Rukaiyah Adams Traveled From Northeast Portland to Wall Street. Now She's Come Home to Fix Her City.

Adams has plans to change Oregon investing and reshape the Rose Quarter.

Rukaiyah Adams (Christine Dong)

On many afternoons, Rukaiyah Adams laces on bright pink Brooks sneakers and runs through the city she came home to change.

The afternoon run has been part of Adams' schedule since she moved back to Portland from New York City six years ago.

Her jog sometimes takes her from Tom McCall Waterfront Park across the Steel Bridge into the Rose Quarter. As with many Oregonians, running helps her burn off the stress of work or life.

Pressure—she's got plenty. There's her day job as chief investment officer for Meyer Memorial Trust, in many ways Oregon's most prominent philanthropic organization outside of Phil Knight's pockets. Earlier this year, she added a volunteer gig, agreeing to chair the Oregon Investment Council, which oversees a jaw-dropping $92 billion of state monies and public employee pension funds.

On her runs, Adams says she often jogs past the challenges that bedevil Portland: homeless camps huddled under bridges, rental housing where longtime residents can't afford to live, and the Rose Quarter, an ocean of empty concrete that, in what she sees as a historical indignity,  sits vacant unless a basketball team is in town. And to her, it's all connected.

"It just burns my heart to see people sleeping in tents in a neighborhood that used to be about affordable housing," she says.

At age 43, Adams cuts a distinctive profile: As tall and graceful as one of the new apartment buildings lining the Willamette River, she still looks like the basketball player she was at Carleton College in Minnesota.

In a majority-white city, Adams stands out: She's a black woman who has earned not just a place at the table but the chair at the head of it.

"She's a lethal combination of independence and brilliance," says Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who as state treasurer served with Adams on the Oregon Investment Council.

To some of her numerous supporters, Adams is more than a financially savvy steward of the investments of huge sums of money. She is also the person willing to use the megaphone that her professional position affords her to challenge conventional wisdom in the halls of power.

And her ideas include using investments to create social justice and rectify racial inequities even while seeking top-tier returns.

"A lot people who want to make social change get involved in politics," says Portland venture capitalist Nitin Rai. "She wants to do it with money."

Adams' story is a homecoming. But it's also an upending of the status quo. She has risen to the highest levels in Oregon's corporate and public life—and now seems poised to change it from the inside.

In a state meeting last September about the Public Employees Retirement System deficit, she laid out the stakes.

"We can't just talk about numbers anymore," Adams said. "This is becoming a moral issue."

Rukaiyah Adams (Christine Dong)

Adams was born in a Berkeley, Calif., hospital and grew up on Northeast Roselawn Street, in the heart of Portland's historically black neighborhoods.
Her mother, Nobie Hill, worked as a customer-service representative at NW Natural gas company. Her father wasn't around.

But Adams recalls a very stable community—a Northeast Portland where she remembers that black people, from the local police officer to the elementary school principal, looked out for each other.

"That community, if you had looked at it from a wealth perspective, it would have seemed under-resourced and small," Adams says. "But to be inside of it as a black girl, I was surrounded by people who knew my name and knew my family. The adults created this environment for me to be strong."

Her great-aunt is former Sen. Margaret Carter (D-Portland), the first black woman elected to the Oregon Legislature. Carter recalls Adams as serious about her studies. "She has always stood out," Carter says.

In 1987, when Adams was 13, she was plucked out of Northeast Portland by an elite private school.

Catlin Gabel, located in the hills of Southwest Portland, recruited seven of North and Northeast Portland's most gifted students and offered them significant scholarships. Never before had the school, where current high school tuition is $31,100 a year, had so many black kids in a single class, says then-admissions director Ron Sobel.

The journey across the Willamette taught Adams how to assimilate into a white world—"a black woman power," she calls it.

She also maintained her sense of self. Her ninth-grade teacher, Clint Darling, remembers leading a discussion about Shakespeare when Adams asked whether there was a difference between Stratford-upon-Avon and Stratford, two names for the same English town. Her classmates tittered, recalls Darling.

