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Five Questions: Julie Meier Wright on San Diego’s global competitiveness

23 August 2009 No Comment


By Helen Kaiao Chang

See original story on SDNN

Friday, August 14, 2009

Julie Meier Wright is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation, an organization spearheading the County’s economic, business, and workforce development.

Wright spoke to SDNN, answering these five questions.

1. What do you love most about what you do?

I love the ability to interact with committed smart people and to influence positive change for our region.

2. What’s one thing that happened to you that made you decide to pursue what you do?

After spending most of my career in the private sector, Gov. Pete Wilson appointed me as director of the Department of Commerce in 1991, and later as California’s First Secretary of Trade and Commerce and a member of his cabinet. He was strongly foc used on making California business friendly. The private sector provided wealth and revenues to government but Wilson had a strong sense that California had to be competitive for investment, and I agreed.

I relocated to San Diego in 1997. I was attracted to this job for several reasons. First, some incredibly important 21st century industries were emerging here, such as sciences and wireless communications. Those opportunities have only grown for San Diego with whole new industries being created where those industries intersect.

Second, there is a phenomenal research base here, which is probably the best in the world. And finally, the fact that San Diego is facing westward, looking toward Asia, in my opinion, represents the most compelling economic opportunities.

Sharpening the focus

EDC went through a strategic planning process with an independent consultant. We assessed who we are and what we are good at, and as a result of that, we have sharpened our focus and created some leadership spheres that are incredibly exciting.

We have a group called Strategic Roundtables, chaired by Malin Burnham, and with some long-time civic leaders participating. Some are retired, but all have been very engaged in the civic life of this region. It’s an amazing group that has been looking at the issues of municipal revenues and K-12 education.

We have another leadership sphere called the Governor’s Council made up of some of our region’s most significant business leaders, such as Irwin Jacobs, Hank Nordhoff, and others. This group has been looking at a number of issues, with a major one being water.

Then we have a group called Nexgenn made up of younger CEO-level executives and future civic leaders.

We’ve moved a long way toward being entirely privately funded. Now we’re well-positioned to drive a big agenda in both business development and in policy.

3. What do you worry about in your industry?

My biggest worry is that we are losing our competitiveness as a region, as a state, and as a nation. I worry that the kinds of challenges we face can’t be fixed overnight, and they really demand the attention and action of our elected officials. For example, we are not growing enough scientists and engineers for our region or our nation. The longer we wait to address this issue, the more we hamper our long-term competitive edge.

Growing an innovation economy

San Diego does extremely well with respect to research funding in both universities and companies.

But if you step back and look at it on a national level, we’re falling behind, and we’re falling behind at the same time that other countries have a single-minded drive to excel. San Diego is still a jewel in the innovation economies, but other places are making breakthroughs. They aren’t just implementers anymore; they are also innovators.

So if we don’t deal with building San Diego’s innovation infrastructure, that could be intellectual property issues or patent reform, and also growing the workforce that will feed the innovation economy in five, 10, 15, or 20 years from now, then there will be a big deficit of scientists and engineers.

Instead of zealously ensuring that we have all the pieces in place to grow an innovation economy into the future, San Diego, at large, is pretty complacent.

Branding San Diego

A few years ago we invented a logo and a brand for San Diego called “Technology’s Perfect Climate.” I’ve tried to say over the years that Technology’s Perfect Climate is a lot more than just weather.

Weather is wonderful because it attracts a lot of people and provides a wonderful lifestyle that we need to protect, but at the same time, we need to be benchmarking ourselves against other places. And where we find that we come up short, we need to move to address those deficiencies.

In economic development, the place is the product. The product is the San Diego region. Even if the place is the state of California, San Diego is still the product.

Right now we’re hampered because of all the uncertainties about the state of California, and we’re hampered every time the state passes a law or a regulation or a tax that makes us less competitive with other places.

4. If you could let San Diego know, do, or have one thing, what would that be?

That we have a diverse economy populated with phenomenal industries and cutting-edge research that represents our economic future, but we do, and always will, compete for that investment.

Some of those industries are life sciences, wireless communications, defense research and development, electronics, software, and, more recently, clean technology, and security. What is so interesting is that at the intersections of these industries, whole new industries are being created. For example, a lot of what we’re doing at CleanTech San Diego comes out of our leadership in life sciences, biology, chemistry, and other things.

As we move forward and work closely CleanTech, which is a thrift organization, we see the opportunities presented by the research that’s been done. These have all become building blocks that can propel us into a leadership role in new innovation-driven industries.

5. What’s your vision for San Diego, by when?

My vision is that San Diego will serve as the model for cooperation and collaboration and be looked to as problem solvers and leaders in innovation-driven industries today to ensure long-term economic prosperity for the future.

Recent in-depth discussions at EDC created awareness that the real issue to address is business alignment as opposed to structural changes. As a result, EDC, Connect, and the chamber chairs are meeting regularly. And a task force looking at this issue is being expanded to include chamber members.

The idea is to align to become effective whether it’s a business development opportunity or whether it’s policy issue, and to the greatest extent possible, speak with one voice, eliminate redundancy, and create a trusted network.

So if Biocom wants help on an issue affecting the sciences industry, because they will always be smarter than EDC on that, EDC will fall behind them and help where possible.

Regional issues

EDC will have more clearly defined roles on great big regional issues like water. Water sounds like one issue, but it’s a myriad of issues. EDC has looked at it from different perspectives and has determined that it’s an absolutely essential issue for the life sciences industry. Something like a set of regional water bonds may be our primary focus, but other organizations will bring unique and compelling reasons to support something else, and other issues will follow.

For example, the chamber has taken a leadership role on some of the civic projects that are a priority for the mayor. There’s really no reason for two organizations to do the legwork and make informed decisions or recommendations on these projects. So if the chamber does all the legwork, we’ll fall behind them.

EDC’s funding sources

When I first got here, EDC was publicly funded with the majority of the funding coming from a contract with the City of San Diego. Over the years, we have grown our budget. This year, it’s $3.7 million and we reduced public funding. We have public sector members, and we have some fee-for-service contracts, but, in total, they’re under 20 percent this year.

The other 80 percent are a CEO-level board that includes the largest companies in San Diego. Some of the major companies have really stepped up, because they embrace the business development and policy shown in the formula: Business development + policy = economic development.

About 200 companies are shareholders in EDC. We have a smaller investment base, but we serve the whole region.

Follow Helen on Twitter @HelenChang.

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