An Ambassador to Boost San Diego's Small-Biz Stature

Business

An Ambassador to Boost San Diego's Small-Biz Stature

In a Q-and-A, Lisa Gordon, the city’s small business ambassador, highlights the factors we’ve got going for us, and where there’s room for San Diego to grow.

When Forbes tapped San Diego as the No. 1 place for startups, the debate over the city’s business climate inevitably drifted toward the same subject that always seems to come up in conversations about San Diego: the actual climate.

Yes, some entrepreneurs said in the comments, San Diego is a great place to launch a business – just look at the weather!

Others warned that San Diego is too expensive – despite all that great weather.

Lisa Gordon doesn’t have any special powers over the weather. But she does have control over a lot of other things that can make San Diego a sunny place for a new business.

She’s the city’s so-called small business ambassador, a role in which she spearheads all things related to promoting programs, services and regulation requirements for startups.

Basically, she helps anyone seeking to open a new business connect the dots between city requirements and their own vision.

With a communications degree from UCSD and more than 10 years working for the city, she’s watched her “whole life” become centered around “promoting and outreach.”

Gordon began her career as a community relations representative for the San Diego County Water Authority, and then became director of community outreach for former Mayor Jerry Sanders. After that, she climbed to where she is now.

Her position was originally created during Sanders’ tenure, but new Mayor Kevin Faulconer is just as supportive of the small business community, she said.

In a Q-and-A, Gordon and I talked about which sectors are growing, and what she thinks the city could be doing to improve San Diego’s business climate.

What do you see as a booming industry for small businesses here in San Diego?

I think people will be surprised to know how many home-based businesses there are. So you know, last time I checked there were almost, I think it was 36,000 — almost 37,000 — home-based businesses. I don’t think people know that and how many there are.

So a lot of home-based businesses are starting, but also as an industry, I think high-tech is still booming and doing very well … I don’t know if it’s going to max out at some point, but it’s really a unique niche in our community. And then IT-related businesses, software companies, consultants …

When you hear people saying that San Diego is not a high-tech business city, what do you say to them? Why should they come and start their business here?

I think they need to check San Diego out.

I think we have a very thriving high-tech community and, I mean, even if you look at, for example, a startup circle at Plug and Play. They do that startup camp and they have all those high-tech, really high-level startups and  those are some exciting new technologies and products. I’ve actually watched them pitch the products and, so they are a San Diego-based business and they actually do go up on a month-long training to Silicon Valley, but then they come back with some investments. So I think that there’s definitely a great and thriving high-tech community in San Diego. Don’t pass us up.

You know, we have the resources, we have the intellectual capacity, we have the talent. I think it’s just more about awareness of our capability in that whole arena.

How would you say this role is different from the city’s economic development department?

Well, OK, the Office of Small Business is housed underneath the umbrella of the Economic Development (Division) and then the Economic Development Division is underneath the full umbrella of the Planning, Neighborhoods and Economic Development Department.  So our department director is Bill Fulton …

So we’re specifically doing like our storefront improvement program — administration with the business improvement district and its associations, the maintenance assistance with districts. We have some other grants and contracts that we manage, but all of it is related to the small business community.

And how is your job different from what the Civic Innovation Lab is trying to do?

Right now we’re excited and waiting to see what they’re going to do … But our mission is pretty much focused on serving the small business community, and they’re going to be more involved with neighborhood planning, a more comprehensive planning function.

So, could you explain your job in a nutshell?

Every single day I get phone calls, emails, a lot of people walk in and want to start a business and they need assistance. And so I’m happy to offer that. You know, I go through certain steps with them. There are certain permits that they need and other rules, regulations or municipal codes that they need to understand as it relates to their particular type of business. Also, I’m a referral arm. I’m kind of the information clearing house, and then I refer them to whatever program or entity might be able to help serve them.

What are the main challenges your position faces?

The main challenge is making people more aware of the small business ambassador role, (the) variety of programs and services the city offers to startups and small businesses, great network of resources available to assist small businesses, and the progress we have made in making the city more business-friendly.

Even though our Forbes rank was high, there’s always room for improvement. What do you think can be done to improve the small business community?

I’m just going to say that we’re trying to make people aware that we are business-friendly, that the city is business-friendly. We hear complaints about the state and the taxes, but in the city, we’ve improved significantly.

We are trying to be more business-friendly. We are trying to provide the best services and programs that we can, so I just think more awareness of our programs and services and a better understanding of how the city functions to support small businesses. Support, networks and better awareness, and saying, “We are open for business.”

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