Adams didn't slink away. "'Look, I just don't have your family background,'" Darling recalls her calmly saying. "'Don't go laughing at me while I catch up.'"
Adams graduated from Catlin Gabel in 1991 as student body president. She was also student body president at Carleton College, and then again at Stanford Law School when she graduated at 25.

Before she graduated, she took a job as a lawyer at Skadden Arps in San Francisco, representing Silicon Valley investors. Skadden Arps is often called Wall Street's most powerful law firm.

She found practicing law unfulfilling, and within seven years decided she needed an MBA.

Adams started over, relearning basic arithmetic to get into business school. She worked 14-hour days as a lawyer, and for a year came home each night to study, starting with fractions.

She got her business degree from Stanford at age 35, and moved to New York. And she started to build a platinum résumé. But she says the neighborhood where she grew up never left her.

"My 7-year-old self with her hair in braids, with beads at the end, jumping rope, missing a tooth in the summer—she's in me," Adams says. "Everywhere I go, someone's trying to whack at her. And I'm not going to have it. So I'll kick someone in the privates if they come close to her, and that's just the way it is."

(courtesy of Rukaiyah Adams)

In person, Adams speaks softly. On first impression, she's feminine, even demure. She thanks men who catcall her when she's jogging, and she spends her evenings on Etsy browsing for heirloom seed for her garden, where she grows tomatoes and Persian cucumbers for pickling.

Those habits belie a fierceness and commitment to social justice.

Last June, Adams gave a talk at Revolution Hall in Southeast Portland. She described her grief after the 2015 death of Sandra Bland, a black woman who was pulled over for a minor traffic infraction in Texas and died in police custody.

Adams said she looked for answers in the place she knew best: math.

She wanted to know what economic progress African-Americans had made in the 150 years since the Emancipation Proclamation. Pew Research Center figures show that the average black household's wealth was $11,000 in 2013—that's $130,900 less than the average white household. Adams' calculations showed that black households had no more purchasing power than they did in 1863.

"We have to get comfortable talking about wealth in a racialized context," she concluded. "I'm forcing us to talk about it because I see my people don't have it."
Adams started thinking about economic power as she obtained jobs at institutions that had it.

Law school friend Junichi Semitsu, now a deputy attorney general in California, remembers Adams persuading him that the next step in civil rights progress involved black women in positions of economic power.

"One of the things that Rukaiyah helped me appreciate was that for an African-American woman back in 1999 to take an in-house [legal] position at a corporation is as much in the public interest as working for legal aid," Semitsu says. "That was a very controversial idea for me to accept."

Adams began working for Wall Street hedge fund IAM Asset Management in 2008. But after a health scare and a breakup, she felt the pull of home.

"I noticed some of my peers were more successful because they had the authority of place," Adams recalls. "I had never felt that."

Adams moved back to Portland in 2010. She soon saw how the city had changed. Her old neighborhood was being altered by gentrification.

Census figures show that between 2000 and 2010, inner North and Northeast Portland lost one in three of its black residents, as black families were pushed to the eastern edges of the city.

Adams says she saw what she could offer Portland: She could reverse her community's calamitous decline.

She has deeply personal reasons for wanting to help. While she climbed the ladder in San Francisco and New York City, two close family members struggled.
One suffers from mental illness. Another has been in and out of jail while fighting drug addiction. Adams declined to discuss specifics.

A year after Adams returned to Portland, she was on an evening jog across the Steel Bridge when she saw her younger brother standing in a group of homeless men near the waterfront. It was his birthday.

"What are you doing here?" Adams asked him.

"Is that really the first thing you have to say to me today?" he replied.

Adams felt ashamed of herself. She knew it was his birthday. But she hadn't called.

Adams felt her brother was sending her a message: "You can't run fast enough and run far enough. You can't just send your news of success. You have to be present in this community and visible."

Rukaiyah Adams (Christine Dong)

After Adams returned home, she took a job at insurance company the Standard. In 2013, she was asked to join the volunteer board of the Oregon Investment Council.

