEO would show up in your cubicle unannounced and ask you to plead your case for approval of that purchase. Even in my brief tenure, I learned that the official list of office equipment could not be deviated from, even if it was deemed necessary it took an exception from on high. In those days of migrating from a mainframe (!!) to servers and data centers, cost control was the key — maybe as a precursor to seeing a buyout.

Not many years after, this not-for-profit HMO was sold/merged with a large multistate firm in the same association, and the new injections of leadership from Texas and Chicago began to remake the firm. Being a part of a larger whole has been very good for them; tying them to resources and growth opportunities beyond just Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

To me it looks like Tulsa is finally starting to overcome this mindset — we’ve become more of a destination city for young entrepreneurs, folks who’ve come via Tulsa Remote, and larger businesses have seen the benefits of recruiting beyond the 5-county area. New people bring new ideas and new ways of doing things. The pandemic brought Work From Home to us, with a Microsoft VP now back in Tulsa after 24 years in Redmond, and my back-yard neighbor is a CPA with a firm in Pittsburgh. They get to enjoy the quality of life in a not-so-big city, where my beautiful Georgian Colonial is just 8 minutes from downtown and most everything.

These new Tulsans do need to get more involved in order to infect their ideas to more people. Don’t keep one’s light hidden under a bushel basket.

I used to say that in Seattle I overheard some of the smartest conversations on the street. Gatherings and cocktail parties were filled with intoxicating discussions that made my head swim, even without alcohol. Not to sound overly elitist, but I want that for Tulsa. Again. Maybe this time, with more economic diversity, we’ll get it and it’ll STICK.

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