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Front & Center: Latisha Hill helps Avista develop Spokane

Near the south terminus of the new U-District Gateway Bridge, Latisha Hill, senior vice president of Avista Development, stands in front of all the people she said  have helped her bring the utility's mega Catalyst Project to a reality. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Near the south terminus of the new U-District Gateway Bridge, Latisha Hill, senior vice president of Avista Development, stands in front of all the people she said have helped her bring the utility's mega Catalyst Project to a reality. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

When Latisha Hill was 16, she wanted a job that paid well.

“Back in the ’90s, there were lots of telemarketing firms in Spokane, so my friends either worked there or in fast foods.

“I couldn’t work fast foods because I liked food too much. Telemarketing was just talking, and I could talk.”

Hill recalls selling phones, credit cards, and conducted surveys for Chuck E. Cheese’s.

“Now I say that everything I know, I learned as a telemarketer.”

For instance?

“If I listened to people, it was mutually beneficial. I’d spend more time with people who were interested, and get off the phone with people who weren’t.”

Hill quickly moved beyond telemarketing to retail sales, public relations and urban development.

Two years ago, at the age of 37, she was named senior vice president of Avista Development.

During a recent interview, Hill discussed neuroscience, her princess phase, and what makes her toes tingle.

S-R: Is Latisha (pronounced la-TEE-sha) a family name?

Hill: No. My mom saw someone on a game show with that name, and thought it was really cool.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Hill: Spokane, mostly. My mom has always been kind of a brittle spirit, so my sister and I sometimes lived with our grandparents, Catherine and Oscar Shines. They are a big chunk of my life.

S-R: What was your first job?

Hill: Working on my uncle’s Hillyard property when I was 12, tearing apart pallets to use the wood for other things.

S-R: Did you have a favorite class in high school?

Hill: I had lots of favorite classes – English, chemistry, Japanese. I also was a volunteer junkie and helped start Rogers Students Reach Out, a group that met with the community and did fundraising. And I was a Lilac princess.

S-R: What do you recall about that experience?

Hill: I had no idea how significant an honor it was. My girlfriend was running for princess, and she was my ride to school. One morning before school I was sitting in the back of the room as the princess candidates were learning how to give a speech, and the lady said, “Latisha, if you’re going to be here, you have to write a speech, too.” So I wrote about having cookies with my grandfather, and ended up being chosen Rogers’ princess.

S-R: What career did you envision back then?

Hill: I started off at Pacific University in Oregon thinking I might want to be a neurosurgeon, because I loved science. But during a job shadow watching a surgery, I quickly realized that wasn’t for me. Then my mom had a heart attack, so I came home, finished my associate degree at Community Colleges of Spokane, did PR work for nonprofits, and eventually got a degree in communications from WSU.

S-R: Then what?

Hill: I took a job at the Toys R Us store in the Valley, hoping to get into corporate PR. But retail wasn’t for me either, so I switched to minority business development for a local nonprofit – AHANA – and loved it.

S-R: How did you end up at Avista?

Hill: Four years at AHANA taught me that business is not isolated – it’s part of a broader community ecosystem. I figured I could accomplish more if I understood the entire system. So I got a master’s in urban planning from Eastern, and came to Avista in 2004 as an intern.

S-R: How did you rise from intern to senior vice president of Avista Development in just 12 years?

Hill: Oh, my goodness, I don’t know. I think it was a lot of grace.

S-R: What does “grace” mean? Luck? Hard work?

Hill: A combination of both. I was blessed with great mentors coaching me and providing good feedback.

S-R: What’s an important lesson someone taught you?

Hill: My grandfather told me, “There’s always going to be someone out there who’s smarter than you, better than you, taller than you. So you have to work really, really hard to make a difference.”

S-R: How tall are you?

Hill: (laugh) Not tall at all – 5-foot-1½. I’m small, but mighty.

S-R: As a woman of color in a conservative city, have you felt extra pressure to distinguish yourself from the competition?

Hill: I’d be naive to think there weren’t people out there who thought less of me because I was a woman or African American. But I work well with others. And when I work through a network, I’m able to achieve a lot more than I ever could on my own.

S-R: Have you had any setbacks?

Hill: I have workaholic tendencies which can compromise my home life sometimes. I’m learning to put my family more at the center. And my son, Elliot, is 11 now, so basically he’s done with me. (laugh)

S-R: Why does Avista Development exist?

Hill: Because growth matters to the region, and we’re part of this region. We’re not a company that can pick up our toys and move to the next block. This is our block. We’ve been here 129 years.

S-R: What factors shape Avista Development’s strategy?

Hill: We look at what’s important to the community. The U-District is a huge engine that delivers value to the entire region.

S-R: Where does money for your projects come from?

Hill: Shareholder dollars.

S-R: Avista’s pending acquisition by the Canadian utility Hydro One recently hit a snag. Does that affect anything your subsidiary does?

Hill: No.

S-R: You’ve mentioned shareholders, customers and community. In what order do you consider them when weighing decisions?

Hill: Customers come first, because they are the core of the business. And they compose our community, so if we serve customers, we serve the community. If we do those two things well, then shareholders will benefit.

S-R: Last year, you were quoted saying, “We don’t want an amazing bridge to land on a gravel lot.” The U-District Gateway Bridge will be done in September. What will be on Avista’s property then?

Hill: We’ll be way under construction. It won’t be a gravel lot. More like a lot with dirt flying. (laugh) The site had environmental issues – giant underground tanks – that had to be mitigated.

S-R: What’s a typical day for you?

Hill: There’s no such thing.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Hill: I get to work with some of the most talented folks in the city.

S-R: What do you like least?

Hill: The hardest part of my job is not being able to please everyone.

S-R: What are you most proud of?

Hill: I like to think that when people work with me on a project, they enjoy the process.

S-R: Your career path has taken many turns. What advice do you offer young people about setting goals?

Hill: I tell them to do what makes their toes tingle. When people see you at your best, they’ll want to be a part of that.

S-R: What makes your toes tingle?

Hill: I’ve always been a “why?” kid, whether evaluating how a cell mutates or how communities change and grow – what happens if you put a freeway or a business center somewhere.

S-R: What is your secret talent?

Hill: I can wiggle my ears.

S-R: Any guilty pleasures?

Hill: All pleasures are guilty – at least the good ones are. (laugh)

S-R: You’re too young to spend the rest of your career in your current job. What possibilities await?

Hill: I’ve been asked that a lot: “What’s your next big thing?” I like to be in my big thing, verses thinking about my next big thing.

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.


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