Scott Nelson, economic adviser to then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, attended Carleton College with Adams. He recommended her to Kitzhaber and then-Treasurer Wheeler.

Nelson knew, he says, that Adams would hold her own on a board that has typically included members such as Rick Miller, who made a fortune in senior and assisted housing and lives on an island in Lake Oswego, or former members Richard Solomon, the accountant for some of Portland's wealthiest citizens, and Jerry Drummond, who was a mining executive.

"We live in a pretty provincial place," Nelson says, "and [Adams] is exactly not provincial."

In January, three years after Adams joined the OIC, she became its chairwoman, officially elected by the board in February.

Adams' appointment (which is a volunteer position with no compensation) places her at the center of Oregon's most intractable challenge. Decades ago, the state signed contracts with its public employees that included generous pensions. State officials failed to set aside enough money for these pensions, and this shortfall in PERS now threatens to cripple the state.

The OIC's job is to oversee how the state and PERS money is being invested, with the aim of increasing returns, in part to offset a sliver of this shortfall.

Wheeler says when Adams joined the board in 2013, she added rigor to the selection of investments. Her approach was quietly and patiently waiting until others had a chance to speak, then asking questions about the footnotes and appendices of board books.

"She was just fun to watch," Wheeler says. "She'd have the Wall Street boys squirming in their seats with her line of questions."

Adams has used her role as more than a bean-counter to emerge as a leader warning state officials that a reckoning on PERS is looming.

Adams fears the PERS shortfall will hit hardest those who can least afford it.

"Poorer people will carry a heavier burden," she says. "If we have to fill that $20 billion gap in larger class sizes, kids in far East Portland or in Dundee or John Day don't have school foundations that can supplement the loss in revenue. This is impacting real people."

Within a few years of returning to Portland, Adams caught the attention of the upper brass at Meyer Memorial Trust.

The trust was created from the estate of Fred Grubmeyer, the German-born storekeeper who built Fred Meyer into a huge chain of superstores. The trust distributes roughly $35 million in grants each year to Oregon education, affordable housing and environmental programs.

In 2014, Adams became chief investment officer at Meyer. She oversees the trust's $750 million investment portfolio—trying to maximize returns to fund programs.

In her three years there, Adams has provided the foundation's trustees with ways to invest responsibly. At Adams' urging, the trust has hired investment managers who are women and people of color, says chief executive officer Doug Stamm.

"She brings a soul, if you will, to investment responsibilities," Stamm says. "It's unusual to see a chief investment officer using the bully pulpit."

Adams, a traditional investor whose chief priority is investment returns, has set out to prove it is possible to get top-flight returns while vetting companies based on her values.

Adams' work sometimes meant offering ideas to others. Nitin Rai, CEO and founder of health care data company First Insight, says in 2015 Adams gave him the idea for a new venture capital fund. The $10 million Elevate Capital fund aids new companies started by minorities, veterans, women and others in the Pacific Northwest.

"I'm doing it for Rukaiyah," Rai says. "She evoked something inside me that I didn't know I had. My whole focus in life now is to serve underserved communities."

Elevate Capital has invested in at least half a dozen startups, including an app that blocks names from résumés to reduce hiring biases, a kids' apparel company, and a Yelp-style website for Latinos.

Adams wants to go further—and use the Meyer Memorial Trust's investments to aggressively shape social policy, including fighting the gentrification that has hollowed out the city's black population.

The trust has invested in mortgages in foreclosure—"distressed securities" in the language of the business. Adams is proposing alternatives.

Her biggest idea: Allow renters and local business owners to invest in their own neighborhoods by owning a stake in their own buildings and others nearby.

Here's how it would work: A company funded by Meyer Memorial Trust would raise at least $100 million and invest it in affordable housing through a "real estate investment trust." It would then invite renters to essentially buy stock in those buildings and others.

"Imagine if the people who live in the neighborhood could actually invest in it," Adams says.

