I am a proud graduate from Cal Poly and the campus has been a lifelong neighbor to my home. As such, I look at the university through several different lenses. The Tartaglia Ranch has shared a barbed wire fence for generations and the activities and plans for the university are of interest for me, both at home and at work as the Executive Director of Downtown SLO. Without a doubt, my perspective is unique and continues to develop as our community and campus weave a tale of success, collaboration and vitality. Last month I sat down with Dr. Jonathan York to talk about his role in founding Cal Poly’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. As the Co-Founder and Faculty Director he has been a driving force behind one of Downtown’s most exciting projects and I am glad to tell the story of how he lead the way for student entrepreneurship in Downtown SLO.
Jon agreed to meet me upstairs at the CIE for our interview last month where we casually popped into a conference room that was better suited for a board meeting than for two people but all of the other spaces were taken by bustling students and entrepreneurs renting shared work space. The first thing that struck me as I opened the doors into the space above Ross was a motivational collage of quotes from the likes of Steve Jobs and Walt Disney. “If you can dream it, you can do it.” is a pretty welcoming way to set the tone for what is expected of tenants in this space. At the top of the stairs there are a pile of bikes, presumably used to get there by students commuting to and from classes and the center. It is at this point that Jon greets me with a pannier bag in one hand with the other extended for a firm handshake. He rode his bike here from campus.
After some initial catch up conversation Jon settles into the story of how we came to be sitting in the 15,000 square feet office that is shared by incubator businesses, accelerator businesses and functioning businesses that are renting co-work space. This whole story started in the middle of the economic disaster of 2008 when Jon was hired to teach entrepreneurial principles in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly. With a former career as the CEO at the Columbus, Ohio Chamber of Commerce he was soon collaborating with leadership in our local Chamber and studying the parallels of the economy in SLO and Boulder, Colorado. Simultaneously, his students were coming to him for advice on their fledgling start-ups but in that first summer he noticed that there was a universal factor that would limit the chance at success for those students. Summer jobs and internships.
He called upon his peers studying Boulder’s economy and they devised a plan that would allow students to intern in their own businesses that summer. The first incubator was born in office space behind Trader Joe’s with local business owners as mentors and advisers. The program was a success and quite evident that the program should continue on, the only problem was it would need a new home. Fortunately Jon was able to secure a space vacated by the city’s public works department with the participation of the owners, Copeland Properties. Though the building was fated for demolition a couple of years later, a group of business owners were able to renovate the space to accommodate the first HotHouse on Morro Street. That building was torn down this year but not before the CIE moved into the space above Ross.
When I asked Jon about his initial vision for the program he laughed and admitted that in fact, the team that coordinated the efforts never had a vision like this for CIE. Rather, they had a vision to build a more entrepreneurial community on campus and in the community and they seized ever opportunity that was presented to them. The center is a result of the opportunities that stuck. In true start-up fashion, the entity teaching the principles of starting a business grew from an idea and the seat of its pants, planted in the principles of good business of course. With Jon at the wheel, CIE has grown to be the envy of Downtowns and universities from across the land and for good reason. There is a 10-year lease in place for the center as well as the first class of student entrepreneurs living across the street in The Lofts above Lululemon Athletica.
As a result of Jon’s persistence, over 50 summer accelerator start-ups have graduated from the program with an average of 2-10 employees. Quick math indicates that over 100 entrepreneurs cut their teeth in business in our Downtown. “Some stay and some will leave but others will follow in their footsteps.” York says with regard to how we can keep those businesses in SLO. The fact is they need more 500-1,000 square feet office spaces or employees and if they don’t find that they leave for places like Austin or Silicon Valley. In Jon’s mind, we don’t need to become Silicon Valley and it’s just as well to have our own identity as a place where businesses get started and can grow. The ones that can stay are welcomed and the ones that cannot have best wishes for continued prosperity.
For a man that has only been in town for eight years to have co-founded such an inspirational place in the heart of Downtown, is an impressive feat. With the collaborative energy and the open minds of the community, Jon has opened the door to a bright future for Cal Poly, community surrounding San Luis Obispo and certainly our Downtown.