Beaver Leaders: Jim Souers
Driving prosperity for the community that raised him
As told to Siobhan Murray
Jim Souers, ’84, an enrolled member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribes of South Dakota, grew up on the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs of Oregon reservation, where his mother worked for the elementary school and his father worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. After graduating from OSU, he spent the next decades working as a sales engineer — and later for start-ups — while picking up an MBA along the way. In spring 2020, work took him home again when he became CEO of the Warm Springs Economic Development Corporation, the tribe’s economic development group, which helps grow and start large-scale businesses. We asked him to share some memories and insights. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: What stands out about your OSU experience in computer engineering?
A: There was a point where, as a junior, I almost gave up. I’m sitting in the classroom in one of the more advanced engineering classes — circuits and the like. It just dawned on me: there are kids here who are not just understanding the material as it’s being taught, but having conversations with the professor, saying, “Well, what if you did it this way?” They understood the game and were taking it to the next level. And here I was, putting in a lot of effort just to understand the basics. I thought, “Those are the guys I want to hire!” I really had some soul searching to do. I almost walked away until my final year, when OSU gave us the chance to interview with engineering companies and I saw that most of the semiconductor companies were hiring engineers for sales positions. I read the job description, and I thought, well, I’m not the best engineer, but they’re talking about understanding business and people and lots of other concepts here, and that’s me. I can be really good at that. That’s what kept me in the program, and OSU trained me very well to do that.
Q: Can you talk about making a switch from working in start-ups to becoming CEO of Warm Springs Economic Development Corporation?
A: In start-ups, it’s like you have a brick wall in front of you, and you have to run as fast as you can at it and trust you’ll solve how to get over or through it. Once you do that, there’s another wall right in front of you and you are sprinting at it again. I joke that I have a missing piece of DNA because I guess I just love it. In reality, I haven’t left my start-up world behind. It’s launched me into this situation where it’s no longer just one start-up company. Now I’m taking companies assigned to my group — and also starting others — to bring increased revenue, income and jobs to the reservation.
Q: What project are you most excited about working on at Warm Springs Economic Development Corporation?
A: The Kah-Nee-Ta Resort, which closed in 2018, has been part of the history of central Oregon for over 40 years. No one had figured out how to bring it back to life, but through a lot of effort and partnership, we were able to put a plan together and the Tribe supported it with a significant investment. We are now completing the construction to reopen and expand the original Village portion of the resort [centered on mineral hot springs and motel, teepee, and RV lodging areas], which is the original foundation of Kah-Nee-Ta.
Q: What’s a skill you think people should have if they’re going to run an organization or business?
A: I’ll use a baseball analogy: the best batters in baseball have close to a .400 batting average. That means for every 10 times they get to bat, they succeed four times and fail six. So, the skill is staying in the game, you know? You have to learn to not let failure define you.