The idea of residents having an ownership stake in a community rather than an individual property is nearly unheard of, even in affordable housing, says Stockton Williams, executive director of the Urban Land Institute's Terwilliger Center for Housing, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

"It's exciting," says Williams, who cautions that real estate investments can also be risky. "Meyer Memorial Trust has a long reputation for being creative in socially responsible investments."

There's one place in particular where Adams thinks this idea might work: the neighborhoods of North and Northeast Portland, where she grew up.

Rukaiyah Adams (Christine Dong)

While Adams works in the Pearl District, runs along the Willamette and lives on the westside, some of her free time is focused on the concrete desert better known as the Rose Quarter. The district surrounds Moda Center and Veterans Memorial Coliseum and, to her, is one of Portland's greatest shames.

Memorial Coliseum was built in 1960 and was the home of the Bill Walton-led Trail Blazers in 1977, when they won their only NBA title. The Rose Garden, now Moda Center, replaced Memorial Coliseum in 1995 as the Blazers' home arena, and since then, multiple ideas for development in the area have floundered.

To Adams, the Rose Quarter is one of the great injustices committed by the city in the name of urban renewal.

In 1956, Portland voters approved the clearing of 22 acres of property to build Memorial Coliseum. According to a tally by Portland State University professor Karen Gibson, the project razed businesses and 476 houses, half of them home to African-Americans. Adams says the district's residents included her great-grandmother.

The Portland Development Commission, the city agency responsible for renovating "blighted" neighborhoods, was founded in 1958—just before Memorial Coliseum's construction. In the 1960s, the PDC razed nearly 200 more nearby homes to expand Legacy Emanuel Medical Center.

Adams doesn't mince words when talking about the PDC's role in destroying black neighborhoods.

"In essence, PDC intentionally and systematically destroyed the black community and converted community wealth into individual wealth," she says. "And because we separated development work from housing, they weren't on the hook for the problems they helped to create."

In recent months, Adams has been lending her influence to a group that includes a private developer, business people and community members who are proposing a new vision for the Rose Quarter.

The private group, brought together by Moda Health executive vice president Steve Wynne, won't discuss the details of the concept, but it will include affordable housing, Adams says.

Her involvement with Wynne's group lends it heft—she serves as a representative of black Portlanders who were evicted.

Former City Commissioner Jim Francesconi, who now works for Moda Health, says the group's work will "reverse gentrification" in North and Northeast Portland.

(Christine Dong)

Francesconi and former NW Natural CEO Gregg Kantor met with Wheeler in August, when he was not yet in office, according to the mayor's spokesman. They are one of at least three groups he's heard from regarding the Rose Quarter.

Wheeler's spokesman, Michael Cox, says the mayor will debut a city strategy in July to "kick-start the Rose Quarter redevelopment."

PDC director Kimberly Branam says she is unfamiliar with the specifics of the group's proposal. But she agreed that her agency must take a different approach. "With any kind of public investment," she says, "one of the primary questions we need to ask is, who benefits from it?"

Adams says she looks forward to the day when PDC-funded buildings "are named after Kwame, or Keisha or Joachim, and not just Elizabeth, Henry and you know the names of the buildings in the Pearl."

Adams knows this race is a marathon.

She's tackling problems that have existed for decades—the pension deficit and the challenges in the Rose Quarter—and are pieces of bigger challenges without easy solutions.

"I'm walking on hot coals," Adams says of her work at Meyer Memorial Trust. "I feel called to step into my voice as a black woman and inevitably that means some talk about race and some talk about social responsibility. I just don't know where it's going."

But she's happy with her decision. In New York, the paychecks were bigger but few in the community knew who she was—and nobody was counting on her to fix their problems.

Now, she sees the chance to determine a path for her hometown, her community and her family.

"We're always responding to things when they've already been decided," Adams says. "I want the most vulnerable people to have the benefit of someone at the table when there's a chance to shape policy and wealth."

Rukaiyah Adams speaks at TechfestNW on March 23-24 ( The event is produced by WW.

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