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Lonnie Shekhtman headshot

Zappos CEO Turning Vegas into a Tech and Culture Hub

With a grand vision, plenty of moxie and a pocket full of cash (so to speak), Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh is working to turn downtown Las Vegas into . . . well, San Francisco. The CEO of the e-commerce giant famous for its speedy delivery, unconditional returns and exceptional customer service — is using $350 million of his personal fortune to make Las Vegas the most “community-focused large city in the world.” He explained how he will do this to hundreds of tech and sustainability devotees gathered at the Verge conference in San Francisco yesterday.

Downtown Las Vegas is the original gambling district of the city, before it moved to the Strip. It’s also home to city hall, which is currently the seat of local government, but will become Zappo’s new headquarters in 2013, housing up to 2,000 employees. Currently, the company is spread across three buildings in the suburbs of Las Vegas. Since the city hall move was announced two years ago, Hsieh has been trying to figure out how to fix up the place. He’s polled employees on what they want to see on their dream campus (doggy daycare) and studying campuses of companies like Apple, Nike, and Google, famous for providing perks like free gyms, bars, and massages. 

Hsieh was struck by how insular and completely removed from their communities these campuses are, so he decided to turn the high-tech campus system on its head (you don’t become a multi-millionaire if you don’t) and build a campus that will completely integrate with its surrounding community, if not create it. After all, investing in the community ecosystem, Hsieh said, will not only be great for downtown Las Vegas, it will also help retain and attract more Zappos employees.

This endeavor became the Downtown Project, through which Hsieh is investing $100 million in real estate, $100 million in residential development, $50 million in small businesses, $50 million in education, and $50 million in tech startups. The goal, he said, is to make Las Vegas the co-working and co-learning capital of the world, where people can live, work, and play within walking distance.

This means providing them with an active and thriving art, music, and creative culture; spaces that encourage what he calls “collisions,” or serendipitous interactions among people from different backgrounds (which leads to innovation); a vibrant technology and startup community; excellent public schools and a private or charter school; an urban core with residential density of at least 100 people per acre, and the cafes, book stores, and parks where they can gather; and the green roofs, urban gardens and parks that enrich their lives.

There is already work underway: small businesses funded, startups incubating and arts and cultural events on the calendar. Now, Hsieh hopes that this model will be replicated in other cities, and in fact, has already been approached by interested parties from the private and public sectors. “What the Downtown Project is all about is being the 4-minute mile for the world,” he said, making an analogy for creating thriving and sustainable urban communities with the momentous event in 1954 when runner Roger Bannister broke the 4-minute mile, which had been considered impossible. Surprisingly, it took only 46 days for Bannister’s record to be broken, proving that the 4-minute barrier had no actual significance.

Check out a few of the books that have inspired Hsieh:

Good to Great, by Jim Collins

Tribal Leadership, by Dave Logan, John King, Halee Fischer-Wright

Triumph of the City, by Edward Glaeser

If you want to stay in touch, follow me on Twitter: @kuurlyq

[Image sources: ZapposStone Panels, Inc., Downtown Project]

Lonnie Shekhtman headshotLonnie Shekhtman

Lonnie Shekhtman is a Massachusetts-based writer covering sustainable business, food systems, social enterprises and impact investing. Stay in touch by following Lonnie on Twitter: @kuurlyq.

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